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2:58pm on Saturday, 20th August, 2011:

Technology Failures


I should be mowing my lawn right now but my lawnmower is producing a prodigious volume of fumes following my turning it on its side to stop the blades from chopping through an interior shield that had been dislodged by an apple. Rather than cause the neighbours to believe I had a bonfire, I decided to give the lawnmower a rest in the hope that the carburettor would dry itself out before I use it again next week. So, I can use the time productively by writing QBlog (rather than continue with the game of Dragon Age: Origins I foolishly started last night).

So, last week I filled the car up with petrol at Sainsbury's. The pump took longer to start up than normal, but once it did there was no problem until I went to pay for my purchase. The queue there was several people long, despite the fact that there were three people on the tills. The problem was, the tills didn't work. Apparently, one of them had seized up so the woman in charge decided to reboot it. She did this by removing its plug from the wall and putting it back in. Unfortunately, this had the effect of rebooting all the other tills. With none of the tills working, the pumps outside also shut down — presumably on the grounds that there's no point in delivering petrol if people can't pay for it. People were standing around staring at the pumps and at the office while the woman in charge loudly panicked.

The person at the front of the queue was some kind of truck driver who kept repeating his view that some workers must have cut through a cable. He just wouldn't shut up about it, except when he was making comments that I supposed were intended to be witty but fell well short of the mark. Only when he knocked something over and bent down to pick it up was there an opening for me to suggest that perhaps the woman in charge might want to use the public address system to tell all the people outside what was going on, as they were unlikely to be privy to her analysis of the situation in quite the same way that we were.

It was like I'd presented her with some kind of religious revelation. Yes! There were people outside and, and they wouldn't know what was going on! If she were outside, she'd want to know what was going on, and, and there, right in front of her face (literally) was a microphone! This microphone could be used to — to speak to the people outside!

She switched it on, hit it a few times, said "is this working?" into it, hit it some more, then told everyone that the tills were rebooting and it should only take a minute. This is after it had already taken somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes.

The tills did come back online a couple of minutes later, though, and all was well. I was able to pay the £58.13 I owed for the fuel, and off I went.

So, today I was in Sainsbury's doing our weekly shop. I went in once to get a pair of jackets I'd had dry-cleaned, then returned to buy the groceries. There seems to be a convention at the place where you pick up the "scan and go" handset for self-scanning that you stand immediately in front of where you register your storecard and hold your trolley to the side so as to prevent anyone from getting to the registration point next to you. I don't know why this is, but it meant I had to get my handset from the point at the far end. I scanned my storecard, and the registration point promptly started to reboot. When it came back, I recanned my card and it let me have a handset.

The first thing I bought was a birthday card. I scanned it just fine. The second thing I bought was a bag of onions. This scanned just fine, then the scanner hung. It wouldn't scan anything. It wouldn't even provide a laser beam to be used for scanning. Other people's handsets were working fine, but mine wasn't. I went to the customer service desk and just as I got to the front of the queue the handset started to reboot. I went off and did the remainder of my shopping.

The reason to use the Scan and Go system is that it's quicker than if you go through a regular till. You can put your shopping directly into the bags you'll be putting in your car, and all you have to do to check out is: ignore the sign on the Scan and Go till telling you to swipe your storecard, instead putting the handset into a receiver slot; wait for the handset to display "Scan and Go"; swipe your storecard; when it asks if you need any help, choose the "no" option; wait for it to read everything off the handset; say that yes, you did use some bags of your own; say how many you used; ignore the question about how you want to pay and just put your credit card into the reader; type in your pin; retrieve your card when it says you can; pick up the receipt and special offer printouts; leave; screw the special offer printout into a ball and deposit in the bin by the exit because you don't actually want to buy a holiday right now.

Now the problem with Scan and Go in our Sainsbury's is that there are only 4 tills that accept it. Prime time on a Saturday, there are many more than 4 people who want to check out at any one time. I was therefore expecting a queue. However, I was not expecting a queue in which all the lights above the people trying to Go having Scanned were red and the supervisor was trying to put someone's shopping through on the adjacent Scan and Go compatible till. Another employee arrived on the scene and looked at all the screens, then produced some kind of secret bar code and started using it to bypass some kind of feature they were all exhibiting.

When it got to my turn, he was still there and still doing whatever it was he needed to do. I was excited to find out what it was that was making this faster system slower than if I'd just gone to a regular till, emptied my bags onto a conveyor belt, let someone else scan my stuff, and then put it all back in my bags and pay.

Here's what happened: I ignored the sign on the Scan and Go till telling me to swipe my storecard, instead putting the handset into a receiver slot; I waited for the handset to display "Scan and Go"; I swiped my storecard; when it asked if I needed any help, I chose the "no" option; it flashed up "assistance required" or somesuch and froze. The guy with the magic bar code asked if I'd asked for help, I said I hadn't, he said he thought he knew what was wrong but no-one would let him try fix it, then he used his bar code, typed in some password, and thenceforth everything proceeded as usual.

So, two technology failures at Sainsbury's in the same week. You know what's spooky, though? The petrol, as I mentioned, cost £58.13; the groceries also cost £58.13.

Probably just some bug in the software of the universe.

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Copyright © 2011 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).