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Digital empathy

Wendy and I were recently travelling back from Madrid via Amsterdam. The first leg of the journey was delayed, which meant we missed our connection. We knew there were no later connections that day and that we would be stranded overnight.

On arrival at Schiphol, we sought assistance from the ground staff. We walked past many self-service machines, assuming they couldn’t help us, and waited in a long queue. Once we reached the front, a staff member operated one of the self-service machines for us as if we were technologically incompetent. The self-service machine could issue a meal voucher, a hotel voucher, details of where to meet a shuttle to our hotel, and rebooking us on the next available flight. Human intervention from a staff member was, as it turned out, not required.

If I were in the same situation again, I’d use a machine independently rather than queue; of course, I would. This is great for the airline, saving them significant money in staffing costs.

But is ruthless efficiency the right approach here? A personable expression of sympathy and regret would seem to go a little further in building customer loyalty. It struck me as a little inconsistent that an airline that insists on using my name when handing me an in-flight meal doesn’t want to speak to me when things have gone wrong.

I recently bought a jacket online. It didn’t fit, even though it was labelled the same size as many garments I’ve bought from the same retailer.

I returned it to a branch of the chain from which I bought it. I was directed to use a self-service return machine. This was simplicity itself, aided by the chain using a unique identifying barcode for every garment sold. By scanning the tag, the machine could look up my details and process the return with a single confirmatory tap on the touchscreen. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the system again in the future.

Yet, this approach robbed the chain of the reason for my return and the opportunity for a linked sale: the next size up. It also removes any sense of empathy and any impression that the chain is doing anything to avoid similar situations in the future.

Reducing store staffing looks good for the bottom line, but I’m not sure it’s the right approach for the long run.

Amazon has been promoting delivery of orders by drone for years, yet it remains available only in a handful of locations. This New York Times article by David Streitfeld delves into how this works for people. I was particularly struck by the header video and the revelation that the drone drops packages from a height of twelve feet.

Amazon believes that this programme demonstrates a commitment to pushing the boundaries of technology in the service of its customers. I’m unsure that Amazon understands that the video of packages being dropped from such a height undermines any impression of care or concern about individual orders.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , .

In praise of ‘Mozart in the Jungle’

I’ve mentioned Mozart in the Jungle on here before. It’s a wonderful Amazon Prime comedy-drama about passion, professionalism and music. Inspired by Blair Tindall’s autobiography of the same name, the show follows both the appointment of a new conductor to the New York Symphony Orchestra and the travails of a young oboist trying to break into the orchestral big league.

It stars Gael García Bernal and Lola Kirke who both give performances of a lifetime alongside an all-star ensemble. It is creative and imaginative to the point of being a bit nuts sometimes. What other show would have Lang Lang on as a guest star and feature his piano performance with the sound replaced by Daft Punk? And yet, this made for one of the most memorable scenes in four seasons. And the third season featured the most beautiful cinematography of Venice I have ever seen. And, of course, the whole series features fantastic orchestration spanning all kinds of music.

Mozart in the Jungle is a completely brilliant show. And yet, Amazon has decided to cancel it. I really hope someone else picks it up.

This post was filed under: Media, Posts delayed by 12 months, Video, , , , , , , , .

Why I won’t subscribe to Kindle Unlimited

Amazon has just launched Kindle Unlimited in the UK. I read a lot of books – but won’t be subscribing. Here’s why.

Man reading book surrounded by falling letters

Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited in the UK a few hours ago. Kindle Unlimited, which has been available in the States since July, allows subscribers to pay a monthly fee (£7.99) to access 650,000 eBooks and an unspecified number of audiobooks without further payment.

I read a lot of books, mainly on a Kindle. I dread to think how much I spend each month on books, but it is most certainly more than £7.99. So, when Kindle Unlimited launched in the US, I was pining for a UK launch. This came up in a conversation over a drink with a non-techy friend: “What, like a library?” she asked, as I described the service.

The question was as barbed as it was sarcastic, and it struck a nerve. Some sliver of my Council Tax already funds the ability for me to borrow from an enormous collection of physical books, eBooks and audiobooks via my local library. It is vaguely absurd to pay a second time to access a more limited library.

So I set myself a challenge: ditch the Kindle and start using the library.

The first barrier was to discover that I don’t own an eReader compatible with the formats available from my library. But this wasn’t really a problem: I chose to read eBooks mainly because they are cheap, available ‘over the air’, and take up no space in my house. Library books are almost as good: they’re free, take up no space in my house, and are available to collect from the library.

My local library, in common with others, has a great click-and-collect service: I request a book online; they dig it out from whichever library branch or store it is in, whack it on a ‘collection’ shelf near the door in the most convenient branch for me, and notify me that it’s ready to collect. I can then pop into the library during my commute and swap books using a self-service machine. It takes less than sixty seconds from entering the library to exiting.

Of course, not all books feature in the library’s stock. Rather than have the library source these from elsewhere, I’ve bought my own copies; the joy of reading physical books from the library has convinced me to buy paperbacks. So much for saving shelf-space.

The last ten books I’ve read would have cost, in total, £66.89 in Kindle format. Only two of them appear to be among the 650,000-book Kindle Unlimited selection. All but two were within my library’s selection: I paid £9.09 for one of these two in paperback, and borrowed the other by post from the BMA library. Hence, I saved £57.80: an 86% discount.

And so (tl;dr): Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited package made me re-evaluate how much I spent on books. It made me realise the value of my local library, and has lead to me using Amazon far less, and saving myself a small fortune in the process.

If you fancy reading this same post in a slightly different format, it's also available on Medium.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Technology, , , , , .

Photo-a-day 197: The day my Kindle died


Towards the end of last year, my Kindle cracked. Despite it being well out of warranty (I’d had it since August 2010), Amazon replaced it for free.

Today, the replacement broke – as you can see, the screen has died. Bizarrely, this seems to have happened totally spontaneously while the Kindle was sat on my desk. I don’t understand how that’s possible…!

Sadly, Amazon wouldn’t give me another free replacement this time around – but they are sending me a replacement for £50. As this model retails at £149, that’s still considerably better than most of Amazon’s competitors!

This post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , .

Photo-a-day 179: Custom Kindle screensaver


I’ve had what’s now called the Kindle Keyboard since the day of its UK release – that is, just under two years. I’d never bothered following any of the hundreds of online guides on changing the screensavers until yesterday.

Now I have a pretty collection of all sorts of pictures, including this favourite of the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows. I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner!

This post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , .

Lovefilm and Blockbuster: Which online DVD rental service is better?

Since the launch of Netflix in the UK earlier this week, there’s been a fair amount of chatter on Twitter about the relative merits of this and the major DVD rental services. Having used it for a couple of days, I think the selection on Netflix is awful: If you’re hoping to watch the latest series of blockbuster TV shows like Mad Men or 24, you’re out of luck with Netflix, and it doesn’t fare much better with films. That said, it does integrate well with devices including Apple TV, and has a decent free trial, so give it a go.

I’m a fan on online DVD rental services. I’ve used Blockbuster and Lovefilm regularly recently, and so thought that it would be fun to do a quick comparison of the two for anyone considering signing up.

In the best tradition of blog posts like this, I’ve divided the comparison into sections. These are, of course, fairly arbitrary, but the overall conclusion reflects my true opinion. If you’re of a different opinion, feel free to use the comments to make the points I’ve missed. Both also offer game rentals, but as I don’t rent these, I can’t really comment on that part of their service.


Lovefilm and Blockbuster have much the same selection of items. It’s impossible to compare the size of the overall catalogue because they count them differently: somewhat oddly, Lovefilm counts all the DVD “extra” discs in its catalogue as separate titles, whereas Blockbuster doesn’t. Both Lovefilm and Blockbuster appear to have a similar blu-ray selection.

However, if you want to rent anything put out by Universal since September 2009 – titles like Inglorious Bastards or The Invention of Lying – you’re out of luck with Lovefilm, as a dispute with the studio means they aren’t available to rent. They are all available with Blockbuster.

Winner: Blockbuster

Availability and turnaround times

I’ve never experience any major problems with availability of titles from either Lovefilm or Blockbuster, except for Lovefilm’s inability to stock Universal titles as discussed above. Blockbuster fairly often has exclusive titles available for rent before they are available elsewhere, but I’m rarely on the edge of my seat waiting for a title to come out, so this isn’t a big thing for me.

Blockbuster’s Top Ticket system does enhance the perception of availability to a degree: I can choose the title which I will receive next, guaranteed. There are some limits to this system: Some titles aren’t available on Top Ticket, but the number of these is so small as to be almost insignificant.

Turnaround times are crucial for a DVD rental service, particularly if you have an “unlimited” package, as it’s one of the main rate-limiting (and therefore quantity-limiting) steps in the process. My experience has revealed no difference between the two – both are equally quick.

However, Blockbuster have, on occasion, voluntarily sent discs early. An email has pinged into my inbox saying “We think you’re probably really keen to receive x, so we’re going to send it to you immediately as an extra disc. We’ll send your next one when you’ve returned two discs.” This is great service, and really improve the perception of the speed of turnaround times.

Since there’s nowhere else to mention this, it’s also worth saying that Blockbuster’s mailing packs are much neater: blue plastic envelopes rather than paper ones used by Lovefilm. The Blockbuster ones look much neater when sat next to my Blu-ray player, which is a relatively small and insignificant advantage.

Winner: Blockbuster

Instant gratification

Sometimes, you don’t want to wait for discs to be posted out to you. Sometimes, you think of a film and you want to watch it now.

Lovefilm offers online streaming of a very limited selection of movies. If you have a method of hooking this up to your TV, through connecting your computer to your TV or through and XBox 360 or PS3, then this is great for seeing films immediately.

Blockbuster has the major advantage of a store network. Most Blockbuster packages include access to inshore rentals, and the stores have, of course, a huge selection. It’s even possible to reserve titles in-store for collection the same day. Not only that, but Blockbuster generally lavishes extras on its online customers: Currently, if I take an in-store rental for free as part of my package, they will throw in either popcorn, mints, or cola to munch on while I watch. That’s true movie-night instant.

However, Blockbuster’s offering does mean trekking down to a Blockbuster store, so is hardly instant, especially if you don’t live near to a store. And you have to return the disc to the store as well, making it two trips.

Overall, I think the Blockbuster offering is the most generous and the most genuinely useful, but it’s not really instant gratification. Lovefilm clearly outstrips Netflix in this department. Overall, I declare this section tied.

Winner: Tied

Website design and functionality

Lovefilm’s website is legendary, and stuffed full of trailers and customer reviews. It’s brilliant for making sure you never rent something you won’t enjoy, as the wealth of content about each film provides a real sense of what it’s like. By comparison, Blockbuster’s site is confused, mainly as it’s trying to serve so many different functions: Purchase of films, store reservation, online pay-per-rental, online rental subscription, etc. It has far fewer reviews and far fewer trailers. The same goes for their relevant mobile apps.

On actual functionality, the two are a closer match. Blockbuster insists upon or allows, depending on your point of view, the ranking of all titles in your queue, whereas Lovefilm permits or restricts to a three-tier priority level system. Blockbuster allows has a genre-mix function, whereby you can, for example, request that you always have at least on TV title on rent. Lovefilm has a multiple lists function, which allows you to state that you always want a title from each of several lists on rent.

Functionally, it’s a bit of a toss-up, but Lovefilm’s system is probably a bit more flexible. Content-wise, Lovefilm wins hands-down.

Winner: Lovefilm


There’s really little to choose between the two services on price. Their packages differ slightly, and, on the whole, Blockbuster tends to be cheaper, but the price differential is marginal. Also, Lovefilm has branded services like Tesco DVD rental, which often work out as more competitively priced than going direct, reducing the differential further.

Lovefilm tends to offer free trials, whereas Blockbuster tends to offer £1 trials. In terms of lifetime cost, that’s not likely to make a huge difference to anyone’s finances, but it might swing newcomers in the direction of Loevfilm. Blockbuster has the in-store freebies, like popcorn and cola, discussed above.

Both services allow “holidays” of up to three months, during which no payments will be taken nor discs sent. Cancellation is a pain with both services: both require you to phone their call centres. However, Lovefilm will allow you to cancel online if their call centre is closed (i.e. between 8pm and 8am), which is a bonus. Also, a Lovefilm subscription can be given as a gift voucher, whereas a Blockbuster subscription cannot.

Winner: Tied

Overall winner: Blockbuster

Overall, I prefer Blockbuster‘s service. The Top Ticket functionality and in-store rentals swing it for me, as does the hard-to-define “keenness” factor. Despite providing the same basic functionality, it feels as though Blockbuster go the extra mile for customer satisfaction. They’ll occasionally send extra discs; if I haven’t rented anything for a while they’ll email to ask if everything’s alright; they email in advance to tell me what they’re sending me; and they send their discs out in neat little plastic envelopes, not tatty rip-open paper ones. And, something’s a two-disc set, they send both discs at once, as a single rental.

Lovefilm, whilst providing a comprehensive service, are constantly trying to up-sell. They’re always pushing pay-per-view online streaming at me, and trying to get me to take out a package with more discs. They pester me to have more discs on my “TV List”, whereas Blockbuster are quite happy to sequentially send me the discs of a single box set. Adding a two-disc set without sufficient care frequently results in being sent a solo “extras” disc, separate from the main feature disc, which is just irritating. And the lack of a fine-grain priority setting system or a “top ticket” system, they always seem to send the relative “dud” on your list.

So, my recommendation is Blockbuster.

Links to services in this post are affiliate links. I’ll receive about £2 if you sign up to Blockbuster via these links, or £20 if you sign up to Lovefilm. Those values demonstrate that my opinion was not unduly influenced by these payments!

This post was filed under: Reviews, , , , , .

Amazon’s great service on Kindles

A couple of weeks ago, my Kindle developed a small hairline crack in its case, just at the corner of the screen. My Kindle was well outside it’s 12-month warranty, but having heard previous stories of excellent service, I called Amazon after work one evening.

I hoped they might offer me a discount off a replacement. What they actually did was courier me a brand new replacement, set up on my account and ready to go, which was in my hands the very next morning. And they didn’t charge me a penny, not even for postage. And, what’s more, they even arranged a courier to pick up the old one. Free.

What utterly brilliant service!

This post was filed under: Reviews, , , .

Diary for 25th May 2008

Why, five years after the event, does Amazon still badger me with recommendations of A-Level textbooks? That’s one unintelligent system. «

This post was filed under: Diary Style Notes, , .

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