March 20th, 2017

The Promise and Present Realities of Virtual Waiting, part the first

Kate Taylor over at Business Insider has been posting some interesting items in the consumer/retail space, which includes Travel and Food and Bev. I've blogged about her posts in the past (I definitely remember blogging about her week eating fast food). More recently, she has booked a vacation through Costco Travel, and enjoyed it while also noting that it was extremely convenient and her online research indicated she also received good value for money.

However, as interesting as all these pieces have been, her posts about Starbucks Mobile Ordering woes have been the ones I can't quite stop thinking about. I'll nod about the difficulties of ordering reasonable food at fast food places. I'll tell my husband to take a look at the Costco Travel options occasionally. But Mobile Ordering looks like one of those wave of socio-technological innovation thingies just waiting to happen.

The short form about mobile ordering is simple: it isn't clear that it saves any time _standing in line waiting_ versus going into the store, waiting in line and ordering. The stores are not designed to cope with the backup in drinks that can happen when someone posts a large mobile order but isn't _right there_ to pick it up when it is ready.

I'm betting they can figure out a way around the latter problems. Starbucks, as Taylor notes in at least some of her coverage, is working on store redesign, as are individual stores. I cannot tell you how happy I would be if a bunch of the merch went away. And it would make sense to replace merch with people engaging with the core business -- merch is what you do to intensify a limited existing customer base. If mobile ordering actually takes off, they should be able to do a lot more core business out of the same physical footprint, which is a better deal that leaving merch sitting around waiting to be light fingered and/or destroyed and/or rendered irrelevant by seasonal changes.

But the first problem is key. Virtual waiting is _supposed_ to result in a shorter time spent physically standing in line, even if it results in a longer total delay before receiving whatever it is that you are waiting for. This is the net effect of the original FastPass at Disney. For example: you walk up to the ride. You see that it is a 45 minute wait in line to ride Roger Rabbit's ToonTown Spin. You see that the Return Time on Fastpass is 45 minutes in the future. You grab fastpasses, go play in the little playground a half hour while one of your party gets hot dogs, eat the hot dogs, and ultimately ride the ToonTown Spin while hoping the wee one doesn't urp it up during the ride, an hour after you originally looked at that 45 minute line. Even tho it took you an extra 15 minutes to get on the ride, you also got lunch, and the wee one got to kick it in the playground instead of kicking you and everyone around you while getting increasingly hangry waiting for Roger Rabbit which, while an awesome ride, is not obviously worth a 45 minute wait in line.

If, however, you return with your FastPass to ride Roger (that sounds naughty!) and you wind up waiting 45 minutes in line, you are going to have non-cartoon steam coming out of you because you will be angry. There is an expectation that there will be some physical waiting in line with FastPass, Universal Front of the Line, etc. or when you return after being paged at a restaurant -- but it is supposed to be a _shorter_ wait than if you had just stood in whatever the standby equivalent was.

So how is Virtual Waiting working these days, and is it better than Regular Old Queuing?

On our most recent trip to Disney_land_, which still has Old Skool FastPass, we were actually able to do precisely what I described (minus the playground and hotdog). A. and I would arrive at a ride which had FastPass, note that the Return Time and the queue time where equivalent, grab FastPasses, go do another ride or character meet and greet or shop or eat or whatever, and return to ride the ride. True, we were there in February, on the other hand, it was vacation week for a lot of people since the start of our trip was Presidents' Day weekend. I believe the primary reason this was actually working was because a lot of people had Space Mountain or Star Tours fastpasses for much later in the day, and thus could not exploit the FastPass system in the middle of the day. However, it could also be because Disney has done something to the FastPass system that was invisible to me that took heavy users out of the system. (Does anyone know? Like, are those cheap California passes prevented from using FastPass?) The Land is due to get a FastPass upgrade to MaxPass, which will connect to visitors phones and allow reservations, similar to the World. It will be a day-of reservation (different from the 30-60 day reservation window at the World), one at a time, $10 per ticket added cost, unclear what it will cost to add it to annual passes.

Disney has done a lot of experimenting with queues over the years. The FastPass system was an attempt to get rid of physical queuing (seriously, did not work out). Most of the rest of their queuing innovations have involved making waiting in line Fun, with varying degrees of success (Space Mountain video games are not bad, but the new Peter Pan queue at the World is arguably as good if not better than the ride itself, which is really should be, given how much time you spend in it).

Disney has a variety of show/ride hybrids with staged queues. Universal has these as well, and with the new Jimmy Fallon ride at Orlando, has made a component of the staging virtually queued; in conjunction with the exhibits, this is basically the same solution as the Double Dumbo. Double Dumbo at Disney not only doubled the ride capacity by having two Dumbos; it added a restaurant-style pager system. You wait in line to get a pager, then can play in the air conditioned, tented play area. When your pager goes, you can go ride Dumbo. But you don't have to just yet if you want to play longer. You still wait for the pager, and you wait after turning in your pager, but both waits are fairly short.

Many restaurants with pagers allow people with pagers to enter the lounge or bar, roughly the food and bev equivalent of looking at the exhibits at the Jimmy Fallon ride or playing in the air conditioned Dumbo playground. You have something to do while you are waiting and can go use the 'strooms without requiring one of your party to wait in a physical line. But none of these distractions (or added attractions, depending on how optimistic you are) seem applicable to Starbucks' conundrum.

I cannot help but think that Starbucks has really bitten off a problem for itself, however. There are way too many people who will do Just One More Thing. And Just One More Thing can lead to quite a delay in picking up a hot (or cold) coffee beverage. This would seem to guarantee a worse experience consuming the beverage, a problem which does not occur with waiting in lines to see shows, go on rides or eat a sit down meal in a restaurant. I hope they figure it out. And I'm wondering if the solution is going to look something like, we won't even bother to start your order until your phone's GPS shows you approaching the restaurant.

The Uberization of mobile ordering. Mmmmm. Buzzword stew.

Liveblogging (re)reading Agatha Christie

It has been close to 40 years since I last read _Murder on the Orient Express_. And let me tell you, it's a different read in 2017.

The paperback copy I am reading starts on page 3. Hercule is about to get on the Taurus Express in Aleppo, Syria. By page 5, we have met Mary Debenham, who has already been on the train since Baghdad. She has not rested well, "Neither in the train to Kirkuk, nor in the Rest House at Mosul, nor last night on the train".

All words which would have been less than nothing to me when I was a child, and all of which we have become familiar with in the intervening time, most fairly recently, because of news.

Lieutenant Dubosc says, "Brrrrrr". I'm wondering if he should have instead said, "Gla gla!" or perhaps 3 glas. I don't really know.

Hercule hears what he believes to be Ratchett using the fold down washbasin in the next compartment over, where there was a groaning cry a moment ago, and the bell was rung and then someone said, no never mind. Here's a fold down washbasin for you:

"A calamity of the first water". Wow. Never run across that construction before, but it is by no means unique to Christie, if google is to be believed.

I like this bit. "She must have been a very strong woman". I am _so_ tired of procedurals and other mysteries -- to this day! -- which say, oh, must have been a man because tall or strong or big feet or whatever. I'm always like, I have more than one woman friend over 6 foot tall and unbelievably powerful. I am not short or weak myself. So this is really nice to see. If the blows were powerful, then that means a strong person, NOT inherently a man.

Oh, check this out! I've never heard of this book:

Middle Aged People These Days

The Spectator has an article "How technology exacerbates the winner-takes-all effect". It contains this sentence, written by Rory Sutherland, who google informs me is a few years older than me.

"Before the advent of the railways, the United States was home to thousands of smaller regional brands."

Oh, really?

Here is the full para:

"If you ever wondered why so many of the world's packaged goods brands have their origins in the American Midwest of the late 19th century, it's the same effect at work. Before the advent of the railways, the United States was home to thousands of smaller regional brands. The railways killed this diversity, with the winners overwhelmingly being manufacaturers close to the rail hub in Chicago."

The article opens with a Heinz photo, labeled Pittsburgh, U.S.A. Perhaps Sutherland, who is breathtakingly London-centric, is unaware that there is a meaningful distance between Chicago and, say, Pittsburgh. I will go further, and bet he thinks Pittsburgh is in the Midwest. I invite Sutherland to go to Pittsburgh, and try that idea out on a native his age or older. He will get an earful.

Also, just the idea of thousands of regional American brands before the 3rd quarter of the 19th century makes me giggle hysterically.

I wonder if he thinks that Nabisco, home of Uneeda Biscuit, was in the Midwest, too. You know, the part of the Midwest made up of New York and New Jersey.

Other early brands: Colgate (New York -- the original dude was from the early 19th century, but as a brand, obvs an artifact of the second half of the 19th century), P&G (first half of the 19th century in Ohio, so we've got ONE brand from the Midwest that predates rail), J&J late 19th century in that part of the Midwest that is ... New Jersey.

I'm not entirely certain what Sutherland is on about. I suspect he means something to do with Chicago's history first as a terminus for cattle drives and thus a location for meat packing, followed by the expansion west of rail lines, the invention of refrigerated cars and more meat packing further away but still in the Midwest (thinking Hormel here). But the idea that there were thousands of regional brands to be done away with is a really odd idea. Does he mean, oh, hey, there used to be all these tiny soap concerns and then they were replaced by nationally advertised and distributed soaps? Yeah, but all the soap companies are in New York and New Jersey (then and up until surprisingly recently). Does he mean there used to be all these somewhat anonymous biscuit and cracker producers and then Nabisco replaced them all with Uneeda brand biscuit? Again, _New Jersey_.

I don't get it.

Honestly, the whole _idea_ of a brand, regional or national, is sort of an artifact of the post-railway era. I suppose you could argue otherwise, but you'll be up against Susan Strasser.

Given that Sutherland is English, he is probably thinking of a longer history of identified/not anonymous products associated with "This one dude and sons" or "Dude and brothers". Maybe?

ETA: Goddess, I _had_ a point.

The argument Sutherland makes -- technology is wiping out diversity, just like railways wiped out the amazingly diverse branded marketplace of around-the-Civil War United States -- is roughly like saying, oh, man, there used to be so many more great apps before the iPhone came along and wiped out all the diversity.

Or, you know, my favorite, communists designed the early PC on their laptops.

_Murder on the Orient Express_, Agatha Christie

This was a book group selection for Mayberry, NH (<-- not its real name) public library's adult book group. I believe I first read this book -- along with a lot of other cozies -- as a pre-teenager. My mother was a fan then, and continued to be a fan right up until in recent years she ceased to be able to read. Other favorite authors included Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers (I preferred both of them to Christie, but I did not then bear Agatha Christie any ill will -- I did like the Tommy and Tuppence books best, IIRC, which I may not because honestly over 30 years have passed since I last read any of these books).

Spoilers! En voiture, mes amis, unless you've decided to stay a few nights and see the sights rather than board the Wagon Lits.

The first chapter is set on a different line, the Taurus Express, the stops along which read like a summary of recent extended conflict: Kirkuk, Mosul, Baghdad, Aleppo. Here we first meet Hercule Poirot, the mustachioed and bald Belgian with the egg shaped head, Mary Debenham, a governess headed home to England, and Colonel Arbuthnot, headed home to England from years in India.

Poirot intends to stay in Stamboul, but receives a telegraph recalling him to another case. With more difficulty than anticipated, he gets space in the unexpectedly full first class of the Orient Express. He carefully observes the various passengers in first and second class. He initially shares a room with someone he first saw at the hotel in Stamboul he was briefly at, but when an additional carriage is added to the train, an officer of the rail line switches to the new carriage and Poirot gets his own room.

Of course, his neighbor is murdered in the night and the game is afoot. The novel has been out since 1934 or thereabouts and has been made into movies and short TV series and then riffed and homaged to yards past its death. I think we all know the basic premise of the book: Everyone Did It.

Having gotten the major spoiler out of the way, what's it like reading this thing in 2017? Well, I guess the first and most obvious comment would be how thin the motivating crime feels. The standin for the Lindy baby kidnapping -- a ripped from the headlines plot point if ever there was one -- did not age well. Decades after everyone involved in the Lindbergh case died, we now know a fair number of unsavory things about Charles and his feelings about his son, that make the source case seep through in weird ways to the thinly fictionalized version.

The second, and most offensive aspect of the novel is the relentless ... bigotry? Ethnic stereotyping? Racism? Because the "races" in question are all (western) European, and because we ultimately learn that several people are not the "race" they present as but actually someone else enacting their own stereotype of the "race", it's all more than a little weird and creepy.

Completely by accident, I stumbled across a Wikipedia entry about Graham Greene's _Stamboul Train_, which predates this novel by a couple years, is set on the same train, and shares a variety of attributes with this book, but which honestly sounds a helluva lot more interesting and nuanced -- altho who knows how _that_ would hold up if read now.

I would observe that reading this book in the late 1970s / early 1980s, the world was at least marginally recognizable. I had myself been on multi-day train journeys, albeit always in coach. Borders were still enforced in the areas through which the train passed, and it was still difficult to identify a common second language in which to conduct business with a stranger met on a train. Reading this book in 2017, it is difficult not to feel that this book has receded a great deal further in time. Between WW2, the peak of the Soviet era, and the creation of Europe leading to English being adopted essentially throughout the area as a common second language, it just isn't possible to relate to the world of the people on the train. Which is probably the other half of why this has become an increasingly difficult story to adapt to TV and movies. (That's not stopping anyone -- I think Dr. Who did it a few years back, altho it is worth noting their version involved a Mummy.)

Hercule Poirot is a wildly implausible character in so many ways it's hard to know how to enumerate them. The use of stilted English (word order and other grammatical oddities, not to mention word choice) at least on the surface intended to convey that conversations are occurring in French (and yet still dotted with largely useless interjections in French -- but never German, even tho some convos are also conducted in German) probably did once successfully resonate with people accustomed to talking to people for whom English was a second language and who themselves word-for-word translated expressions from their own language of origin.

Finally, the book is just way too clever for its own good. I'll probably update this after our discussion.

ETA: We had a person in the group who knows Swedish well enough to not believe the Swedish characters version of stilted English at all. Our group settled on the usual Agatha Christie observations: characters not really believable or differentiatable, difficult to feel a sense of place, highly contrived plot, etc. It was a nice discussion, but a little short.