Amazon: Relentless efficiency in a very large place


I went on a tour of an Amazon “Fulfillment Center” today. That’s a million+ square foot building where Amazon assembles and ships orders.

The Amazon Fulfillment Center is a massive operation, both in size and complexity. Trucks bearing goods from manufacturers are unloaded, the contents categorized and placed in inventory, the location and status of each item is tracked, customer orders are picked, assembled and shipped constantly in a carefully constructed ballet of smoothly coordinated functions.  There are such centers all over the country, and each new one that is constructed builds on what has been learned before. Systems, methods, machinery, and policies or constantly reevaluated and modified to both improve the operation and correct shortcomings. As you go through the Amazon facility, you see hundreds of clever and unexpected tweaks, subsystems, and subroutines that have been developed over time to increase the efficiency and workability of the system. For instance, since the beginning of time, warehouses have been organized by placing objects in categories so they can be located easily. Each cubbyhole (a small segment of shelf space separated by a divider) on the stock shelves of a book warehouse, for instance, would have copies of a single book by category, author name, or file number. A warehouse stocking different products, such as Amazon, would have sections devoted to electronics, household products, clothing, etc, similar to a Sam’s Club. All nice and need and traditional.


But Amazon does it completely differently. If you walk among the inventory shelves in an Amazon fulfillment center, you are shocked to find that the shelves are not organized by any visible system. A cubbyhole  might contain a book, along with a box of baby food, a portable radio, a pair of gloves and a stuffed toy. The place looks like the world’s biggest attic. How can they possible find anything in the chaos? The answer is simple: scanners, bar codes and computers. Amazon realized the the main reason for inventory location by item type was to enable finding the item when needed, but why not let technology do the work? Each item has a bar code and each cubby hole has one as well, so once the item is stocked, the computer knows exactly where it is regardless of what is around it. When an order comes in, the computer finds the picker closest and sends him the item description and its location on the shelves. The item is picked, scanned, and placed in a yellow plastic tub that also has a bar  code. Once the tub is full, it is placed on a conveyor belt to an order assembly area, then to packaging, then to shipping. Along the way, the package is automatically weighed and compared against the expected weight of the items ordered to catch errors in order fulfillment. When items are restocked, the stocker places them on any available open space, then records the location by scanning the bar code on the shelf cubby and the item. The computer will know where to find it when it is ordered.


This system is more efficient than carefully placing items by category, and has other advantages. Multiple identical items wind up scattered all over, but this makes it less likely there will be a bottleneck for more popular items sought by multiple pickers simultaneously. The random stocking makes a more efficient use of shelf space, with less of it sitting empty awaiting replenishment of a specific item. The computer will even prevent you from placing items that are identical, but of different colors in the same or adjacent cubbyholes, to avoid possible confusion when the picker needs them. Of course, the work is repetitive and can be stressful due to pressure to keep up the demanded pace. If you don’t meet the work standards, you could be in trouble.

The computer knows that as well.



Saving the Earth on someone else’s dime

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but everyone talks about “saving the Earth” and “going green”, but all too often their actions entail obligations or expense for everyone else. They take the bows while you pay the bills.

Case in point: Many businesses crow about how they are “going paperless” to save the planet. Well, that’s nice, but it often means that they will no longer send you a statement of your account or your transactions except by email. So if you need a paper copy for your records, you have to use your paper and your printer to do so. They get the credit for “going green” and you get the extra expense and trouble. Of course, you don’t have to have a paper record. You can trust your vital information to their electronic files and hope that a hard drive crash, hacker, or power failure doesn’t destroy then, but not everyone’s level of trust is that high.

Or how about this: My wife recently bought several shirts as an early Christmas present at a well-known retail chain store. Since it was a present, she asked for a box, a practice that has been routine for years.

“We don’t provide boxes anymore,” she was told. “We’re 100% green.”

So unless people start giving gifts in paper bags, they will have to provide their own boxes. The customer gets the expense, the store gets to crow and feel self-righteous about saving the Earth, and the total number of cardboard boxes in the world remains unchanged.

By the way, each shirt was packaged in plastic with cardboard backing, tissue paper and steel pins. That seems like a bit less than 100% green.

The wetter side of the Civil War

Last night I gave a talk about the Union Blockade of southern ports to a Civil War group in Delaware (Based on my book NASSAU, which was inspired by the ruins of the Royal Victoria Hotel we saw in Nassau on a vacation years ago). I expected this group to be unusually well informed in such matters, and they were. One even showed up with pages of information he had researched in preparation, so I was a little apprehensive that I would say something that would have them rolling their eyes and snickering. I had visions of someone saying “The average water depth outside Fort Sumpter was 18 feet, not 17!” or “The Blockade declaration was on a Tuesday, not a Wednesday!” or maybe “Admiral DuPont wasn’t 41 when the war broke out because his birthday wasn’t until August!”
But everyone was polite and interested. No one jumped to his or her feet with an outraged correction, and the questions were thoughtful, and, shall we say, occasionally challenging. Samples.
“How long did it take to build a Blockade Runner at the shipyards in Glasgow?” (My answer: I don’t know.)
“Did the Blockade Runners ever fire back at the Blockaders?” (My answer: Not unless they were suicidal.)
“Are the Royal Victoria Hotel ruins still standing in Nassau?” (This one I knew! My answer: Nope. The Bahamas Government tore it down to build a parking lot for the Ministry of Health. In the Bahamas, apparently, if it’s not about pirates, it’s not history.)
Anyway, it was a great time with some very informed folks.
I guess the moral to the story is that you can always tell a Civil War buff, but you can’t tell him much he doesn’t already know!blockade-runners

Not so wrathful grapes

The 1930s were not a happy time. In the U.S. the Great Depression had the nation in its grip and one of the worst places was on the great plains around Oklahoma. A prolonged drought, coupled with high winds and a faltering economy turned a productive farming area into a “dust bowl” of dust storms and dead crops. Things were so bad that many farmers, especially tenant farmers in Oklahoma had to pull up stakes and move everything they owned to California for a chance at a new start. The roads to California were busy with lines of chugging, heavily loaded cars carrying poor farmers and their worldly goods westward. A powerful movie about the events,  The Grapes of Wrath, _Based on the John Steinbeck book) came out in 1939 and became a classic. Few who saw the movie will forget the sad caravans of displaced people leaving their homes behind. These were hard times on a scale we had never seen before, and some were anxious to use the situation for anti-US propaganda.

In the Soviet Union, Stalin had troubles of his own, largely self-created, what with mass starvation, purges, wholesale terror, paranoia, and widespread political violence. Showing The Grapes of Wrath would seem to be an ideal way of scoring some propaganda hits against the US and divert the Russians from the horrible state of their own country, but Stalin refused to allow the movie to be shown. The reason? According to some sources, the movie was banned because The Grapes of Wrath showed that the people in the US, as poor and desperate as they were, had their own cars; something most Russians could only dream of.


Geting it wrong…the sequel

In a previous post, I kvetched about news reporters getting the facts wrong (or incomplete) and thus undermining the story. Here are a few more things you see, or hear, far too much.

1. Pronunciation: Many TV reporters are not from the area in which they are employed, but is it asking too much to expect them to learn to pronounce local places names correctly?  One local reporter pronounced Talbot County as Talebut instead of the correct Tallbut. Another called the Magothy River, correctly pronounced MAgothy, as the MaGOTHY River.

Then there are those who get the word wrong altogether, referring to the Seventh Cavalry as the Seventh Calvary. Cavalry refers to mounted troops, while Calvary was the place of the Crucifixion; not the same thing at all.

And what is so difficult about words containing the letter “e”? Why pronounce it like an “i”? Chemistry becomes Kimestry; century becomes cintury; entitlement becomes intitlemint; feel becomes fill; lending becomes linding; and center field becomes sinner fild.

Speaking of which, when did Florida become Flooorida.?

2. Basic background facts: With the internet and a little curiosity, you can learn the basics about nearly anything very easily. Yet quotes are constantly mangled or misattributed, rumors are reported as fact, and basic terms are ignored or misused. Nowhere is this as apparent as in the gun debate. Now I don’t want to stir up the warring parties here, because politics in a blog leads to long hours of pointless feuding with strangers of varying degrees of stability. I am taking no position; there are more than enough people doing that already.  I’m just saying that whatever your opinions might be on gun control, is it too much to ask that we get the basic technical facts straight? For instance, commentators argue about an “assault rifle” ban. A little research would tell them that assault rifles are already banned. In fact, they have never been legal to own in the US, except by a special, hard-to-obtain permit.

An assault rifle is a rifle that shoots a relatively small caliber bullet and has selective fire capability. That means it can be fired automatically or semi-automatically. They even come with a little selector switch for that purpose. If a rifle is not capable of automatic fire, it is NOT an assault rifle, no matter what it looks like. Semi-automatic fire means you fire one bullet each time you pull the trigger. Even if you hold the trigger down for an hour, the gun will fire only once and then stop. Automatic fire, on the other hand, means that the thing will fire repeatedly as long as you hold the trigger down and still have ammunition feeding into it; in other words, it’s a machine gun. Machine guns have been pretty much illegal since the 1930s. Licensing is extremely expensive and tightly restricted. Laws banning “assault weapons” actually ban semi-automatics that have certain cosmetic characteristics, not actual assault rifles, since actual assault rifles are, in effect, already banned. In fact, since machine guns were banned in the 1930s and assault rifles first appeared in the 1940s, they were pretty much banned in the US before they were even invented!

If you read the above paragraph, you now know more about “assault rifles” than most of the news anchors, and quite a few of the legislators who are writing laws about them. These facts are not complicated and not hard to find out, but commentators constantly talk about “military weapons” or “assault weapons” sold legally with no questions asked. Wrong.

And while we’re on the subject, what, exactly is a “high-powered” rifle? No one has ever defined it, but every news commentator uses it as if it meant something. You would almost think it was a made- up term invented just to make a run of the mill gun sound more lethal. Has any crime ever been committed with a “low-powered” rifle?

And don’t get me started on the difference between a clip and a magazine.

So here’s a hint to any commentator who wants to enlighten us with his opinion: if you want people to take you seriously, have some idea what you are talking about.

3. Insipid questions: For Pete’s sake; if someone just found a cure for cancer, can’t you think of anything better to ask him than “How do you feel?” Here’s a hint: if something good has happened, they’ll feel great. If something bad has happened, they’ll feel terrible. Who would have guessed? Now give me my honorary Journalism degree.

4. Questions that miss the point; When Wendy Davis filibustered in the Texas Legislature in opposition to a bill concerning late term abortion, among other things, the press and TV news people treated her like a rock star. They seemed to be measuring her for a place on a stained glass window. But when it came time to ask her a few hard-hitting questions, no one seemed interested in the issues. Most of the breathless questions were about her pink tennis shoes.

5. Asking to quantify the unquantifiable: This idiotic practice is so widespread, they must teach it in Journalism school. “How important is this event?” “How concerned are you?” or “How confident are you?” “How dangerous is this?” These are things that are not subject to measurement or quantification, so why ask? You’ll get the same worthless response every time. Standard question: “How concerned are you?” Standard answer: “I’m very concerned.” Well, that explains everything.

All right. That’s enough of this. My apologies to any media people who don’t do these things. Resist.

Delmarva Today

I just did an interview on the radio interview show Delmarva Today, with Hal Wilson on Delmarva Public Radio in Salisbury, Maryland. (Delmarva stands for Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) Hal actually read the books, and had some pretty thoughtful questions. We covered the finer points of my book Master Detective and the Lindbergh kidnapping, and discussed the Max Hurlock Roaring 20s Mysteries.

So if you want to know the answers to these vital questions give it a listen…..

-Why do so many fictional detectives have assistants such as Dr Watson?

-What is the “Pizza Rule” for historic research?

-Why did Flappers in the 1920s NEVER say Boop-boop a doop?

-What is a McGuffin?

-Who was the American Sherlock Holmes?

Listen for yourself in this podcast. (My portion is the second half hour and starts at 31.30.) Of course, if you want to learn about native plants around the Chesapeake Bay, you can listen from the beginning.


I’m on the left, trying to keep from hitting my head on the microphone.

Getting it wrong

You seldom hear anyone refer to a person as being “as smart as a TV news reporter”.

There is a reason for this.

Reporters, especially the TV news variety, have a spectacular ability to get the story wrong, then to send it off in a different direction through inaccuracies and pure sensationalism. Now being a reporter is  admittedly difficult. You can’t possibly know everything about any given story, and many times, people will deliberately try to mislead you for their own purposes, but how about a little common sense coupled with some basic knowledge of the world?

Here is a case in point. According to this article, a middle school teacher in Cambridge, Maryland was suspended. The school was searched,for guns and explosives, as was his home. (None were found.) The man is not under arrest, but is at some undisclosed location and not allowed to return to school until further notice. His crime? According to the article, and to some breathless on screen commentary by a local TV reporter, the teacher’s offense was writing a novel about a fictional school shooting, set in the far future. In addition to this, he wrote under an “alias”.

First off, any reporter should be aware that writers often use a pen name. Ray Bradbury, Charles Dickens, Ben Franklin, George Orwell, and even Dr. Seuss did. In fact, Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Clemens. There is nothing sinister in it. But the term “alias” sounds so much more dangerous, so that’s what the reporter used.

As for violent content, every mystery or thriller writer writes violent content. We’ll need to build more jails.

In addition, later stories now claim that the books were secondary. The real problem was a four page letter the teacher wrote to the school board, the contents of which have not been disclosed. The teacher’s attorney says the man is getting treatment of some sort. How much of this is true and how much is butt covering is not clear at this point, but there is apparently far more to the story.

And that’s the point. No one thought to dig deeper and maybe ask a followup question. They went on the air and dished up an incomplete and sensationalized version of the story. So what really happened? I don’t know, but I know enough not to trust early news reports.