Still waiting for the #TextBlade?

Back in January 2016, I wrote a supply chain case study about a company called WayTools and their ‘TextBlade’ miniature keyboard. Since the case study is essentially about the non-appearance of a product, at that time about a year late, I thought that I might be able to use the case study once or twice before events overtook me, with WayTools silencing all the doubters by bringing their product to market at last.

Some customers, having paid $99 for a product that was supposed to be out within a month, have now been waiting almost two years. They weren’t signing up to a kickstarter project: the gadget was presented as a finished design, ready for volume production.

The various problems that WayTools reported (via their corporate blog, and in a user community forum) made it very useful as a case study showing some of the things that can go wrong, both internally and in the supply chain. It became the subject of a couple of our exam papers, but I never expected that I’d still be talking about WayTools’ failure to deliver the product as 2017 rolled in.

Detail from the TextBlade case study

You can download a copy of the case study here.

Two years is a long time in the technology sphere: mobile devices and the way we use them might have changed a lot in that time. WayTools have been fortunate that there have been no really big advances. For the most part, Apple users still contend with the woeful Siri, which means that natural speech isn’t about to replace the keyboard anytime soon… but there are newer and better kids on the block. Cortana, Google Now, Assistant.ai, and Viv all want to help users to get things done without typing. Meanwhile, the iPad pro has appeared, with a pretty good keyboard of its own – essentially copying that found on Microsoft’s Surface Pro. Since these are built into the protective screen cover, they don’t occupy much space. Is there still a market for a tiny-teeny keyboard, nowadays? WayTools think so, and (as far as we know) they’re still doggedly plugging away at refining their product.

An urge to make the best keyboard they possibly can appears to be the main problem. In May 2015, they reported that they’d replaced the nylon ‘butterflies’ under each key with liquid crystal polymer, improving the feel and durability of the keyboard. That’s commendable, except that people who had ordered one had expected to receive it months before. What was wrong with simply making in quantity the product that the tech journalists had enthused about, back in January 2015? Why not hold off on any improvements until the “mark 1” product had been delivered, generating a few hundred thousand dollars in revenue?

Typing with the TextBlade

TextBlade should haven taken the world by storm… two years back.

The new, stronger ‘butterflies’ were found to cause defects during the assembly stage, and a new fixture had to be designed as a work-around… and so on, and so on. Right up until the present, as far as I can tell. A few customers have been invited to join the Test Release Group (‘TREG’) and they have received sample units, but there’s still no sign of order fulfilment being achieved.

I think we can all agree that introducing a two-year delay while you take something that works and ‘improve’ it until it doesn’t is a distinctly unusual business practice.

TextBlade product packaging

Some customers may have been waiting for this for almost two years. [image: mcttrainingconsultant]

I have no axe to grind: I’m not out of pocket by $99. I wanted a TextBlade, sure enough… but I decided to wait and see. Thus far, it’s been all waiting and no seeing, but that’s actually a good thing. I wanted a TextBlade… but I didn’t really need one. It would have been fun to pose with one in meetings and on flights, but I can’t point to any particular job that didn’t get done in 2016 and say that’s because I didn’t have a miniature keyboard to use with my iPad.

When I write about the sustainable supply chain, perhaps I focus too much on the supply side. A big part of being ‘green’ isn’t about shopping for products that are made from sustainable materials, or products with low energy consumption: it’s about doing without. It’s about recognising that what you have will do, and perhaps paying off your debts instead of buying more stuff that you don’t really need. It’s taken me two years to realise it, but WayTools and I won’t be doing business, even if they were to announce tomorrow that they’ve just landed a container-load of TextBlades at Felixstowe, with all quality problems finally addressed and next-day delivery guaranteed. I’ve coped perfectly well without, and I know that I can continue to do so.

You may think that $99 is a bit pricey for a keyboard, nowadays, but one school of thought holds that buying expensive things can actually be quite ‘green’ (unless precious metals are involved). Better that you should buy a single, high-priced item than buy a whole bundle of less expensive items, embodying more materials, requiring more logistics, perhaps being less durable, and ultimately representing more waste at the end-of-life. Smart consumption requires that we understand that cheap stuff isn’t necessarily good for us.

My TextBlade journey has turned out to be very inexpensive and very ‘green’ indeed. If it had really existed when it was first launched, I think I would have bought one. By now, the novelty would have worn off, and indeed the product might even have worn out… and even if it still worked just fine, the industrial design of the TextBlade is starting to look just a little bit long in the tooth, now. But instead of being a disillusioned customer, I still have my $99, no resources have been wasted (other than whatever is consumed in web browsing) and I’ve reached an endpoint where I no longer feel that I lack a little keyboard.

TextBlade customers have been remarkably patient, considering. Their good-natured humour at each delay has been kinder than the manufacturer really deserves at this point. Even the Twitter bot called @Failtools that sends out a regular ‘status update’ in the style of WayTools’ own news bulletins has a certain bitter humour about it – and delivers a salutary lesson on the subject of public relations in the Internet era.

Some good things are worth waiting for, without a doubt. Glowforge comes to mind: a desktop laser cutter/engraver that’s been delayed more than once. Consider me very interested, but not enough to actually bankroll the development process. Sometimes, the expectation is simply greater than the reality. That’s a consequence of the science that we call marketing, but perhaps virtual products that never arrive offer a new form of gratification, where you get all the excitement and expectation, and never face the disappointment that comes with actual ownership.

It’s certainly worked for me.

(Also, I got a case study out of this. Thank you, WayTools.)

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The Drones are Coming

It had to happen, sooner or later: last week Amazon made their first delivery by drone. They’ve been testing the potential of autonomous rotorcraft for more than three years, so it was about time that they started making flying deliveries – it’s something that Santa Claus has been doing since 1821, after all. Let’s be clear, though: the Amazon customer in question lived close to the fulfilment centre, in the wilds of Cambridgeshire. He’s one of exactly two customers who are currently eligible for the service, although Amazon plan to roll the ‘Prime Air’ service out to “dozens” of customers in the future.

They’re wise to experiment in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, where there’s precious little in the way of geography to challenge the algorithm that steers the drone, and relatively few people around who might sue if a drone and its 2.7kg payload fell on them.

Amazon Prime Air drone

Amazon Prime Air – coming soon, to a back garden near you?

As a proof of concept, consider it a genuine milestone. People can now receive manna (well, popcorn) from the heavens. In daylight. When winds are low. When it isn’t raining. Or snowy, or icy, or foggy. Assuming, furthermore, that you don’t live in a place where a cable such as a telephone wire passes over your garden. I suppose that trees and birds might pose a problem, too – not to mention thieves who could try to bring down a drone as a kind of ‘lucky dip’ at its unknown contents.

Avoiding the perils and complexities of aerial navigation, but perhaps more at risk of theft, is the (apparently nameless) robot demonstrated last year by Starship Technologies – a company set up by Skype founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis. It operates at street level, toiling along at four miles an hour with up to 18kg of packages on board. It’s not intended to make long-distance deliveries, but to cover the final mile after a ‘portable warehouse’ is stocked up and then parked in your neighbourhood… for a claimed $1 per delivery (which is to say around a fifteenth of the cost of a person in a van).

Unlike the Amazon drone, which drops off its package and immediately heads home, Starship Technologies appear to have designed their drone as a mobile box that opens when it meets the designated recipient. Not so great if you’re not home: the robot doesn’t appear to have a mechanism that would allow it to offload its cargo at your premises.

That a package might be left unattended in my garden is nothing new: the delivery drivers that come to my house already leave my goods in a variety of random places, including the doorstep, any of three wheelie-bins, my neighbour’s garage, my son’s sandpit, and on or under the garden furniture. What happens in high density urban areas, though?

One suggestion is that we should all have a giant mailbox for parcels. Hippo Dropbox, for example: a secure box at your address where a delivery driver places the package inside, and the door locks as soon as it’s closed. (A barcode on the inside of the door can be scanned, this constituting a signature where required.) That’s a neat idea, except that at this time of year I’m sometimes getting five parcel deliveries a day – some of them surprise gifts. I foresee the first driver of the day using the Hippo box, secure in the knowledge that he’s done the right thing… but this leaves the box locked. The high-value item that arrives next can’t go in the box, per the delivery instructions, and the barcode can’t be scanned in lieu of a signature. That item must go back to the depot, journey wasted, perhaps several days running.

While logistics textbooks often discuss the ‘final mile’, it appears that the final few metres might be the toughest of all to crack.

Hippo Dropbox. The standard size is £235.00 with free delivery (but where will they put it?)

Hippo Dropbox. The standard size is £235.00 with free delivery (but where will they put it?)

One problem that the flying drone must overcome is that a map reference alone does not identify a household, because in many cases people share a building. Where do you drop a parcel, when your customers live in high-rise flats? Bizarrely, if the future is delivery by air, we would be entering a time where the logistics of home shopping become simpler for those in rural areas – but that’s no good because over 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas (according to a 2014 report from the UN, with a rise to 66% by 2050 anticipated).

I’m not anti-drone as such, and using them to deliver packages is probably a better application than bouncing one off the Flying Scotsman, but there are practicalities to consider.

What’s the environmental impact of a drone? It’s clearly going to consume a lot of electricity because those quad-rotor aircraft expend most of their energy simply in staying up, with forward motion being a relatively minor component of the vector. Maybe you can install a solar farm, or claim your electricity comes on a green tariff such as nuclear. Well, maybe… but electricity is a commodity and when you’re using ‘green’ energy for one thing, it means somebody elsewhere is having their needs met with fossil fuels, so I don’t buy that. There’s also the question of noise, and some people might raise safety concerns. Not an issue while the drones are being used experimentally (or as a marketing gimmick), but what if there were thousands of the things buzzing about?

A question that we have to ask ourselves is, do we really need to receive things in such a hurry? Many businesses are still grappling with the implications of next-day delivery, and those who have made that particular leap have in some cases moved on to same-day delivery. Delivery within two hours. Delivery within the hour. And now… what?

I’m concerned because it makes me think of the Stanford marshmallow experiment, where developmental psychologists assess the maturity of a child based on his or her ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward. Children who can’t resist the temptation to have it now are scientifically proven to be more prone to impulsivity, aggressiveness and hyperactivity. As adults, they’re more likely to abuse drugs and other substances, more likely to get divorced, and more likely to be overweight. And now we’re designing logistics systems to respond to the demand for instant gratification. We’re rewarding and reinforcing the idea that clicking the button delivers satisfaction… even though we know that there’s this thing called climate change, that it’s man-made and that it’s accelerating. You can have it now, or you can be ‘green’. Which will you choose?

What a curious age we live in!

On a more worthy note, experiments in Malawi have seen a drone used to transport blood samples to a clinic where HIV testing can be performed. In a country where the roads are bad, sending blood samples via motorcycle courier is expensive, so batching together a large number of samples is the norm. This can result in dangerous delays, with UNICEF reporting that it can take as long as eleven days for blood samples to reach a laboratory. Matternet believe that their drones could be the answer.

Blood samples en-route to the laboratory, as the crow flies.

Blood samples en-route to the laboratory, as the crow flies.

As Cute as a Button

I wanted to like Amazon’s ‘Dash’ Button. I wanted to be able to report on it as a manifestation of the long-anticipated Internet of Things, where everyday objects are networked, and can send and receive useful data.

Dash is an electronic doohickey with a single button, about the size of a human thumb. Each Dash button displays the logo of one particular brand, and is configured such that a single press causes a consignment of the corresponding item to be dispatched by Amazon. You’re supposed to use the gadget’s adhesive backing to place it somewhere relevant, such as where you store your supply of dishwasher tablets, or your, uh… Play-Doh.

Just

Wait, what? Just how many households need a streamlined way to obtain Play-Doh on a regular basis? (“D’oh!”)

This is amazing, on some levels. It demonstrates that Internet-enabled devices have become so inexpensive that they can be given away – and so very simple to set up. It wasn’t so long ago that I was blogging about the near-impossibility of getting my Raspberry Pi on a wireless network, but now anybody can get an even cheaper gadget to work. Setting up a Dash button is simplicity itself, although I was dismayed at first to find that I needed to install an Amazon app on my ’phone and turn its Bluetooth on. Was Dash merely some dumb Bluetooth remote clicker? That wasn’t what I wanted: I wanted my household to be wirelessly, remorselessly efficient even when my phone (and I) are many miles away from the cabinet where we keep the dishwasher tablets, or whatever.

I needn’t have worried, as the Bluetooth phase is only for setup. After your ’phone and Dash button have exchanged a handshake and you’ve divulged your wifi password, the only thing you need to do with your ’phone is choose exactly what it will order.

And here comes the first problem: only a very limited range of products can be ordered at the push of a button. CNET journalist Bridget Carey pointed out that the Gillette-branded button didn’t offer any way to order supplies from the women’s range, Gillette Venus. Another reviewer grumbled that only the more expensive blades such as the Fusion type could be ordered, and not the (relatively) cheapo Mach 3.

These aren’t massive problems because they aren’t a fault with the Dash button itself: it’s a question of what Amazon choose to make available, and this can be fixed at any time. So can the idea of button-clicking replenishment in the home be made to work?

It’s at the delivery stage where things go wrong. Amazon simply can’t afford to make good on the small consignments that ordinary families would want to order at the push of a button. Consider tissues: I normally buy a twin-pack of Kleenex Mansize. When we’re running low they are recorded on the shopping list, for my weekly trip to Tesco. If somebody in the house has a cold and we run out mid-week, they can probably find more tissues in the guest room, or they can use toilet roll, or go and buy their own damn tissues at the pharmacy in the village.

As an Amazon Prime customer, you have a new option: you can push the Dash button. This still leaves you blowing your nose on scratchy toilet roll for a day or two (logistics and economics being what they are) but then a harried-looking van driver with a Polish accent arrives on your doorstep, asking if he’s found the right house and carrying a box of Kleenex.

A huge box of Kleenex.

As a paid-up Prime customer (the only kind who can obtain a Dash button) you’re entitled to free, next-day delivery, but Amazon aren’t going to haemorrhage profits on the delivery of small consignments of cheap, bulky paper tissues. Instead, all they offer with a Dash button is delivery in wholesale quantities.

My Kleenex Dash button provides me with the Kleenex Mansize tissues that I wanted… twenty-four boxes at a time.

My Kleenex Dash button provides me with the tissues that I want… twenty-four boxes at a time.

In smaller homes, storage space is going to be an issue. Some people might find that Dash introduces a cash flow issue, too. Basically, in the name of convenience, you’ve become your own warehouse… and it’s not all that convenient.

I don’t find this to be very ‘green’, either. My bulk order of 1,200 tissues were very over-packaged, featuring twenty-four individual boxes, each comprised of both cardboard and a plastic film (here at Capacify, we don’t like monstrous hybrids)… all in a plastic bag, in a big cardboard box. I accept that Amazon can only sell what manufacturers such as Kimberly-Clark sell them, but the economics of this are all wrong. On a per-sneeze basis this over-packaged offering was the most economical, for me, but there was probably more cellulose used to make cardboard boxes than to make tissues.

Another big fail for the Amazon Dash button is that human beings like pressing buttons… but how often do you actually get to enjoy your button-related activity if one press delivers a four-month supply? Also, we Salivate like Pavlov’s dogs at the positive feedback of instant gratification… but Amazon can’t compress the shipping time for our stuff to anything that feels as if the push of a button is really connected to the delivery of the goods. What you get is a brief green glow to show that the request is acknowledged, and then a notification on your smartphone, giving the person who’s actually paying for the items the chance to opt out.

It’s official: romance is dead.

It’s official: romance is dead.

In our house, the neat industrial design of the Dash button is somewhat wasted because I had to hide it in the cupboard with the controls for the central heating. My young son would be fascinated by the idea that there’s a magic button that can be pressed to make stuff appear on our doorstep. (Especially if that stuff were Play-Doh… although even just to make the green light come on would probably be reason enough. Over, and over, and over…)

Instead of criticising Amazon for being a big, bad corporation that has taken over our lives, take a moment to feel some sympathy for them. They’re actually in a bit of a pickle. When they arrived on the scene, many people were still reluctant to use a credit card online for anything at all. Through innovation and sheer hard work, Jeff Bezos has built a vast commercial empire, but in the process he’s trained people to use the Internet to buy stuff – and Internet-enabled customers are fickle. They’ve been conditioned to use price comparison websites when buying new, branded goods; to expect free delivery; to cut out middle-men; to perform free returns with no quibbles; to get next-day or even same-day delivery. There is no buyer loyalty anymore, and profit margins are thin, because there’s always going to be somebody out there who is prepared to work for next-to-nothing in the hope of building market share. (And for many years, that somebody was Amazon themselves, ploughing profits back in and going for growth rather than money, as such. Consider their dividend history.)

Amazon’s efforts to put the genie of free, next-day delivery back in the bottle include the failed Amazon Pantry – where Amazon sought to persuade ‘Prime’ customers (those who already pay an annual fee for their free delivery) that they ought to pay a fee for each box of goods that were delivered. “There’s Something Rotten in Amazon’s Pantry” quipped Seamus Condron, who commented:

“Why on Earth would I, an Amazon Prime member, pay Amazon to ship me something that I won’t get for 1-4 business days? That is not an Amazon Prime service, that is a snake oil operation at its finest.”

And now, of course, the Dash button. They first appeared in limited numbers in late March of 2015, which was a bit of a blunder as many Internet denizens believed them to be a joke for April Fool’s day. But no: Amazon were sincere about Dash.

I was curious, because any study of supply chain trends ought to be all about new methods of ordering and fulfilment. It turns out that the ordering mechanism is novel, but the same old fulfilment process is used and it simply doesn’t keep pace… but then, Dash was never meant to empower the consumer. Consumers are empowered when they have access to the Internet, but that means price comparisons, shopping around… disloyalty.

For £4.99 (refunded when first used) Amazon and I entered into a relationship where I no longer have to type amazon.co.uk into a web browser, while in return Amazon get to ensure I do business only with them, that I order more than I need, that I choose from a limited range of products, and that I display the logo of a brand in my home.

Bad bargain!

The technology is interesting. That a reliable and non-nerdy wifi and bluetooth-enabled device can be built for well under £5 is interesting, too… and I look forward to seeing what else might be done with similar technology by other suppliers, or other innovators.

I’ve been monitoring the price for the consignment of tissues that I ordered, and at times they’ve been available for as little as half what I paid, although Amazon’s price fluctuates with no apparent logic. That’s fair enough if you’re a web-browser customer, but a Dash button customer runs the risk of feeling like a chump for buying things without checking the price. (Having “more money than sense,” is how we would describe this, where I come from.)

Now, I don’t mind paying top dollar once for the sake of an experiment. I got this article for Capacify out of it, after all… but I don’t intend to leave myself on the hook this way. I was going to take the Dash button out of range of my wifi network and then dismantle it, pinching the battery or batteries inside for my own use before I condem the rest of it as e-waste… but it appears that others are way ahead of me: actually hacking the Dash button to make it do something that they find to be much more useful than Amazon intended.

Consider me impressed.

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, JDA.com 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.

#Plasticbagchaos, or The End of the World as We Know it

Something in the business news caused a lot of passionate reactions among the English this week. It wasn’t Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” scandal – that has gone by with barely a murmur, despite well over a million drivers in Britain being affected. No… the thing that appears to have got our national knickers in a twist is the notion of paying five pence for a disposable carrier bag.

At first glance, that makes the English seem petty, not least because the amount is very small when compared to our grocery bills, and because anybody who’s been on a European holiday (plus anybody who shops at Marks & Spencer) will have become used to paying for bags. So why all the fuss? Is Britain sliding back into becoming ‘The Dirty Man of Europe’, as some European politicians used to delight in labelling us, back in the late 1980s, before the “Dash for Gas”?

In reality, there are good reasons for debate – even heated debate – on the subject of plastic shopping bags, and their environmental harm. There are more than a few misconceptions about them, as you will find if you’re brave enough to venture into the readers’ comments section of a major media website. One recurring question is “Why can’t shops all provide paper bags instead?” This falls into the trap of assuming that ‘biodegradable’ can be considered to mean ‘benign’.

The poor old HDPE single-use bag gets such a bad press, doesn’t it? Fortunately, others have already done a life cycle analysis of various types of bag, so we don’t have to. The problem, it’s clear, is that there’s an awful lot more work and material in a ‘Bag For Life’ than in one of the disposable ones. A study by the UK Environment Agency found the following:

Number of uses required, to match the low impact of a disposable HDPE bag

Required number of uses, to be as ‘green’ as the disposable bag.

Aussie researchers Hyder Consulting also got in on the act in 2007, producing a very thorough report that details a wider range of bag types, and also studies factors such as water usage. While I’m at it I should also give a “shout out” to Patcharaporn Musuwan, a former dissertation student of mine who studied this topic at the University of Nottingham, back in 2010.

When we consider that the ‘disposable’ HDPE bag often makes its final journey into the afterlife in the form of a bin-liner, its disposal actually serves a useful purpose, and further delays the point at which reusing one of the more durable bags pays off. Then there’s (perhaps) the question of hygiene, if you’re repeatedly reusing calico bags.

Single-use carrier bags

“Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication” – Leonardo da Vinci

So there’s a strong case in favour of the HDPE bag… but even tiny quantities of plastics add up when national consumption is counted in the billions. As many as 7,600,000,000 bags were used in England last year, which the BBC reports to be 61,000 tonnes of the things. We’re talking about England here because, unusually, each part of the UK has separate schemes. Wales (2011), Northern Ireland (2013) and Scotland (2014) all have bag charging in place.

It’s known that a compulsory charge for bags reduces the demand for them quite sharply, by prompting people to bring their own. In a sense we can almost regard the earlier introduction of charging in the less populous parts of the UK as something of a practice run… although if so, why is it that the new rules for shops in England are far less workable than those elsewhere?

Legislators exempted small companies (those employing fewer than 250 staff) from the obligation to charge for bags, in order to spare them an administrative burden. That sounds reasonable… except that some branches of well-known small shops such as Spar, Budgens, Costcutter and Subway will be exempt because they are small franchises… while other shops that have the same name over the door must apply the charge.

With me so far? Now, you still qualify for a free bag if buying buying raw meat, poultry or fish, or prescription medicine, flowers, potatoes, take-aways…

Among those exempt from applying the charge, some are planning to charge anyway, the Association of Convenience Stores reveals… which gives them a nice little bonus, at the cost of potentially exposing front-line staff to verbal abuse from disgusted customers.

This seems like a good point to wheel out one of my favourite quotes. It’s said by Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist:

“The law is an ass.”

I’ll be delighted if the change means fewer plastic bags end up in the sea, but as usual we’re seeing that legislation is a blunt instrument, poorly suited to making people and companies do the right thing. It’s not all doom and gloom, though: at least there have been a few chuckles along the way.

“Suddenly that huge collection of carrier bags in my kitchen cupboard is worth a small fortune,” one Twitter user quipped – and Internet satirists have been merciless since October 5th, “bag day”, began. For example…

Twitter joke re. plastic bag charges in England

5p per bag: London in flames

#Plasticbagchaos. It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).

Smell Sells

Molton Brown has become one of the UK’s more successful toiletries firms, selling upmarket smellies. They’re a warranted “Supplier of Toiletries” to Her Majesty The Queen – and just as importantly in our household, it’s the brand of choice for Mrs. Farr.

This is a good thing, because it means that I always have one idea for what to buy when a birthday or anniversary approaches. ‘Pink Pepperpod’ is the smell of choice, and I have to say it’s quite lovely. Mind you, at £18 for 300ml of body wash, it had better be good.

Pink Pepperpod. Highly recommended.

Pink Pepperpod: highly recommended.

That’s the interesting thing about cosmetics: it’s an industry where you know that the product is being made in quantities akin to a small brewery… and yet the end product is packaged and sold in such a way as to make you feel that the contents are more precious than unicorn spit. From my schooling as a manufacturing engineer, I know that most of any shower gel is water with an awful lot of salt dissolved in it. I know that toothpaste is mostly ground up rock, too. That’s not to say that the ‘clever’ part of blending ingredients to create the right flavour or scent isn’t very clever indeed. Even bleach can have as many as forty chemical ingredients added, simply for the purpose of making it smell as if it will kill germs.

Molton Brown won’t show you their manufacturing process. They were awarded BUAV certification in February 2013, showing that their products are free from animal testing… but other than that, we loyal customers aren’t really supposed to look behind the curtain. Interestingly, though, rival UK cosmetic manufacturer Lush do reveal how their products are made. For example…

Lush still command a moderately high price point: you’d pay £15.95 for 500g of ‘Olive Branch’ shower gel, for example… but their marketing and presentation are somewhat different to Molton Brown.

At the end of the day, whatever you choose, it’s going to be mostly water and salt, in a plastic bottle – although a recent item in the BBC News Magazine claims that solid bars of soap are more luxurious because “You can tie attractive bars of soap up in silk ribbons and present them as a gift to a loved one – the effect isn’t quite the same when you do this with a liquid dispenser.”

It’s interesting to be able to consider not just the packaging for a product, but the actual format that is employed, to deliver much the same result (being clean, and scented). There are a lot of options here: older readers might remember when toothpaste came as a solid block, in a tin…

Packaging and presentation are particularly important when you’re selling cosmetics, because you’re charging unicorn-spit prices for salty water, with chemicals added in a process that’s no more complicated than it is for the people manufacturing bleach… and that doesn’t leave much room in which to derive a unique selling proposition. Manufacturers need to schmooze their customer a little bit here.

Or not. Here’s my most recent consignment:

The complimentary ‘gift box’ was torn, and with its packing peanuts, didn’t exactly reek of luxury.

The complimentary gift box was torn, so I didn’t pass it on. Filled out with packing peanuts, it didn’t exactly reek of luxury anyway.

Crumpled delivery note. When I’m spending seventy quid on “salty water”, I generally expect it to at least appear to have been handled with care.

A crumpled delivery note. When I’m spending seventy quid on salty water I generally expect at least the appearance that my order has been handled with care.

It does smell nice, though.

Packaging Peculiarity: the Edible Cup

How do you address the twin problems of green image and the need to do something quirky in order to generate a buzz on the Internet?

If you’re KFC (or Kentucky Fried Chicken, for people my age) you introduce the edible coffee cup: a concoction made from biscuit, rice paper and temperature-resistant white chocolate. Finish your coffee, and you can chow down on the cup. And why not? A hundred and ten years ago, ice cream retail underwent a similar revolution when it was discovered that customers didn’t need to be given a bowl and a spoon, merely a conical wafer.

2015: enter the ‘Scoff-ee cup’ – and for once the UK doesn’t need to wait for something the USA had first. Quite the opposite, as the cups are planned for trials in the UK first. (Is my island now considered to serve as a testbed for Uncle Sam? That marks an interesting development in itself… or perhaps we’re simply less litigious over here.)

As for the cups themselves, they’re still under development. At this time I can’t tell you about the flavour, nor how many calories the cup is expected to deliver. What we do know is some of the aromas that freaky experimental foodie consultancy The Robin Collective have proposed for the cups, including coconut sun cream, freshly cut grass, and wild flowers. That coffee should actually smell like coffee is out, it seems. Given that the whole exercise is largely a gimmick conducted in order to announce that KFC will be selling Seattle Best Coffee (a Starbucks brand) this seems like something of a mixed message.

Anyway, you finish your drink, and then you get to eat the biscuity cup. To my mind, this is a bit backwards: if I’ve just eaten a chocolate biscuit and some rice paper, I’d be looking for a drink to wash it down. But maybe that’s just a fiendishly clever way to drum up repeat business.

Cardboard and biscuit-based coffee cups compared

Om nom.

In terms of sustainability, an edible cup is probably worse than a cardboard one (never mind the health effects; I’m thinking of the embodied water in materials such as chocolate) but at least it’s biodegradable. An edible cup won’t end up floating around in the ocean for decades like a plastic one.

The cups that have been shown to-date are thick-walled and that means they won’t nest at all well, so a consignment of cups will be bulky, leading to expensive and more carbon-intensive transportation… but the real job of this cup is to provide viral advertising – just like the silly stories of a drone-based delivery system that Amazon generated so much hype with, shortly before Christmas 2013.

Of course the Internet is fickle, and you never know if your innovation will go viral, or if it’ll just be mocked. For Amazon, a particularly classy piece of mockery comes from Audi, with their new advert for the A6…  and for KFC, there’s a piece in The Onion. Also, an honourable mention must go to Sαrαh Dαvis of Georgia Southern University (twitter: @sarahkate678) who wrote the following:

“KFC is now making a coffee cup that will be edible…. No word yet on when they’ll make their chicken edible.”