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,, 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.)

The Gaseous State

The question that I’ve been pondering this week: what if existing models of the supply chain are outdated, and a whole new dimension is required? We speak of workflow, liquidity, pooling of resources… but what if commerce no longer resembles a liquid, but a gas?

A liquid sloshes about, and finds its lowest possible level. We’ve seen that: work gravitates to the place where it’s cheapest (and where regulation and taxation are the least onerous)… but that’s only half the story. A gas expands until it fills every nook and cranny: and it keeps on pushing until the pressure is equal throughout the system.

This is the evolutionary change in the modern-day supply chain. From solid (we expect things to stay put, and we expect to do things the way we’ve always done them) to liquid (everything takes the path of least resistance and flows downhill) to gas, and the ‘new normal’ that everything is everywhere. Instant gratification, same-day delivery, and so on.

The future is... more energetic.

The future is… more energetic.

The change isn’t just a new challenge wrought by new expectations on the demand side, though: the fulfilment paradigm has also changed. New actors participate in the supply chain now, while old ones take on different and expanded roles.

The service sector is being shaken up by disruptive changes. People with a spare room in their home now use Airbnb to compete directly with the conventional providers of short-stay accommodation. People with a vehicle and time on their hands sign up with Uber, offering a service comparable to taxis, on a casual basis.

Manufacturing businesses aren’t safe from disruption of this kind. What’s to stop a manufacturer from selling idle machine time to anybody that can benefit from it? Twenty-five years ago, Prestige Garden Furniture of Bolton were making parts for the Jaguar cars that competed at Le Mans… with good data exchange formats and a growing list of successful collaborations, this sort of thing is only going to increase. Add in ‘the cloud’ and the notion that businesses can tender for work on a case-by-case basis, and the commercial landscape begins to look very different.

On the retail side, who’s to say that the next thing you buy will come from a conventional source? In some applications, a ‘previously enjoyed’ product might be just what the customer needs, simultaneously shielding them from tax and depreciation, and allowing them to feel better about their environmental impact… and in eBay citizens (and businesses) have an excellent marketplace in which to buy or sell with some confidence that prices are fair.

Finance has gone crowdsourced, too. Where entrepreneurs once had to meet with the bank manager, Kickstarter offers a way to fund everything from movies to gadgets, while peer-to-peer loans allow borrowers access to credit and give savers a decent return on investment… with no high street bank in sight.

This is the all-pervasive commerce of the future: where a vastly expanded pool of casual or unconventional actors provide additional capability. Ignore them all and go with old-style formal relationships if you must, but understand that there are a whole lot of other people out there who want to get involved – and might end up working for the opposition. Done well, the coordination of a set of such contributions could be a powerful strategic differentiator because there’s an army of people who could play a part, in every city.

What triggered the change that turned the liquid of old-style commerce into an all-pervasive gas?


The cellphone changed everything. The Internet made a big change, for sure, but it was mobile that really let the genie out of the bottle. Once calls were make to a person rather than a place, a plumber no longer needed a relative staying at home to take calls and make appointments. Cutting out the ‘receptionist-at-home’ role (and there must have been many thousands of such people) meant they could take on paid work elsewhere. Mobile ’phones also meant a farmer would know if today was the right day to harvest his vegetable crop – and could perhaps secure a price with a buyer, instead of being at the mercy of a middleman. That same mobile telephone allows ride-sharing, live translation services, paperless ticketing and much more.

In my family, when we send holiday postcards, we don’t start by buying a postcard: we use our own photo, uploaded with an accompanying message to a print-on-demand firm who create the card and put it straight into the post. In effect we have become actors in our own supply chain, replacing the professional photographer who formerly earned royalties on their images. We’ve eliminated the foreign leg of the postal service, too: never again will we queue in the bureau de poste and request “un timbre pour l’Angleterre”… and the likelihood that the resulting card will be delivered by the Royal Mail is declining, too: there are so many others who could bid for the contract.

The world has changed, and the lesson to be learned here is not to be the old-style incumbent, selling pre-printed postcards in a digital age. Like any paradigm shift, there will be winners and losers, and the first step towards becoming a winner is to be aware that the shift is underway. The future is digital, no doubt, but it’s also amorphous, chaotic… and gaseous.

The Circular Economy: n, o, p, and q

Such a nice idea, isn’t it? That the byproducts from everything that you need are useful and valuable elsewhere within the system that sustains us all. No waste, no pollution.

No more throwing things away, because (other than a very few, very expensive space probes) humanity hasn’t yet worked out how to send things away.

So how do we turn something linear into something circular?

Natural systems manage to be (more-or-less) circular: the water cycle, for example: evaporation, condensation and precipitation, over and over for billions of years. Or fish in the sea: left to themselves, the various species of fish would fill all the different niches where we have now made them scarce, and natural levels of predation would merely make room for more fish.

Cyclic systems must work, because the natural world got along fine before Charles Darwin, Sir David Attenborough or the Common Fisheries Policy. Long before conscious study and intervention, many species were happily chalking up a span of a million years or more, with plenty of diversity.

Then along comes a species that supplemented the natural cycles with a new one. Animals had used tools before, but one animal didn’t merely make use of sticks and stones that happened to be lying around: man acquired the ability to think ahead, and to shape complex tools that couldn’t have occurred naturally.

I want to use the Acheulean handaxe to illustrate the point because this very early, very simple machine shows something fundamental about human technology: it’s not cyclic. If you were butchering a carcass with your handaxe and you broke it on a stubborn bone, or you decided that it had become too blunt, you had to get a new one. (You could, perhaps, chip another flake off to reveal a new sharp edge, but your axe would become smaller if you did this.) Thus, at the dawn of man, people were acting in more-or-less the same way as we do when we go to Phones4U and request an upgrade. This one’s no good: get a new one.

Flint hand axe

Prototype Swiss Army Knife, circa 750,000 BCE

You can’t recycle a broken flint handaxe. The Earth will do it for you via erosion and the compression of sedimentary rock, but that doesn’t happen on any sort of timescale that a mere species can take an interest in. Instead, you go and get more raw materials from out of the ground.

Interestingly, in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where handaxes were first made, the materials were ten kilometres from any settlement. Even back then, it seems we had logistics and procurement, as well as waste.

You might be tempted to dismiss this example on the grounds that we’re better than this nowadays. It’s true that the bronze age brought us tools that could be reforged, but for the vast majority of human history the stone handaxe was the only device there was, and you couldn’t remake a handaxe any more than you can turn fired pottery back into clay, or make bread out of burnt toast.

We take the raw materials we need, make our devices, wear them out, throw them away, and start again. This is called the linear economy, and we still apply it today. For a while, recycling was an option, but nowadays many modern products are a mass of different materials, not readily or economically separated.

Technology has given us all kinds of good things like dentistry, family planning and communications. Almost nobody would advocate a return to the simpler technologies of an earlier age, but many of the things that we enjoy nowadays come with an environmental price, because they are the product of a linear economy.

Our supply chains are exactly that: supply chains, not supply loops.

Heavy machinery at a landfill site

How’s recycling working out, where you live?

You can think of the single useful life that is obtained from many materials as being like an arc: it comes out of the ground, enters into a period of usefulness, ceases to be useful, and returns to the earth. It’s an ’n’ shape.

the n-shaped economy

Under the ‘n’-shaped economy, materials describe a brief arc of usefulness, before returning to the ground

The archetype for the circular economy is an ’o’ shape, which sees items or materials going round and round ad infinitum. It’s a nice idea, but it’s wholly idealised. Getting something from nothing isn’t realistic because even if you never waste anything again, the materials you depend upon came out of the ground at some point. Statistically, we all (as a citizens of planet Earth) own something like 80kg of aluminium… yet two hundred years ago, nobody had ever seen any. Recycling is essential with this costly and energy-intensive material… but it wasn’t always an option: the pump had to be primed.

The ‘o’-shaped, circular economy

The ‘o’-shaped, circular economy may be difficult to realise, with complex products

Thus, the circular economy that supersedes the ’n’ shape isn’t really an ‘o’, but more of a ‘p’. Materials must be taken out of the ground if they are to ascend into a useful cycle. 

The ‘p’-shaped economy

The ‘p’-shaped economy may be more realistic, recognising that cycles have to begin from something…

Even then, that’s not the happy ending of the story. Although your product may be more throughly sustainable, fairtrade, non-toxic, homespun, low-carbon, vegan, recycled and eco-labelled than Jeremy Corbyn’s moustache, there’s always a bit of entropy in any system. Materials wear away, or get contaminated, or mixed together in a way that changes them for good – or they get destroyed in accidents, or simply lost. If the circular economy is truly an economy, then you have to accept that people are going to buy or lease your products and take them away and use them in unanticipated ways.

The ‘q’-shaped model

The ‘q’-shaped model recognises that even though you reuse and recycle as much as possible, entropy awaits

Like zero defects or full employment, the circular economy is unattainable, but it’s a neat way to express an aspiration. In reality, it’s not an ‘o’ shape at all, but if we apply enough ingenuity we might manage a shape that looks something like “pooooq” – a shape that describes lots of useful ‘orbits’ before entropy sets in at last.

The ‘pooooq-shaped economy’

The ‘pooooq’ economy: our best-case scenario sees redesigned products being used the maximum number of times, before they eventually become unit to serve.

I once heard a guest speaker (and I wish I could remember who it was… Professor Bernard Hon, maybe?) who told us that a car’s electric window-winder mechanism was an ideal candidate for component reuse. It’s hidden away inside the door, so the Fashion Police can’t make a fuss that it isn’t the latest type. Car window winder mechanisms are reasonably durable, because of course it would reflect badly upon the brand if they failed… but how much more would it cost to make a window actuator that was designed to last through not just the life of the car, but through the life of five cars, with the unit being extracted and refitted four more times?

Twenty percent extra, our guest speaker said. But if that’s true, who pays for the current practice whereby an end-of-life vehicle gets shredded and the parts are either melted down or burnt in the name of energy recovery?

Car window actuator

Everything you ever wanted to know about automotive window actuators may be a mere click away.

We all pay. Motorists, for sure, but in fact everyone who needs commodities such as materials and energy… which means all of us.

It seems we’re barely out of the bronze age. Some people and organisations are showing that it’s possible to be ‘greener’, but many items are no more likely to be reused than a worn out Acheulean handaxe. Of course, we’re new at this: it’s only been seven thousand years since we started working with metals.

Perhaps we’ll crack this Circular Economy thing yet – and perhaps evaluating our efforts in terms of ’n’, ‘o’, ‘p’ and ‘q’ will help.

Digital Archaeology

The Domesday Book of 1086 was the most wide-ranging and thorough study of its time – and desperately unpopular with the people upon whom taxes would be levied on the basis of their recorded holdings. With details of 13,418 places copied onto parchment, no other piece of European medieval demography comes close, and scholars continue to find it valuable more than nine hundred years on.

Domesday Book entry

A little light reading. How’s your medieval Latin?

To mark the 9th centenary of the work’s completion back in 1986 a new, multimedia edition of Domesday was compiled over a two-year period, in which people – mostly children from more than 9,000 schools – wrote about their lives, and their part of the country. The whole nation was subdivided into 3km x 4km blocks, any of which could include photos and text, and in some cases movies. Schools and other interested parties got a BBC Master computer and a Philips VP415 “Domesday Player” so that they could access the information held on special-format LaserDiscs – a precursor to the DVD that stored a “massive” 324MB of data on each side of a 30cm disc. (There was a ‘Community’ disc and a ‘National’ disc; nowadays the whole thing could fit many times over on the cheapest USB flash drive still made.)

Big optical discs; big hair. The 1980’s

Big optical discs; big hair. The 1980s.

It’s a great little piece of history. Despite the low-resolution, amateur photographs and writing to match, it’s a snapshot in time, and it can be very interesting to look through and remember how things were.

But we nearly lost it.

The technology that had been used for the BBC Domesday Project was a snapshot in time as well. As the 21st century dawned, few people still had access to a BBC Master computer in working condition, and Philips VP415 disc readers were rarer still. Because the project had used custom formats in both software and hardware (pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved in the mid-1980s) this was no mere file format issue. Domesday had stored each image as a single frame of analogue video, with an overlaid user interface, and this was a difficult mess to untangle.

The original Domesday Book had survived nine hundred years, becoming more durable after 1861 when a scholar would most likely have worked from a photographic reproduction. The information in the new Domesday Project, for all its technological ingenuity, didn’t manage fifteen years before it was for all practical purposes inaccessible.

A heroic effort by several groups secured a more future-proofed version of the work, basically by recreating it: tracking down master copies of information held on a 1-inch videotape format, writing emulation software that allowed a modern computer to interface with a VP415 “Domesday Player” and so on. In 2011, a BBC initiative led to much (but not all) of the Community disc being published on the Internet. Copyright issues mean that the full contents of the Domesday Project are unlikely to be made available before 2090 – although perhaps one might hope for publication in 2086, in time for the 1,000th anniversary of the original.

Digital obsolescence is a terrible shame. It’s bad enough that we throw away tens of millions of computers every year; how much worse to think that we might be throwing away everything that we did with them as well! You might recall how a collection of work by Andy Warhol was found on a stash of floppy discs and ‘rescued’ last year

Digital Campbell’s soup tin, Andy Warhol

Um, yeah. Priceless. [Andy Warhol]

This isn’t just a problem affecting overlooked bits and pieces of culture: businesses are fighting an ongoing battle against digital obsolescence as well. Imagine making and supporting long-lived systems such as a ship, or a power station: the design information you might need to look up will have been through half a dozen processes of translation, from when the design was executed on a mainframe computer, and then converted for access on minis, on DOS-based machines, and then various versions of Windows. The design software, as well as the operating system, will likely have changed. Translations of 3D geometry are notoriously unreliable, particularly where bezier patches were used to define surface shape, which means it can become very difficult to manufacture new parts. Do you translate your files and hope for the best, or do you try to keep your 1970s era mainframe in working order? There are no good answers.

I’ve recently converted my PhD thesis into a modern format. (We weren’t required to provide an electronic submission, back in my day…) The process required computers of three different vintages, and quite a lot of laborious copying and pasting. The thesis had been written on a Power Macintosh 5500/275, a machine I’d bought in 1998 – the year they were discontinued. It had long since gone for recycling, but the good old 5500 had featured a SCSI port (now a long-obsolete interconnection standard) which had allowed me to make backups. After all that work, you can bet I made a lot of backups!

My word processor of choice back then was part of a suite of office tools called ClarisWorks – long since discontinued. Modern software such as Pages and Word refused to open my ClarisWorks files, but a quick search of the Internet revealed that others were using a free package called LibreOffice to open all kinds of obsolete file formats. I used this as an interim stage to get the text into my word processor of choice.

That got me the text, but not the images. These required a different approach, and had to be brought in individually, via an aged laptop that had fortunately been bundled with “AppleWorks 6”, which marked the swan song of the Claris tools before Apple killed them off. (I keep that laptop around because my latest machine doesn’t have an optical drive – another format that’s rapidly heading for the dustbin of history.)

All was well until I reached Appendix 3. In the print copy this had been a collection of images from a Powerpoint presentation, dating back to 1994. I’m nerdy enough to own a USB floppy disc drive, so accessing the physical media wasn’t a problem… but did Microsoft Powerpoint deign to open a Powerpoint presentation from twenty-one years ago? Hell, no. Nothing I still owned would touch it. Help came from Zamzar, who offer free online file conversion. Fortunately, I wasn’t trying to convert anything confidential, so I could use a web-based service. My first attempt failed, but then I managed to convert the old .ppt file to an interim format from around 1997, which was acceptable to modern Powerpoint, and Appendix 3 was rescued.

Like the BBC Domesday Project in miniature, only fifteen years had passed but my work required quite a bit of human intervention to make it accessible again. (And let’s be honest, only the author would care enough to undertake the job.) This must be happening to information all over the world, all the time – and you can be sure it’s going to keep on happening.

Five megabyte hard drive, 1956

A generous five megabytes of storage… 1956 style.

It’s alarming, quite frankly, to discover how easy it is for a piece of work that you once spent weeks or months on to disappear into oblivion. When the VIVACE Project ended in early 2008, for example, we all patted ourselves on the back, secure in the knowledge that the hosting for the project website was all paid up for the next five years and all the public project reports would continue to be available.

Five years seemed like ages; long enough, surely, for everyone to get what they need from the project. Well, apparently not; I’ve had to trawl through snapshots made by the Wayback Machine, an Internet archiving tool, in order to find copies of my own work.

A project ends, and you move to a new job. Obviously, you don’t get to take your computer with you. Meanwhile, you upgrade to a new computer at home, or maybe suffer a hard drive failure… and the next time you want to draw upon some old piece of work, you can’t find it. Or perhaps, as above, you can find it but you can’t open it. In the case of VIVACE, this was a project funded with €50m of taxpayers’ money, plus money from industry: to think that some of the things we discovered might be effectively gone less than a decade later is alarming.

Of course, they might well still exist on some obscure disk in a personal collection, as a printout on a library shelf or in a filing cabinet somewhere, but this is the 21st century and we expect our information to be only a mouse click away. If it can’t be found instantly we assume it doesn’t exist. (Students, I’m looking at you…) Also, there’s the danger that anything that’s hard to find is likely to become ever more obscured over time, as the output of still more documents buries the older information.

Piles of CDs

That file you wanted? It’s safely backed up. Somewhere. I think…

This should be of concern to those who care about sustainability. Health, clean air, decent drinking water… they’re important, but we’re not here simply to survive and raise families. Rabbits can do that. I feel that humanity ought to create something with intellectual or artistic merit. Sustainability demands doing things with an eye on the future, and building to last – but if this is the Information Age, why isn’t our information built to last?

It’s called “waste” for a reason…

Back in the days when I worked in a furniture factory, there was a sarcastic but surprisingly effective sign in the workplace:

“When the floor is full please use the bins provided.”

overflowing bins

It’s a scene that could be found in just about any city, nowadays – at least at times. Technology offers alternatives, such as the Envac system of urban waste collection which uses vacuum tubes rather like a giant version of those pipe systems that you used to see speeding capsules around within department stores and hospitals. Very nice… but it seems likely that the cost of such a major infrastructure project will confine it to airports and showpiece communities for a long time to come.

I’ve seen a lot of litter in the last few weeks, on my travels in Southern Africa. The character of that litter varies from one country to another, and I can only assume that’s because the prevailing economic conditions in different places make for a different pattern of recycling. In Malawi, for example, you see very few plastic bottles, although the shreds of old plastic bags are seen everywhere amid the crops. (In Rwanda, shops can no longer give you a plastic bag, but this rule hasn’t been adopted elsewhere, yet.)

I have to make assumptions here (since a literature search has revealed almost nothing about the economics of recycling in Malawi) but presumably plastic bottles are sufficiently valuable to be worth collecting. One tiny piece of evidence was found:

“The next day is warm as we drive towards Lilongwe, the country’s capital. Blandina drains her water, winds down the window and tosses the plastic bottle from the car. I give a disapproving frown and glance back to see a child give chase as it cartwheels over the road. “I’m recycling,” says my genial guide. “He’ll use it for mango juice.” Beyond the safari tents and sundowners, Malawi’s poverty plays out at the roadside.”

– Phillips (2012)

If plastic bottles are worth collecting in Lilongwe, it seems they aren’t in Lusaka – so the wealthier city actually has a worse litter problem. Many empty lots in the city seem to have acquired a colourful stratum of them (although as I write this, the long-awaited rain has just arrived, so perhaps that will move much of the waste on, via the drains). I fully accept that I’m part of the problem, because my delicate British constitution means I’ve been consuming vast quantities of bottled water (plus Carlsberg ‘Green’ or Mosi lager by night, but that’s another story…)

In both Malawi and Zambia, the tax base is very narrow, and the governments have other, more pressing needs than worrying about litter. “Will Malawi cities, towns ever be sustainably clean?” asks the Nyasa Times (Ngwira, 2014) and that’s the real challenge: not an expensive burst of activity, but a lasting shift to a different way of doing things.

Waste plastic is actually a very valuable resource. A thermal depolymerisation process could be fed waste plastic (including the lower-value plastic bags and films) plus old tyres, biomass and a wide range of other things, yielding sufficient gas to run the process while also producing light crude oil of considerable value.

For that matter, one might ask why we don’t do more thermal depolymerisation in the UK…

Waste-to-oil requires investment, of course… but do you want to live in a world where it doesn’t happen?

Have a look at this ancient piece of pottery from the early Bronze Age, which is to say around 4,000 years ago. It was found in a burial mound where an unknown young man was sent on his journey into the next world, perhaps with an alcoholic drink…


Early Bronze Age beaker.

Nowadays, it can be seen in the Hull and East Riding Museum, and it is artefacts such as this one that gave us our name for these ancestors: the Beaker People. Once a culture that covered virtually all of Europe, I understand.

And it makes me wonder…

Four thousand years from now, will we be known as the Garbage People?



Ngwira, S. (2014) ‘Will Malawi cities, towns ever be sustainably clean?’, Nyasa Times, August 16th [available online, accessed 4/11/2014]

Phillips, A. (2012) ‘All creatures great and small in Malawi’, The Independent on Sunday, July 15th [available online, accessed 4/11/2014]

Neither Fish nor Fowl

Take a look at this strange contraption, designed for the wealthy warrior of the 17th century. It’s an ‘axe-gonne’ (or, if you prefer 21st century spelling, ‘axe-gun’) combining the ranged combat capability of an early firearm with the ability to break heads if the fight becomes up-close and personal. It’s not just a one-off oddity: quite a few were made, in a range of designs.



It’s not a very good gun. Aiming it isn’t going to be easy, with all that weight at the front end, and reloading will be more fiddly than for a pure firearm. It’s also not a very good axe: having a gun barrel as its shaft means it’s heavier than necessary, and it won’t protect the wielder from impacts nearly as well as a good piece of ash or oak might have. Also, the first time you swing it forcefully, the musket ball will probably fly out, ending any potential usefulness as a gun.

A visit to a museum will reveal all kinds of failed attempts at combination weapons of this kind. The shield-pistol was another one: not as easy to hold as a proper shield, not as easy to aim as a pistol, and heavier than either. It was a time when blacksmiths were experimenting with the exciting new technology of gunpowder… and some of the things they tried were distinctly odd, and of limited usefulness.

Back in the 1980s, we saw something similar: manufacturers embraced the exciting new technology of low-cost microelectronics, embedding functionality into all kinds of products… and almost without exception, they were awful. Remember when you could buy a pen that had a digital clock built in? I’ve seen better timepieces, and I’ve seen better pens. Do these two items deserve to be merged into one?

clock pens

The 1980’s called. They want their kitsch back

Remember the calculator-ruler? It’s not a very good ruler (a bit short and far too thick; typically opaque where transparency would have been useful) and it’s not a very good calculator (having tiny, rubbery buttons and limited functionality). Just like the axe-gonne, this is a compromise… and a pretty awful one.

calculator ruler

The calculator-ruler. Because, um… because… never mind.

The reason I mention this phenomenon today is because the prototype of a new flying car has just been unveiled. ‘AeroMobil 3.0’ is a two-seater that’s started its final flight-testing programme… and it transforms into a road-legal car.

This is nothing new, of course. Glenn Curtiss built a prototype ‘Autoplane’ as early as 1917. Many others followed; Aerocar International built half a dozen back in 1940s, and their solution was quite cute… if you didn’t mind towing a trailer full of aeroplane parts. All the problem-solving, like finding a means to allow the steering to function as an aircraft control column, has long-since been figured out. Since the Aerocar (which didn’t manage to find enough buyers to enter series production) there have been numerous other contenders, such as Terrafugia, and Moller… and now AeroMobil.



AeroMobil 3.0

AeroMobil 3.0: for people who seldom feel the need to look to left and right while driving, apparently.

Aeromobil 3.0

No word yet on whether you can still tow the family caravan…

The trouble with flying cars, invariably, is the same curse that dogs the axe-gonne and the calculator-ruler: they’re far from best-in-class at any of the jobs that they do. The price of AeroMobil’s latest offering has yet to be revealed, but experience has shown that it’s not going to be cheap. In fact, it’s going to cost a lot more than owning and running a nice car, and a nice aeroplane. All to own a ‘car’ that’s small, and that would be written off in any kind of road traffic collision.

“Neither fish nor fowl,” as we say. There’s a lesson here for all of us: that we might not want to try to achieve too many different things, but rather to find just one thing or a limited set of things that we want to be good at. This could be true in a product, a service… or even a whole supply chain. Will your business compete on cost, or on lead time? On convenience, or quality? Will you attract customers with your flexibility, or through high performance? Through aggressive marketing, or a reputation for ethical business?

Try to achieve too many of these individually desirable characteristics in your supply chain, and your “competitive weapon” will become an axe-gonne… and that means you’ll likely lose the fight.


The Witch Test

Despite all our science and engineering, the end-of-life strategies for dealing with mixed waste are often very simplistic. Under current conditions it seems it isn’t economically viable to pick over every bit of waste that a household generates in a week, sorting everything by material and sending it for recycling. One problem is that hand-picking is a filthy, even dangerous job. Waste sorting involves picking through things like soiled diapers and rotten meat with the possibility of finding dangerous items like razor blades, or worse… horrific! In many communities, we leave the job to machinery.

Manual waste sorting

Manual waste sorting

There are such things as trash-sorting robots, and they’re getting better, but they are very expensive. Until some kind of breakthrough in automatic waste picking occurs, the mechanised approach involves relatively crude, broad-brush approaches that are more affordable. The first of these should be obvious: use an electromagnet to gather up ferrous materials, and send them for recycling. (Of course, some waste products will consist only partially of iron or steel; if this is an issue you need to disassemble (more likely crush or shred) the waste before sorting.

You can induce eddy currents in the non-ferrous metals that remain in the waste stream, causing them to move within a strong magnetic field: basically, anything conductive flies off a conveyor belt, while the non-metallic remainder drops into a bin.

So what’s left in the mixed waste stream? Everything that isn’t metal: stones, glass, mouldy food, plastic, bits of wood… whatever. There is still a lot of separation to be done. This is where the endearingly-named Witch Test comes in, which is simply this:

If it floats, burn it.

Ordeal by water was a common feature of the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th century (although it originated much earlier) and it’s this practice that gives us such a colourful name for the separation of waste by density – perhaps influenced in part by a certain Monty Python scene.

The ducking stool

Ordeal by water, or the ‘ducking stool’

Items that are light enough to float on water are likely to be combustible… so the Witch Test suggests that you simply dump your waste into a tank of water, and skim off anything at the surface, to burn for energy recovery. This reclaimed mixture is called Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) and is readily used in power stations that otherwise burn fossil fuels. Nowadays, technology offers alternative methods for separating out the lighter materials: most approaches now use a blower (an “air knife”) instead of floatation, and this is preferable because dry RDF is lighter and thus cheaper to transport, so it appears that the Witch Test might soon disappear from the waste processing lexicon.

I’ll miss it.

Modern instruments of torture that your waste might encounter include the waste autoclave: a pressure vessel (or continuous process) employing saturated steam at around 160°C that ‘cooks’ the waste, killing bugs and causing paper and fibrous materials to break down completely (they are thus readily sifted out), while driving out moisture and causing the volume of the waste to reduce.

Also, I haven’t mentioned the biological approaches that can be employed; composting and anaerobic digestion. This is very much a buffet of technologies, with different companies each employing a subset of these sorting and treatment technologies, in different sequences. There really is no single preferred approach.

Whatever approaches to waste separation are used, an awful lot of work is required to re-establish some kind of order from the chaos of a mixed waste stream, and the sad thing here is that many of the materials in the waste stream are potentially very valuable… at least until they get co-mingled and contaminated.