The Useless Parcel Service

Updated August 11, 2016: See new comments at the end.


One thing that being an Amazon Prime member teaches you is how good the various shipping companies are at getting packages delivered to the right place, at the right time. Amazon uses pretty much all the options, including, recently, their own Amazon Logistics delivery vans. From all those deliveries, the ones that regularly arrive late, or not at all, are the ones carried by UPS. Amazon Logistics and OnTrac are always on time or even early (often next day instead of two days).

In the last month, we’ve placed 8 Amazon orders. Two shipped by USPS (arrived one day early), two UPS (both late), and the other four came with Amazon Logistics (two early, two on time).

Second Day Air

The first late delivery was ordered using the Prime 2 day delivery. On a Wednesday morning. Normally, that would mean delivery by Friday. But in the world of UPS second day air, it meant Monday. And late Monday too (almost up to the 8pm deadline). That, but my calculation, is 5 days after the order. They dispute this by claiming they don’t count weekend days. Well I do, and so do their competitors who happily deliver Saturday & Sunday. 

Here’s the rub though, early on Sunday morning I ordered another item from Amazon, using prime 2 day shipping. It was delivered early on Monday morning. One day early and several hours before the order from the previous Wednesday. But it was delivered by Amazon Logistics, who apparently can not only move packages over the weekend, but deliver early when they can. Even the regular postal service delivers over the weekend, Sunday included. In fact, many of my Amazon two day orders arrive on Sunday via USPS. But not UPS. 

Next Day Guaranteed

Last night I needed a micro USB to USB C adapter quickly. I ordered them & paid extra for the next day delivery upgrade (still cheaper than buying one from a Target or Best Buy, but the shipping was almost as much as the adapters). Today at lunch time I received an alert from Amazon that my delivery had been delayed: 

So, somehow UPS managed to send the package to the wrong place, but South San Francisco isn’t far away. And that notice still suggests it might arrive today. Their own website seems less confident, but still not definitive that the package won’t make it on time:


At least I ordered mid-week too. Otherwise that one day delay might be a three day delay. 

Given that I’d not received any updates by 5pm, I sent an email asking whether there was any chance of it being delivered today (the website was still vague at best). Here’s the reply I received:


Not only is the package going to miss the guaranteed delivery time, they don’t even seem to know when it will be delivered. How can that be? Surely, the correct answer should be first thing the next morning? Even without the special Express handling option, UPS has an option for guaranteed before 9:30am delivery (Next Day Early). And that works from a lot further away than South SF. It should have been simple to guarantee delivery by 9:30am if they cared. 

A smart organization, when they make a mistake like this, would upgrade the package to the fastest possible option. But not UPS. I called the number Amazon support sent me to get better tracking information & the only thing the person who answered could say was it would arrive by 8pm tomorrow. A whole 24 hours late. She showed absolutely no concern for the fact that I had paid extra for next day shipping for a reason. Like I needed it today; not tomorrow. 

Mistakes Happen

I understand mistakes happen (although I kind of assumed the package sorting would be an automated process, at least near an Amazon distribution facility). What really counts is how the organization handles it. UPS had two options:

  1. Promise delivery before 9:30am the next day (and keep that promise);
  2. Show zero concern for missing the delivery deadline, and not even provide an updated delivery guarantee. 

The first is good customer care, and should be the standard policy in cases where the mistake is clearly internal as it was in this case. The second treats customers as if they don’t matter. UPS went with option 2. 

Update 1 (August 11, 2016)

I had the chance to talk to a very nice lady from UPS’ Customer Relations department at HQ this morning, and go over some of the concerns I raised here. As I noted above, UPS feels the earlier 2-day package was delivered on time (and it did arrive on the day they said it would). My main concern there is that if Amazon continues to ship packages using UPS at the end of the week, the 2 day prime shipping becomes 4-5 day shipping. Even more so, since not only do they not deliver on the weekend (unless the special Saturday option was selected when the shipment was sent), they also don’t even move the package towards its destination. Essentially, it freezes on Friday night and doesn’t move again until Monday morning.

The second issue, with the next day package turns out to be partly Amazon’s fault. It seems they decided that the ground transit time from their Las Vegas distribution center to here was short enough that they could ship it using UPS ground rather than a guaranteed next day service. When I suggested that having made an error like this, it would be a smart move for UPS to expedite the package and minimize the delay; the response to that was that it wouldn’t make business sense (and that it would also be potentially complex to determine which packages needed to be expedited, though I don’t buy that at all since it was possible to send me the alert when the mistake was detected). Given that Amazon chose ground shipping for a premium rate next day delivery though, at least part of the blame lies with them. (They did refund the shipping costs, but I would have preferred the items on time so I wasn’t rushing to complete things before traveling). I suspect there is an API somewhere which the Amazon brain connects into and queries the expected delivery time using all options and then picks the cheapest.

TriNet Experiences

It has been just over a year now that we have had TriNet as our HR service at work, and my opinion of them gets worse & worse with each interaction. There are definitely a few bright points, but still my overall advice for any small company thinking about using them would be simply, don’t. That is from an employee perspective of course, but hopefully when choosing something like this the employee experience is an important element too.

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Self Driving Cars

A while back it occurred to me that when my kids reach driving age, I might not have to teach them to drive because we might all be using self driving cars. There are very obvious benefits to that, not least of which is the improvement in safety. Too many people die in car accidents each year, and many of them are teens. Reducing those numbers would be a big step forward.

The flip side though is that while driving to & from work in heavy traffic is no fun at all, driving a roadster around a winding road, with the wind in your hair is an exhilarating experience that no self-driving car will ever be able to replace. In fact, I doubt we will even see self-driving roadsters. Most of the self driving vehicles I’ve seen so far have been more practical vehicle styles (with the possible exception of that Google one, which is just odd IMHO). My current car, while being a pretty long way from practical, puts a smile on my face every time I drive it on an open road (which is not often enough – it does around 2,000 miles a year max these days).

Extending that thought though, what happens to the premium super car companies? Does anybody believe there is a market for self driving Ferraris, Porsches or Lamborghinis? Will cars just become practical vehicles for getting from A to B?

While I suspect teaching either of kids to drive would be traumatic, part of me will be a little sad if my generation is the last one that learns to drive a car.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Episode VII of the Star Wars franchise is something few can have missed the hype & merchandising for, at least here in the US. That aside, the movie gets a solid thumbs up from me. My one line summary would be that this is episode IV for a new generation of fans. 

Spoilers after the jump though, so if you’re still trying to be surprised, don’t click through.

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Guns? Really?

I’ve seen a number of articles suggesting that the problem with gun control in the US is that, while a majority of people support better background checks at time of purchase, congress is so worried about the loss of NRA funds that they refuse to pass any real laws that might restrict gun ownership. One of the best articles I’ve read, entitled “We’re Just Haggling Over Price“, suggests 90% of Americans support the enhanced checks, and that the changes would only delay purchasing by a few minutes.

While some may consider it to be a step in the right direction; I don’t. I’m sorry, but a law like that would be just another lame compromise, a bit like the Affordable Care Act was a massive compromise. Of course, the difference between the two was that the ACA was passed, but gun control laws fail every time they are proposed, no matter how many people are killed.

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Looking Back

This must be one of those moments in time when Twitter is reminding me of events long gone. The buildings I worked in during my gap year & for the first summer break while at university was the first trip down memory lane. Now I am reminded about graduation by seeing all the photos of this year’s Kent graduates at Canterbury Cathedral.

For me, that trip was 22 years ago. It doesn’t seem that long, or at least it didn’t until I started thinking about what has changed since then. Graduating in a building with the history & grandeur of Canterbury Cathedral is quite an experience. Especially when the university itself is very young (established in 1965, so only a few years older than I am). That experience, I’m sure, hasn’t changed. Nor will the excitement of dressing up in robes and finally being admitted to the degree that has been the focus of a few years of their lives. (And, perhaps, some will have the opportunity to make unwitting tourists believe students wear the robes every day, or to have a swift pint with friends while dressed in them, like we did.) But plenty has changed.

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First Job

This tweet from @robleathern that I saw in my feed this afternoon got me thinking about the buildings where my first job was located.

So, I thought I’d try to find out what the building was used for today, and even see if I could get a photo. That actually proved difficult, even though the buildings it was part of are in fact pretty historic having been the place where a number of very significant inventions were created.

I started as a trainee in the year between graduating from secondary school and before starting at university. For that year, I was to be working at Thorn EMI in Hayes, Middlesex. The first six months were in the training department, located in Vulcan House, the remainder of the year we were split into different divisions of the company, but my assignment was to Radar Division, based in the nextdoor building, Mercury House, in Hayes.

This is the best photo I can find online for the entire site:

Thorn EMI, Hayes

If you look in the lower left corner of the highlighted area, the thin building right on the boundary is Mercury House; the larger, square footprint building next to it is Vulcan House.

Right now it looks as though they either have been, or are being, converted into something called the Old Vinyl Factory, but several pictures I found online seem to suggest that both of these two are somewhat derelict now (Thorn EMI moved out of the site in the early 1990s, and we were relocated to a site in Crawley that is still in use today, although under different ownership).

I mentioned that they were somewhat historic. Before WW2, the buildings were on the cutting edge of audio recording technology. Alan Blumlein, the inventor of stereo sound recording, worked in these buildings, and the very first movie with stereo sound was shot from one of them, looking down at the railway lines alongside the site (which were still there while I was there, but no longer with steam trains!). The buildings were also home to a lot of the early development work on television, with Blumlein listed as an inventor on several TV-related patents. Pretty significant stuff, but perhaps the more significant work was still to come.

As Europe was embroiled in war, the same people shifted their focus to other technology, including the development of radar, which was so critical in the defence of the UK. Blumlein was a key developer in the top secret airborne H2S Radar system project. Sadly, he was killed in a plane crash while testing the radar in 1942; just imagine what we could have achieved otherwise. At the time, some thought the H2S project would fail without him, but it survived (and in fact was still in active use as recently as 1993). Additionally, some of his early radar-related inventions are still in use in modern radar systems.

Alameda Municipal Power Mix

We had a visit from an AMP employee/representative the other day trying to get us to sign up for their Alameda Green, 100% renewable source electricity program. That is something I have been meaning to look into for a while, and I might have signed up on the spot had it not been for one thing that seemed fishy: suddenly they are saying that the power mix for the ‘regular’ electricity is only 22% renewable, when I remember the power labels mailed in the bills showing that as being much higher.

A little digging and I found one of those power mix labels for 2012 in the AMP Flash PDF on their own website. Here’s the label if you don’t want to open the PDF:

Alameda Municipal Power Mix Label 2012

So, that clearly states it is “actual” and shows eligible renewable as 60%, and another 15% coming from large hydroelectric. Then there is the 25% from unspecified sources (most of which I suspect are non-renewable!).

Suddenly, in 2013, the eligible renewable drops from 60% to 22% (from this label) and unspecified sources jumps to 63%. That meant that the guy who knocked on our door was able to say that the regular program is just 22% renewable, but the green label program is 100%. Looking carefully at the 2013 label, at the very bottom there is this statement:

While AMP’s power mix exceeds California’s requirements for clean power, it has dropped due to the short-term sale of a portion of the utility’s excess renewable energy. AMP continues to own the same generation resources and, after 2016, the utility will return to providing a high level of renewable energy to customers. Even better, overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be lower after 2016 due to the projects paid for by the short-term sale of some of AMP’s excess renewable energy.

So, they sold off the “excess” renewable energy, and bought “unspecified” power back, thereby lowering the eligible renewable mix of the main product. The cynic in me might wonder whether that decision was to make the green label product look more attractive (after all, going from 75% to 100% carbon neutral is a lot less impressive than going from 37% to 100%). And after a couple of years of signing people up, the regular power mix returns to its very green levels (75% carbon neutral is much higher than the overall state average of just 23% in 2012).

This kind of “marketing” is what made me pause at the weekend. And now is giving me real pause for thought on the whole thing.

Meet Alexa, Amazon’s Assistant

I was lucky enough to get an invite for an Amazon Echo device, which arrived earlier today. Here are my initial impressions, after just a few hours playing with the device.

Setup

Surprisingly straightforward for a Wi-Fi device with only two buttons and no display. Out of the box, the Echo beacons out an open Wi-Fi network. Connect your phone to that when prompted by their setup website & follow the instructions. In moments it was on the Wi-Fi & the open network was gone (you do need your Wi-Fi password of course). 

Voice Recognition

At the end of the setup there are some example commands to try. Unlike Apple’s Siri, Alexa (the name of the assistant inside the Echo, or, rather inside the cloud app behind it) really does understand what you say. Even from across the room.

With no other user interface to speak of, Alexa really does succeed or fail on the strength of her ability to recognize voice commands. So far, she beats Siri hands down, and I think even beats Google’s Android voice recognition (which is already very good).

Functions

So far, my favourite function is the voice command access to Amazon Prime Music. “Alexa, play …” Has played the named artist, or album or playlist with only one failure, and not a recognition failure even then: the music was not uploaded into my Amazon Music account & apparently the artist is not available on Prime Music.

The weather and the Wikipedia lookups have been big hits with my three year old, but I can see the shopping and to do lists being more useful over time. As more features are added, I can see it being even more useful, especially integrations into home control systems or the ability to voice text through my connected smartphone without even lifting a finger. Things I haven’t tried yet include the news briefing and the alarms and timers.

Initial Conclusion  

For an initial version, Alexa already has a lot of things she understands (including a great response to a classic science fiction line). The beauty of the cloud app model, as I well know from Devicescape’s cloud based amenity Wi-Fi authentication capability, is that you can add features in the cloud & not even need to worry about pushing firmware updates. Since she is on my home network, the potential for her to become the voice command gateway for the home is huge. Just imagine “Alexa, dim the lights” or “Alexa, make it warmer in here.”