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IBM solves world's 'paper or plastic' crisis

Patent may save seconds, lives

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Since the dawn of history, mankind has been plagued by an unnecessary burden whilst grocery shopping at their neighborhood supermarket: telling the cashier whether they prefer a paper or plastic bag.

Precious moments are squandered. Moments better spent reading the collected works of Spinoza, curing cancer, building shelters for the homeless, or leveling Night Elf druids in World of Warcraft.

IBM may have discovered a solution to this most grievous of conditions with a US patent approved only yesterday. Let bells ring and the annals of history show that August 5, 2008 was a great day indeed.

Patent 7,407,089 (available here) is a method and system for identifying a customer and displaying whether they like paper or plastic bags without the need for uncomfortable questioning.

From the patent's description:

"However, at conventional retail locations, the customer is likely to be asked for their packaging preference each time the customer passes through a cashier station, resulting in unnecessary inconvenience for both the customer and the cashier.

What is needed is a more flexible system and method for determining packaging preference that overcomes some of these limitations. "

Welcome to the stage of history

Shhh! No more words, only knowledge

According to our admittedly rough calculations, implementation of the system could have a major impact on the grocery business.

Consider: If a customer is standing 3 feet away from the cashier, it would take approximately 0.002665 for the words "paper or plastic?" to reach him at the speed of sound. Factor in a generous one second pause to process the question, it would take roughly 1.0053317 seconds for the full round trip conversation.

But using IBM's technology and assuming the cashier is standing about 1 foot away from her register, it would take a mere 0.000000001016703 seconds for the information to reach her at the speed of light. (Dear pedantic readers: yes, this model takes place in a vacuum. And you know what? I'm not even sorry.)

The point is that about 1.00533169999 seconds are saved per transaction. This could be further improved if IBM were to develop a speedier way for the cashier to communicate the information to the bagger. We're thinking some sort of neural link between all grocery store employees.

Oh, and maybe a death ray for all those charity solicitors standing outside the store. Might as well reach for the stars here. ®

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