Tuesday 19 September 2017

Anonymous shopping

In the world of teaching biology, I can be a gun-for-hire. When I started at The Institute, my boss waved an absurd list of courses that I would be required to teach [human physiology; remedial maths; 2nd Yr physics; 1st year biology and chemistry; environmental chemistry of water; food microbiology].
Yore 'avin' a game, guv'nor, I said.
No I'm not he replied this is what we need you to do, so I did.
In the 1990s, I was contracted to tool all over Ireland, with occasional forays across Europe, to teach short courses in bioinformatics and molecular evolution. It was tremendous fun. Along the way I developed a module for becoming a power-user of PubMed, the database of bio-science literature. I dreamed up a list of bizarre things to hunt for on PubMed, at least partly to show the wonderful breadth of human research curiosity.
  • Vending machine injury
  • Vacuum cleaner injury
  • Vasectomy and prostate cancer
  • Vesalius
  •   . . . and vat's jvst ve Vs
I was reminded of that because a comment on the blogosphere pointed to a an article tallying up the count of peculiar deaths occuring each year in the USA. That was interesting in itself because if you were required to put these potential killers in order of body-count, I bet you couldn't:
  • Vending machines
  • Dogs
  • Txtn while drivn [prev]
  • Autoerotic asphyxia
  • Roller-coasters
  • Falling from the bed
  • Terrists
The comment appeared under a flag on Metafilter pointing at a FastCo piece on the latest convenience startup. A couple of ex-Googlistas, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, are trying to launch a series of teched-up retail boxes called Bodega which will spring up at a location near you. Bodega will sell a short range of essentials and undercut the Mom-and-Pop store on the corner. Real convenience stores have a longer inventory and overheads like people-who-say-hello and will hold a UPS parcel for you. Bodega intends to cherry-pick the fly-off-the-shelves items and leave the competition high and dry. Retail is a dog-eat-dog world where the whole enterprise is predicated on a race to the bottom on cost. When I first knew them, Pat the Salt and his late and much lamented wife, my in-laws, ran a grocery in a village in the middle of County Kilkenny. Not a hamlet but a long way from a town also. That distance, demographic and geographic, meant that 700 inhabitants, with maybe 700 farming families for a hinterland, were supported by a national school,  two churches [RC and CoI], a creamery, an expensive petrol-station, 7 pubs and 7 shops.

It was pretty harsh.  In order to differentiate themselves from the competition, they started baking a big ham each weekend and selling it in slices through the week. It was an instant success, everyone came to try it out and and all resolved never to turn vegetarian. But it didn't do enough for the bottom line because the clients would buy their few slices of ham and then duck round the corner to get their tea, sugar, butter, milk, bread and baked beans from Mrs Doohickey who know their mother really well and had run her shop forever. After several years on the downward slope they sold up and tried something else. The Garda Sergeant's wife, who had an account, owed them a huge amount of money which she had no intention of ever paying . .. the trollop. Google maps suggests the premises are now a chipper: sic transit gloria hami.

To honour of the rapacious enterprise of McDonald and Rajan, I note that today is Talk Like A Pirate Day. All aboard the SS Amazon, me hearties.

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