Physical Integrity

Software can be tested. Test cases can be supplied, performance can be measusred and the output verified. In open-source software, the code can also be read and one can understand the thought and techniques and other intricacies and decisions that went behind making that piece of software. In other words, the entire body and soul of the product is out there in front of you.

All about coffeeThe same can be known about coffee, if you put in the effort. I recently came across an image that expresses exactly that. You can know where the coffee originated, the processes it went through, the people involved and other details. The complete life of the product (though to many people coffee is more than just a product, more like a piece of art) can be put in front of you, the user, the consumer, anyone who deigns to ask.

Why not with hardware ? And when I say hardware, I don’t mean electronics. Sure, hardware, electronic or otherwise can be “tested” for particular things. Stresses, strains, temperature responses, resistances, brittleness, opacity and a ton of other things can be “tested”. Electronic goods which are assembled have QR codes on every major component in them, but they don’t tell you where they were made, what processes went into making it and the like.

I can understand that there is the “too much information” argument, and about the usefulness of it. But I liken this idea to that of a “physical MD5 checksum”. There is an “MD5” checksum to check the integrity of code, to see if the product as it was packaged and supposed to be. Having a physical MD5 checksum, could open up quite a few possibilities.

– You could actually be able to check if things actually are what they claim to be. With the advent of 3D printing, this should be a pretty useful testing probe.

– You could distinguish your “Made in Taiwan” from “Made in Korea”. Win for activism and awareness, not such a pleasant thought for corporates and governments.

– You could know how your product is made, where it is made, if the product you got is the one you paid for or one with a “cheaper / less reliable / more hazardous” component

– You could actually know if and how your Apple product is worth the “premium” that you pay for it over other alternatives, without having to rely on marketing content manufactured for you by any company

There is quite an obvious con too. Manufacturing secrets and processes could be revealed, which in most cases are patented trade secrets and often minor things are differentiators between products, and wouldn’t do well to be revealed. But then, this entire idea is about accountability and openness, so I guess there are decisions and trade-offs that would need to be made.

One more disadvantage would arise from having too much information. Knowing too much and having too many things to choose from, can paralyze you. Nevertheless, choices can be broken down, information can be prioritized, and made manageable. There are complete industries and professions that do that. After all, where would we have been if we had not accepted use of fire because it could burn if improperly used ?

P.S. I hereby certify that this entire thought was not influenced by any sci-fi movies, but by the simple question I had when I was in a supposedly career-deciding examination – What if my food or drink which was instructed to be left unprotected in a common waiting area was tampered with ? There should be a checksum for that.

P.P.S. Feel free to start a discussion with me by dropping me an email 😉

Scheming Supermarkets

How many of you walk to the nearest super-market the first thing that you think “I need to buy something” ? To how many of you does that come impulsively, like muscle memory ? Here’s a little something to make you walk an extra bit further, or keep your eyes that extra bit open.Receipt

Ever since I have been living in Amsterdam (been a while), I have been walking to the nearest supermarket, which more often than not turns out to be Albert Heijn. The parts of Amsterdam I have seen, I believe that the Albert Heijn chain was planned by walking through the city, and placing the stores strategically so that one would never have to walk more than 10 minutes to get to an Albert Heijn. Well, based on my experiences with buying from the local small grocer and buying from the supermarket, here are a few thoughts :

– There are no price tags on products (not only in this store, but any other). I understand the “saves labor if prices change” argument, but it is not in the interest of the consumer either if the price can be changed at a click, arbitrarily and by almost anyone, even. It’s easy for “mistakes” to flow through, honest or dishonest.

– Products are often ‘misplaced’. I have sometimes picked up a product, reading its price tag as say X, but paid more, because, the product was not near the correct tag, or it was a different product. I would put it down to consumers checking out products and not putting them back correctly, but it has happened more often than that for me to dismiss it. I have explicitly observed a label of product A and no sign of it anywhere, and product B in its place. At home, out of place.

– There are “mistakes” in price tags. More than once, I have paid more than the “discounted” price tag for the product. I have had that nagging feeling, ‘Hey, this is not what the price tag said’.

– Another move that makes things work in favor of super markets is that the checkout counters are placed right at the end, and you checkout after you have done all your picking. People who have placed something in their cart aren’t likely to opt not to buy the product _just because_ it is 10 cents more expensive than they thought. And they aren’t very likely to argue either on the price, seeing that the aisle from where they picked up the product is far away and there is (usually) a queue of customers behind them.

– A lot of people often don’t ask for receipts since they shop everyday at the supermarkets and never do examine the prices of what they bought. Even if they do, they don’t really have a ready comparison to check if they were charged right.

So here’s what happened :
Last week, I had some free time on my hands, and thought, ‘Let’s buy some fruit, try my hand at eating healthier’. I walked with a pack of strawberries to the checkout counter, and got charged 50 cents extra for it. I had some time on my hands, so I went through the supermarket again (after paying), checked the prices, then went to the reception, pointed out the discrepancy and had them walk with me to check it out. One of the products, it turns out, was not overcharged (it was a different product from the one that I had assumed based on the tag, the names being the same but one being wholesale and one being a retail price, the difference between 5kg and 1kg packs ). The second one, however, was indeed over-charged, and the agent spent the 30 seconds walking back with me to the desk trying to explain to me that it was a “computer mistake” and “such mistakes happen”. Well, if such mistakes happen that often, I am quite interested in knowing in whose favor they go.

I don’t know (and I didn’t bother to find out) how many stores of this chain are in Holland (or elsewhere), how many people go to them everyday, and how many of them end up paying for the products with “mistakes”. I do make a simple calculation though. I was charged 50 cent extra for a bunch of strawberries. Assuming each store sells 50 such boxes a day (they were on discount, I am sure they sell more), they earn 25 Euros a product a store a day. I know that there must be at least a 100 such stores in the country. That would comes to 2500 Euros a day per product per mistake. I know these are overly simplifying assumptions, but they are not unreasonable and I am estimating they are under-represented even with this. I don’t even want to point out how much an average household spends per year on daily household goods, and how much of a difference a mistake of even 10 cent per 10 Euro purchase could make them, its just very sad.

Wow, talk about lucky mistakes. I’d sure love to make some such.

[ Note: There is a whole study and discussion about pricing strategies to make consumers spend, but you can read it here, I don’t have much to add to the discussion there : ]

Never been one such place.


Never been one such place with so many
wisps of ever-shifting thoughts, each overwhelmingly colored
echoing sounds, from afar and ago, each ringing fresh and loud
lingering smells, of pungence and petrichor, each one with its own place
places you’d want to stay some more, all at once
hundreds of people, you’d want to say individual hellos to
friends, that become and stay family no matter where they are
memories, too numerous to be contained, too precious to be left behind

Never one such place, with so much of you, and yet so completely itself.
Never been one such place. Not one except this one special place I know.

– To my alma mater. VJTI.