Why are babies so rubbish?

Inglesina 3-in-1 stroller without the chassis

Inglesina 3-in-1 stroller without the chassis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not like babies are new. They’ve been around for a very long time. It seems to me that whilst other creatures were busy evolving the ability to be born walking or swimming, we hardly evolved at all. Slightly less hairy perhaps with a larger brain cavity, but still utterly unable to communicate or move under our own power at birth.

We’re not even very good at producing them in the first place. If childbirth gets a bit difficult, we reach for a vacuüm as if we’re trying to remove a stubborn bit of fluff from the carpet. Or we reach for a pair of tongs that look like something Herr Flick would use at weekends. Failing that, we slice the unfortunate mother from stem to stern to deliver the baby through the sunroof.

But childbirth looks like the pinnacle of human achievement compared to the progress we’ve made on baby accessories. We don’t have children ourselves, but we spend enough time with young relatives to know our way round a car seat or a pushchair. Why are they so poorly designed?

The wheels on supermarket trolleys are universally derided for being unpredictable at the best of times, so who on earth came up with the idea of basing the front wheels of pushchairs on the same design? Who thought it would be a good idea to have a separate brake for each of the rear wheels? The whole point of having brakes is that you want the thing to stay in one place; not in fact to slowly pivot around the locked wheel.

If the people who made my car can design seats that fold in a zillion different utterly intuitive ways, why do manufacturers come up with such unfathomably enigmatic ways to fold pushchairs? Whoever designs pushchairs should have to test them themselves under simulated real life conditions. First of all, they should have to fold and unfold them in the rain. Then they should have to do it one-handed whilst holding something loud, heavy and wriggling, like a bag of cats maybe. Then they need to repeat the test laden with shopping.

There are many hostile environments in the world, but few can compare to the rigours a baby seat has to go through. Even the nicest design will look disgusting after exposure to a child. You will want to clean it, which means removing the cover. This will prove impossible without putting your fingers into every single nook and cranny. Pray that you put your fingers into something hard and dry. Unfortunately, you are likely to put your fingers into something soft, wet and gooey and pray that it’s undigested.

The ideal baby accessory should be easy to get out, easy to put down and completely jet washable, not unlike the perfect baby.


Kiosks – haven’t they got them just right?


barcode (Photo credit: Status Frustration)

I’m in a bit of a hurry. I only have a few items to buy, but when I round the corner, my heart sinks. There’s a big queue for the only cashier in the shop. I look over in the corner at the dreaded self-service machines. They all stand empty and there’s a member of staff standing near them. Oh no! She’s seen me. She’s going to come over and ask me to use the kiosks. I can’t refuse. I don’t want to look cowardly in front of this shop full of complete strangers. I grudgingly follow her over to the kiosk. A big green button flashes in front of me. Press here to start. I take a deep breath and hit it.

It takes a while to find the first barcode, during which time, the machine insists on blaring out to tell me to scan the barcode, so people start looking over. Eventually I find it and to my amazement, it scans first time. “Place the item in the bagging area“. I press the button to indicate that I don’t want to bag the item. “Place the item in the bagging area.” I hit it again, and once again, the voice repeats the instruction. With a sigh, I give up and reluctantly place the item in the bagging area. Thank God, the machine shuts up.

I scan the next item. It goes through first time and I place the item in the bagging area. Fantastic – I’m getting the hang of this now. I scan the third item. It won’t scan. I try again. Nothing. Third time lucky… no. The machine advises me to seek assistance. I look around for the lady who’s supposed to be supervising these damned kiosks – she’s not there! So I stand there, helpless, like a lemon waiting for her to return. I look forlornly at the checkout queue. I work out that I probably would have been served by now if I’d stuck to my guns and remained in the queue.

What is the point of a technical advance if it doesn’t make people’s lives better? This device makes the whole shopping experience worse, not better. But there again, I suppose that’s not the point. It’s there so that the miserly shop can get rid of some staff and save some money. But it deprives me of swift and courteous service. No smile or greeting. The efficiency of my entire shopping experience goes up in smoke, all to do someone out of a job.

If you’re going to put in kiosks, they should give you a better customer experience. ATM machines are not perfect, but they mean that I don’t have to queue up in a bank and I can get my money when the bank is closed. Check-in kiosks at the airport mean that I don’t have to queue up to get my boarding pass. Self service checkout kiosks just make me mad.

You never know what you might find…

Cover of "Indiana Jones and the Raiders o...

Cover via Amazon

There can’t be too many people in the world who haven’t seen the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a lot to like about it. It’s one of my favourite films of all time. One of the best scenes, if not a little depressing, is the scene at the end where the US government locks away the precious Ark of the Covenant in a warehouse along with many other treasures and antiquities.

It’s depressing because I can imagine some misguided government doing that just to keep the status quo. I mean the last thing that any government wants is radical change and the moral and ethical questions around a hotline to the supreme being are enough to make any politician’s toes curl. The warehouse reminds me of something else, however, my favourite book store.

When I go into a high street book store, I tend to follow exactly the same pattern every time. I’ll go and have a look at the Science Fiction section and then I naturally progress to the Fantasy section as it’s usually right next door. I always take a gander at the graphic novels, just in case there’s anything there that tickles my fancy. Because of my profession, I have a little look at the computer section and the books that tell you how to be a good manager.

Because of my routine, I am seldom surprised, and it’s rare that I buy anything. I’ve read pretty much everything I want to read in those sections and the pace at which new books are published means that I have many fruitless visits to the book store.

My favourite bookstore, however, is totally different. It is just like the Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse – a massive building containing many fine treasures. Why do I like it so much? Anyone with OCD who entered the building would have a nightmare as if there is any kind of organisation of the books inside, I certainly don’t know the rules of what goes where.

But it is precisely this disorganised nature of storing books that I like, because I can’t just go to the sections I like. I’m forced to browse through books I wouldn’t even dream of looking at normally. Of course, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a princess, but I nearly always come away with some books to read, unlike when I visit the high street book stores. Not only that, but the books are heavily discounted too.

The name of this house of treasures is “Books 66” and if you have one nearby, it’s well worth a visit.

Going, going, gone!

Image representing eBay as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

To anyone with an interest in the eclectic, eBay is a dream come true. You can find just about anything you want for a price. It brings together buyers and sellers in a way that no other eCommerce site does. I’ve bought and sold everything from cars to complete tat. eBay is particularly good for commodity goods such as razor blades, batteries and light bulbs.

Since the acquisition of PayPal, the whole process of buying or selling is simplicity itself. Now that postage labels can be bought and printed, the despatch of items is easy too. It’s no wonder that so many home based businesses use eBay as their main sales medium.

Your item will live or die based on the description and photos you post. A key part of the description is laying down the rules of your particular auction. Will you end the auction early or do you want to allow overseas buyers for example. There are also rules that eBay lay down and it is amazing how many people are happy to break all these rules.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve stated no overseas bidders, mainly because of the palaver of working out the postage. On items like these, I’ve had winning bidders from all over the world. Nowadays, there’s no need because of the ability to print labels for every country.

I’ve had phone calls from people desperately trying to get me to end auctions early. I’ve had buyers and sellers who want to carry out the deal outside of eBay to avoid the commission (despite availing themselves of eBay’s facilities). I always specify payment by PayPal only, but loads of people try it on to avoid the fees. I always stand my ground and insist on PayPal because it’s the only way to be reasonably sure you’ve got your money.

The rating system means there is transparency about the track record of whoever you’re dealing with and the whole experience is super-slick. Like Amazon, eBay has been honed to be a razor-sharp eCommerce site and despite the niggles about buyers and sellers that break the rules, it is a near perfect website.

Sometimes when I’m bored, I find myself browsing the eBay motors section which is a very dangerous activity. Every so often, you spot something shiny that has no place in your life and is far too expensive for a toy, but it’s nice to dream none the less.

Quick – play some “hurry-up” music


Bluewater (Photo credit: Rictor Norton & David Allen)

Bluewater park is a massive cathedral to consumerism in the South-East of the UK with over 330 retailers under its considerable roof. According to their website, the average visitor spends about 3 hours there and 98% of visitors say that they enjoyed their visit. I would be among the 2% who didn’t, because 3 hours in a shopping mall sounds like my idea of hell. To me, shopping is an activity involving precision; I need something, so I go directly to the shop that sells those things and buy the first example that fits my requirements.

One of the most interesting projects I ever worked on, however was the building management system for Bluewater. Bearing in mind that it opened in 1999, their requirements were surprisingly sophisticated. They wanted an intelligent system that combined both audio and olfactory zones within Bluewater so that they could play different sounds and emit different smells in different parts of the building.

Accompanying the tender was a study by some foreign scientist (whose nationality and name escapes me) which explained the rationale behind their complex requirements. This scientist had conducted a study and worked out that human behaviour could be manipulated by sounds and smells. If you played a certain kind of music, people would hurry up. If you played different music, they slowed down.


Bluewater (Photo credit: Rictor Norton & David Allen)

I was skeptical but there was even “come hither” music that made people more likely to head in a certain direction. The key phrase here is “more likely”. The music didn’t turn everyone into bumbling automatons, it increased the number of people moving in a certain direction by something like 50%. The smells worked in the same way. Shops that paid more would get the come hither music and smell. I’m not sure if they had “go away” smell for shops that didn’t pay their rent, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Like most large buildings, Bluewater was split into zones. If there was an evacuation alarm, then to avoid panic, the alarm would go off in the zone containing the threat. In the adjacent zones, depending on how close they were to the epicentre, would either have “get the hell out of dodge” music or “would you mind getting a move on” music, whereas a bit further on, there would be “don’t you worry about it” music.

I wish I’d paid a bit more attention. When my wife is taking a long time to get ready – I could play “hurry up” music and when I want to stay in the pub and she wants to go home, I could play “just chill out and relax” music.

English: Interior of Bluewater Shopping Mall

English: Interior of Bluewater Shopping Mall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have no idea how much of the spec’ made it into the final building management system because we didn’t win the bid, but I would love to hear from someone in the know. I would also like to hear from shoppers who have visited Bluewater. Have you noticed the music in different zones and have you ever been enticed into a shop by a lovely smell ?