Wherein random things are delivered to our house, daily, from China

A few weeks ago I noticed an advert on A Softer World that looked like this:

Box Bot Banner

If there was ever an ad crafted to attract my attention, it was that: the “interesting” caught my eye, the “$1/Day” pulled me in, the tiny graphics sealed the deal.

So I clicked, and ended up at the Box Bot which describes itself like this:

Bobcat In A Box is an automated program (or a “bot”) that sends you lots of little packages, bought from eBay and other sites across the internet with free shipping. It buys you at least one package every day. You can give the bot instructions as to what sort of packages you want, for example to only buy beads or postcards or anime items, or you can have it buy completely random packages and let the bot surprise you!

Right. Up. My. Alley.

How could I not sign up?

So I did. In Catherine’s name, as she’s a art practice that can profit from a random scatterling of interesting ephemera. I specified the keywords “fabric, wool, knitting, fibre, postcards, flags.”

And, yesterday, the first package arrived. From China. Four pieces of fabric, nicely swaddled in cellophane wrap.

First Box Bot Delivery

“How is this possible?” is the first question that comes to mind: it’s hard to conceive of what economic model allows the cost of the product, the labour to assemble and ship it, and the shipping costs to come to less than $1 and still leave room for profit. The Box Bot FAQ addresses this unsatisfyingly:

How do the merchants make money on $1 items with free shipping?

The short answer is that I don’t know. For many of the items, merchants are certainly selling at a loss. But there are lots of sellers, on eBay and other online platforms, who keep offering items for next to nothing with free shipping….so the bot will keep buying them! As most of the items are shipped from Asia, many of the merchants pay several dollars for “free shipping”. A good number of the items bought by the bot will have “Shipping: $5” or something similar printed on the custom form! Even though the cost to ship is several times the winning bid, merchants fulfill the order and ship the items the bot buys. Perhaps they have a discounted shipping deal that makes it worthwhile. It is something of a mystery as to why they offer the items for such low prices on eBay, as it is easy to set a reserve price or start the auction at a higher bid. Perhaps the merchants ship these small items to boost their feedback scores or hope that they will be bundled with other purchases.

So the “how” remains a mystery. But it works. And I can’t wait to see what comes next

L.L. Bean Jacket 3.0

Longtime readers will recall that 4 years ago I related the story of how L.L. Bean exchanged my 5 year old winter jacket with a broken zipper for a brand new winter jacket (and an $86 windfall).

That replacement jacket served me well: it had an almost-idea combination of multiple pockets, warmth and longevity that I hoped it would be my winter jacket forever.

That was until it started to experience zipper problems of its own last month: gradually worsening over time, the zipper stopped zipping up effectively, so that I’d find myself walking in -30ºC weather and my zipper would suddenly zip open. By last week I was batting  25% on a successful zip-up, spending 3 or 4 minutes every time I wanted to go outside trying to find the magic trick that would make the zipper stick.

As it happened, I was in New England last week again, driving right by the selfsame L.L. Bean Wayside Commons. In anticipation I returned again to the 100% Guarantee page on the L.L. Bean website and found the committment stands:

Our products are guaranteed to give 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise. We do not want you to have anything from L.L.Bean that is not completely satisfactory.

So on Friday afternoon, en route from Yankee Publishing to Boston Logan Airport, I took exit 33A from Rte. 128 north and found myself, 4 years later, again looking to exchange my L.L. Bean winter jacket.

Much has changed, it seems, in the world of winter jackets since 2011: puffy down-filled jackets are in, and ones like my trusty Bigelow are not. So it took a lot of sorting through the jacket stock to find something that would suit.

Ironically, I ended up with the same coat, the Weather Challenger, that I started with almost a decade ago. It retails for $199 these days, and my Bigelow originally retailed for $149, so I ended up with a new jacket for $50.

At no point in the exchange process was I made to feel as if I was doing anything unusual, leading me to be believe that not only does L.L. Bean stand behind its products, but that they communicate this to their employees to the extent that everyone internalizes it.

So a tip of the hat to L.L. Bean and the friendly staff at Wayside Commons: I’m warm and well-zippered yet again.

How's the electricity out there?

I’ve been archiving Prince Edward Island electricity load and generation data for more than 2 years now, but to date the only way of visualizing that data was a confusing graph. A graph that loads really slowly – or not at all – on mobile devices. And so I found my “peripheral aggregate electricity awareness” sinking.

So in an effort to scratch this itch, I coded up a small single-purpose mobile-friendly website yesterday, http://pei.consuming.ca/, that looks like this:

Screen shot of pei.consuming.ca

The website tells you three things: what the total electricity load on Prince Edward Island is right now (“how much electricity we’re all using”), how much of that load is being met by wind-energy generation, and what percentage of the load the wind represents.

In the screen shot above, taken this morning at 8:30 a.m., the load is high at 232 MW (peak load on PEI is 268 MW) and only a small fraction of that load, 11 MW or 5%, is being met by the wind (the remainder is coming from local fossil fuel generation and over the submarine cable from New Brunswick). Both the load and the wind were lower than the last report, which is why the light grey arrows are both point downward.

You should be able to load up http://pei.consuming.ca/ in any relatively modern mobile or desktop browser: the chart is drawn with jCanvas and the site uses the jQuery Mobile framework.

Consumption 2014

Here’s a summary of all of our metered consumption for 2014. The electricity, heating oil (furnace, domestic hot water) and water are for the 2048 square foot house that Catherine, Oliver and I live in. The gasoline is for our 2000 Jetta and various rental cars. What isn’t included is gasoline used for business, or consumption in my office or Catherine’s studio.

Energy Supplier Consumption Cost
Electricity Maritime Electric 5,518 kWh $1,117.69
Heating Oil Coop Energy 3,710 litres $4,344.10
Gasoline Various Unknown $868.77
Water Charlottetown Water & Sewer 128,000 litres $408.73

Compiling this information was easy, as all of our bills are now sent electronically, and so I have them archived in Evernote (gasoline was the exception: I had to hunt through my MasterCard bills for gasoline purchases).

Alex B. Campbell 2.0

About a month ago I received an invitation, under the aegis of my role as Hacker in Residence, Robertson Library, to a meeting in the library with the team working on publishing the ebook and audiobooks versions of author H. Wade MacLauchlan’s biography Alex B. Campbell: The Prince Edward Island Premier Who Rocked The Cradle. While the printed book was published by the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation, the library had taken on the digital publishing task, with the proceeds from digital sales generously directed towards the library’s digitization program.

By the time I joined the effort all of the heavy lifting of the digital project – recording the audiobook, preparing the EPUB, and building a website to sell them – was done, and so my contributions consisted primarily of making pithy comments like “why are you charging in the first place, man: information wants to be free.”

Okay, I didn’t actually say that. At least I didn’t say it like that.

But my arguments fell on deaf ears and the capitalist impulse, or at least the enlightened capitalist impulse, won the day, and so I latched onto a tiny offshoot of the project: getting the digital books into the various proprietary platforms – Google Play Books, iBooks, Kindle, Audible – where they might attract a broader audience.

So I started the project being a defender of information’s right to be free and then became one of its jailers. Irony noted.

What has followed, over the past month, has been a fascinating deep dive into the arcane world of digital publishing: EPUB formats, metadata, bank accounts, asserting rights ownership. The whole exercise nearly came crashing to a halt when the intractable finance department at UPEI refused to allow its bank account to be the repository for funds from Apple et al. But I was able to route around all intractability, institutional and technical, and so I am happy to say that you can now purchase the Alex Campbell biography at fine digital stores everywhere, worldwide:

On the Kindle and Google Play what you’ll purchase is a handcrafted EPUB that I stitched together from an InDesign HTML export; this is a “reflowable” EPUB, with endnote references linked to the endnotes, that works equally well on phones, tablets and on the desktop. The Apple version is a straight non-reflowable EPUB that came right out of InDesign; I’m working on upgrading this to a more flexible format.

As to the audiobook, that’s the next frontier: what I discovered is that Audible.com own the audiobook marketplace, at least in North America: if you want your audiobook on Audible, iTunes and Google Play, you need to get the book on Audible, and to get on Audible requires a U.S. address, a U.S. bank account, and following some strict audio format guidelines.  I’ve cracked the address and banking questions; the audio formatting will get underway next week.

In the meantime, you can purchase the audiobooks – and, indeed, the ebook – directly from the library, where the library keeps 100% of proceeds rather than the crumbs that the multinationals pass on: just visit AlexBCampbell.com.