The bakery is just someone else’s oven

Most of the readers of this blog are likely aware of the phrase “The Cloud is someone else’s computer” — sometimes with a “just” added to make it even more judgemental. Well, it should surprise nobody (for those who know me) that I’m not a particular fan of either the phrase, or the sentiment within it.

I think that the current Covid-19 caused quarantine is actually providing a good alternative take on it, which is the title of the blog: “The bakery is just someone else’s oven.”

A lot of people during this pandemic-caused lockdown decided that it’s a good time to make bread, whether they tried it before or not. And many had to deal with similar struggles, from being unable to find ingredients, to making mistakes while reading a recipe that lead to terrible results, to following recipes that are just giving wrong instructions because they assume something that is not spelled out explicitly (my favourite being the recipes that assume you have a static oven — turns out that the oven we have at home only has “fan assisted” and “grill” modes.)

Are we all coming out of the current crisis and deciding that home baking is the only true solution, and that using a bakery is fundamentally immoral? I don’t think so. I’m sure that there will be some extremists thinking that, there always are, but for the most part, the reasonable people will go and accept that baking bread is not easy and while freshly baked bread can taste awesome, for most people, making time to do it every day would cut heavily into time that is needed for other things, that may or may not be more important (work, childcaring, wellness, …), so once the option of just buying good (or at least acceptable) bread from someone else becomes practical, lots of us will go back to buying it most of the time, and just occasionally baking.

I think this matches very well the way Cloud and self-hosted solutions relate to each other. You can set up your own infrastructure to host websites, mail servers, containers, Dockers, apps and whatever else. But most of the time this detracts from the time you would spend on something else, or you may need resources, that might not be linear to procure, or you may make mistakes configuring them, or you may just not know what the right tools you need are. While some (most) of these points apply to using Cloud solutions from various providers, they are also of a different level — the same way you may have problems following a recipe that includes bread as an ingredient, rather than being for bread.

So for instance, if you’re a small business, you may be running your own mail server. It’s very possible that you even already have a system administrator, or retain a “MSP” (Managed Service provider), which is effectively a sysadmin-for-hire. But would it make sense for you to do that? You would have to have a server (virtual or physical) to host it, you would have to manage the security, you would have to manage connectivity, spam tracking, logging, … it’s a lot of work! If you’re not in the business of selling email servers, it’s not likely that you’d ever get a good return on that resource investment. Or you could just pay FastMail to run it for you (see my post on why I chose them at the end).

Of course saying something like this will get people to comment on all kind of corner cases, or risks connected with it. So let’s be sure that I’m not suggesting that this is the only solution. There’s cases in which, even though it is not you primary business, running your own email server has significant advantages, including security. There are threat models and threat models. I think this is once again matching the comparison with bakeries — there are people who can’t buy bread, because the risk of whichever bread they buy to have been contaminated with something they are allergic to is not worth it.

If you think about the resource requirements, there’s another similar situation there: getting all the ingredients in normal situation is very easy, so why bother buying bread? Well, it turns out that the way supply works is not obvious, and definitely not linear. At least in the UK, there was an acknowledgement that “only around 4% of UK flour is sold through shops and supermarket”, and that the problem is not just the increase in demand, but also the significant change in usage pattern.

So while it would be “easy” and “cheap” to host your app on your own servers in normal times, there’s situations in which this is either not possible, or significantly inconvenient, or expensive. What happens when your website is flooded by requests, and your mail server sharing the same bandwidth is unreachable? What happens when a common network zero-day is being exploited, and you need to defend against it as quickly as reasonably possible?

Pricing is another aspect that appears to match fairly well between the two concepts: I heard so many complains about Cloud being so expensive that it will bankrupt you — and they are not entirely wrong. It’s very easy to think of your company as so big as to need huge complex solutions, that will cost a lot more than a perfectly fine solution, either on Cloud or self-hosted. But the price difference shouldn’t be accounted for solely by comparing the price paid for the hosting, versus the price paid for the Cloud products — you need to account for a lot more costs, related to management and resources.

Managing servers take time and energy, and it increases risks, which is why a lot of business managers tend to prefer outsourcing that to a cloud provider. It’s pretty much always the case, anyway, that some of the services are outsourced. For instance, even the people insisting on self-hosting solutions don’t usually go as far as “go and rent your own cabinet at a co-location facility!” which would still be a step short of running your own fiber optic straight from the Internet exchange, and… well you get my point. In the same spirit, the price of bread does not only include the price of the ingredients but also the time that is spent to prepare it, knead it, bake it, and so on. And similarly, even the people who I have heard arguing that baking every day is better than buying store bread don’t seem to suggest you should go and mill your own flour.

What about the recipes? Well, I’m sure you can find a lot of recipes in old cookbooks with ingredients that are nowadays understood as unhealthy — and not in the “healthy cooking” kind of way only, either. The same way as you can definitely find old tutorials that provide bad advice, while a professional baker would know how to do this correctly.

At the end of the day, I’m sure I’m not going to change the mind of anyone, but I just wanted to have something to point people at the next time they try the “no cloud” talk on me. And a catchy phrase to answer them by.

Environment and Software Freedom — Elitists Don’t Get It

I have previously complained loudly about “geek supremacists” and the overall elitist stance I have seen in Free Software, Open Source, and general tech circles. This shows up not just in a huge amount of “groupthink” that Free Software is always better, as well as in jokes that may sound funny at first, but are actually trying to exclude people (e.g. the whole “Unix chooses its friends” line).

There’s a similar attitude that I see around environmentalism today, and it makes me uneasy, particularly when it comes to “fight for the planet” as some people would put it. It’s not just me, I’ve seen plenty of acquaintances on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere reporting similar concerns. One obvious case is the lack of thought given to inclusion and accessibility: whether it is a thorough attack of pre-peeled oranges with no consideration to those who are not able to hold a knife, or waste-shaming with the infamous waste jars (as an acquaintance reported, and I can confirm the same is true for me, would fill up in a fraction of the expected time just from medicine blisters).

Now the problem is that, while I have expressed my opinions about Free Software and activists a number of times in the past, I have no experience or expert opinion to write a good critique of environmentalist groups, which means I can only express my discomfort and leave it to someone else. Although I wrote about this in the past.

What I can provide some critique of, though, is an aspect that I recently noticed in my daily life, and for which I can report directly, at least for a little bit. And it goes back to the zero-waste topic I mentioned in passing above. I already said that the waste produced just by the daily pills I take (plus the insulin and my FreeStyle Libre sensors) goes beyond what some of the more active environmentalists consider appropriate. Medicine blisters, insulin pens, and the sensors’ applicators are all non-recyclable waste. This means that most of the encouragement to limit waste is unreachable for most people on medications.

The next thing I’m going to say is that waste reduction is expensive, and not inclusive of most people who don’t have a lot of spare disposable cash.

Want a quick example? Take hand wash refills. Most of the people I know use liquid soap, and they buy a new bottle, with a new pump, each time it finishes. Despite ceramic soap bottle being sold in most homeware stores, I don’t remember the last time I saw anyone I know using one. And even when my family used those for a little while, they almost always used a normal soap bottle with the pump. That’s clearly wasteful, so it’s not surprising that, particularly nowadays, there’s a lot of manufacturers providing refills — pouches, usually made with thinner, softer plastic, with a larger amount of soap, that you can use to either refill the original bottles, or to use with one of those “posh” ceramic bottles. Some of the copy on the those pouches explicitly state «These refill pouches use 75% less plastic per ml of product than a [brand] liquid handwash pump (300 ml), to help respect the environment.»

The problem with these refills, at least here in London, is that they are hard to come by, and only a few, expensive brands appear to provide them. For instance you can get refills for L’Occitane hand wash, but despite liking some of their products, at home we are not fond of their hand wash, particularly not at £36 a litre (okay, £32.4 with the recycling discount). Instead we ended up settling on Dove’s hand wash, which you can buy in most stores for £1 for the 250ml bottle (£4/litre). Dove does make refills and sell them, and at least in Germany, Amazon sells them for a lower per-litre price than the bottle. But those refills are not sold in the UK, and if you wanted to order them from overseas they would be more expensive (and definitely not particularly environmentally friendly).

If the refills are really making such a difference as the manufacturers insist they do, they should be made significantly more affordable. Indeed, in my opinion you shouldn’t be able to get the filled bottles alone at all, and they should rather be sold bundled with the refills themselves, at a higher per-liter price.

But price is clearly not the only problem — handwash is something that is subjected to personal taste a lot since our hands are with us all day long. People prefer no fragrance, or different fragrances. The fact that I can find the whopping total of two handwash refills in my usual local stores, that don’t cost more than the filled bottle is not particularly encouraging.

Soap is not the only the thing for which the “environmentally conscious” option is far from affordable. Recently, we stumbled across a store in Chiswick that sells spices, ingredients and household items plastic free, mostly without containers (bring your own, or buy it from them), and we decided to try it, easily since I’ve been saving up the glass containers from Nutella and the jams, and we had two clean ones at home for this.

This needs a bit more context: both me and my wife love spicy food in general, and in particular love mixing up a lot of different spices when making sauces or marinades, which means we have a fairly well stocked spice cupboard. And since we consume a lot of them, we have been restocking them with bags of spices rather than with new bottles (which is why we started cleaning and setting aside the glass jars), so the idea of finding a place where you can fill your own jar was fairly appealing to me. And while we did expect a bit of a price premium given the location (we were in Chiswick after all), it was worth a try.

Another caveat on all of this: the quality, choice and taste of ingredients are not obvious. They are, by definition, up to personal taste. Which means that doing a direct price-by-price comparison is not always possible. But at the same time, we do tend to like the quality of spices we find, so I think we’ve been fair when we boggled at the prices, and in particular at the prices fluctuation between different ingredients. So I ended up making a quick comparison table, based off the prices on their website, and the websites of Morrisons and Waitrose (because, let’s be honest, that’s probably the closest price comparison you want to make, as both options are clearly middle-to-upper class).

Price comparison between Source, Morrisons, Waitrose and the Schwartz brand spices. More accessible on Google Drive.
I’ve taken the cheapest priced option for all the searches, looking for bigger sizes.

If you look at the prices, you can see that, compared with the bottled spices, they are actually fairly competitive! I mean cumin costs over four times if you buy it in bottle at Waitrose, so getting it cheaper is definitely a steal… until you notice that Morrisons stocks a brand (Rajah) that is half the price. Indeed, Rajah appears to sell spices in big bags (100g or 400g), and at a significantly lower price than most of the other options. In personal taste, we love them.

A few exceptions do come to mind: sumac is not easy to find, and it’s actually cheaper at Source. Cayenne pepper is (unsurprisingly) cheaper than Waitrose, and not stocked at Morrisons at all, so we’ll probably pop by again to fill in a large jar of it. Coarse salt is cheaper, and even cheaper than the one I bought on Amazon, but I bought 3Kg two years ago and we still have one unopened bag.

The one part of the pictures that the prices don’t tell, of course, is the quality and the taste. I’ll be very honest and say that I personally dislike the Waitrose extra virgin olive oil I chose the price of (although it’s a decent oil); the Morrisons one is not the cheapest, but that one tasted nasty when I tried it, so I went for the one we actually usually buy. Since we ran out of oil at home, and we needed to buy some anyway, we are now using Source’s and, well, I do like it actually better than Morrisons, so we’ll probably stick to buying it, despite it being more expensive — it’s still within the realm of reasonable prices for good extra virgin olive oil. And they sell it in a refillable bottle, so next time we’ll use that one again.

Another thing that is very clear from the prices is just how much the “organic” label appears to weigh in on the cost of food. I don’t think it’s reasonable to pay four times the price for sunflower oil — and while it is true that I’m comparing the prices of a huge family bottle with that of a fill-your-own-bottle shop, which means you can get less of it at a time, and you pay for that convenience, it’s also one of the more easily stored groceries, so I think it’s fair enough.

And by the way, if you followed my twitter rant, I have good news. Also in Chiswick there’s a Borough Kitchen store, old good brick-and-mortar, and they had a 1L bottle for an acceptable £5.

So where does this whole rant get us? I think that the environment needs for activists to push for affordable efforts. It’s not useful if the zero-waste options are only available to the top 5%. I have a feeling that indeed for some of the better, environmentally aware options we’ll have to pay more. But that should not mean paying £5 for a litre of sunflower oil! We should make sure we can feed the people in the world, if you think that the world is worth saving, and do so in a reasonable way.

Before closing let me just point out the obvious: Source appears to have their heart in the right place with this effort. Having had my own business, I’m sure that the prices reflect the realities of renting a space just off Chiswick High Road, paying for the staff, the required services, the suppliers, and the hidden cost of families with children entering the store and letting their kids nibble on the candies and nuts straight out of the boxes (I’ve seen at least one while we were inside!), without paying or buying anything else.

What I fear we really need is this type of services to scale to the level of big high street grocery stores. Maybe with trade-in containers in place of bring-your-own for deliveries (which I would argue can be more environmentally-friendly than people having to take a car to go grocery shopping). But that’s something I can only hope for.