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Friday Philosophy – When Tech Fails to Deliver, is it Always a Problem? December 9, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, development, ethics, Friday Philosophy.
Tags: , ,

I nipped out to the local supermarket this lunch time to get stuff. I use one of those self-use barcode scanners to log all the goods I put in my basket (apart from the bottle of whisky I was stealing). I then go to the payment machine, scan the “finish shopping” barcode and try to pay. I can’t pay.


I can’t pay as I bought some paracetamol (note to US readers, you know it as acetaminophen). It turns out you need to be 12 to buy paracetamol. Fair enough, but why did I have to stand there and waste 30 seconds of my life before the assistant for the area noticed and came over? She had to uses her special device to access the permissions screen, check I was 12 (the greying beard helps) and authorise it.

I asked why I had to wait. “So I can ensure you are old enough – the machine does not know.” But it does! Or at least it should. I’m using their self-scan service for which I have to be registered. They know my name, address, age, hair colour and inside leg measurement. The system knows I am old enough. Plus I have to pay with a credit/debit card (no cash option with this system). You can’t have a credit card until you are 18 in the UK so by using one of them it knows I am old enough to buy the pills – and even the bottle of whisky I was stealing. And when you use any card, it checks your details. So if I was using a debit card it could check my age at that point and stop me when it makes the check. It’s possible and should be done!

The assistant had wandered off long before I finished making this logical case. I was just an annoying customer and she’d done what I needed her to do. But it really annoyed me – it is possible for the system to check me using technology and the data at hand, and not make me wait. The problem is, they were too lazy to build this limited smarts into the system!


There is a lesson here. And that lesson is this – I should stop being such a self-centred, argumentative and miserable old sod. Firstly, I had to wait 30 seconds (and I am probably exaggerating that). Big deal, I had hardly been inconvenienced and it was a lot quicker than going to a normal till. Secondly, the assistant can’t do anything about the software behind the system. I mean, many of us spend our lives working on computer systems and often we can’t make any changes. Thirdly, I am aware that some parents give their children their credit card & number (the idiots!) so even though it is illegal to do this, the result is there a lot of people under the age of credit who have the means to pay for dangerous things (booze, cigarettes, paracetamol, knives, DIY expanding foam, ‘Viz’ magazine…).

Just because something is possible with the data to hand, sometimes it is not really worth much effort to make it happen.

And sometimes, although it seems logical & sensible given all the parameters (they have my info, no one but me should be using that card) in the real world those rules and data associations are not reliable. There is no enforced RI on our lives, at best there is a set of intended/encouraged limits. A person checking my age is way more reliable than some algorithm in this case.

So next time I whine about waiting 30 seconds in the queue, I hope the assistant just gives me a withering look and tells me to grow up.

I also hope they do not check my basket for un-scanned booze.

(* Just for the record, everything about the whisky was untrue. It was gin).

((And being serious, such system prevent fraud by 2 methods.
The first is that 1 in X times you get re-scanned. The assistant has no idea if they scan anything you had not and this is on purpose – so there is no scene in the shop. But the comparison is made and recorded, for further action.
The second is that apparently they can spot likely cheats just by the data you give them when you sign up and your spending habits. Now that is ‘Big Data Analysis’.



1. Nick - December 9, 2016

Thinly-veiled “I shop at Waitrose” blog post

mwidlake - December 9, 2016

So you recognise which scanner is from which shop? Interesting…I just used a stock image. I made no comment about which middle-class establishment I was blessing with my custom.
It was Waitrose.

Nick - December 9, 2016

I guesstimated based on a couple of clues: 1) the till not taking cash and 2) you being very particular about the whisky you pinch. BTW I believe anyone can own a pre-paid credit card.

mwidlake - December 9, 2016

I think the limit is 12? – But I could be wrong. The tech should still know I am a miserable, old sod 🙂

2. Nick - December 9, 2016

Technology is not even required to ascertain that ;o)

3. Erik van Roon - December 9, 2016

The system probably has a build in check constraint that says “a certain age comes with a certain minimum inside leg measurement”

Sorry, way too easy, but just couldn’t resist.

mwidlake - December 9, 2016

I will find you….

Erik van Roon (@evrocs_nl) - December 10, 2016

The wife just volunteered to give you my location.

4. auditor Sue - December 9, 2016

Guess what I’ve volunteered to audit next year….. Real World Data! ….. And were you having to replace my gin before I come back?

5. jgarry - December 9, 2016

“Sure, understanding today’s complex world of the future is a little like having bees live in your head. But, there they are.” – The Honorable Chester Cadaver

“Get Daddy’s Charge-R-Card, it’s in his underwear drawer next to the guns and balloons.”

Even comedy albums from the early 70’s predicted these problems, like knowing the one using the card online is authorized. The albums We’re All Bozos On This Bus and TV or Not TV predicted many modern hacks and fails, older US techies quoted them nearly as much as Monty Python.

“1’s are not I’s and O’s are not 0’s, I got them confused and ordered 1000 lids, er, tins of lizard meat.”

6. David Harper - December 10, 2016

Several years ago, I was “age checked” at the self-service checkouts at my local Tesco whilst trying to buy a copy of the Guardian. This was at a time when the Guardian was running a promotion giving away free DVDs of movies, and the disk in that day’s paper had a “not suitable for under 15” certificate.

These days, I avoid the self-service checkouts because I can never get the f***ing scanner to work, but that’s another story.

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