The Cultures Ep 323: Virtual Travel Instructions

Listen to episode 323 of my weekly podcast with Andrea Phillips and Naomi Alderman:

  • Look for music from the country
  • Search on BBC Sounds (there’s a prog called World Music Road Trip and also sometimes stuff in From Our Own Correspondent)
  • Also try documentaries, especially Storyville
  • Find the best movie you’ve never seen from that country
  • Internet search for recipes from there
  • Look online for specialist ingredients
  • Is there takeaway from there one could get?
  • Can you do a few minutes of language learning via Duolingo etc? Just enough to say hello, goodbye, please and thank you?
  • Who’s their most famous writer? Read a short story
  • Have they ever had a movie up for best foreign picture Oscar, or best short or best documentary?
  • Where would you stay? Pick a hotel. Have a look on Google Street View to see where you “are”
  • Is there a board game (or video game!) from that country to try?
  • What sights would you try to see if you were there? Can you find virtual tours online?
  • What do people drink in a cafè or bar there?
  • Can you learn to sing something that’s popular there or written there?
  • Put the radio on all day from that country
  • Change your Twitter/social media localisation to that country
  • Is there a bath product/perfume/smell from there?

Postage Without Printing

Royal Mail recently announced it will start collecting parcels from people’s doorsteps for a small fee. While I understand this is pretty normal in the US, it’s a novelty in the UK and makes sending parcels just that little bit easier – all you need to do is buy your postage online and print out a label.

The problem is, not everyone has a printer. I do have a laser printer, which even before COVID was only used for those few tickets and boarding passes that couldn’t be saved to my phone, along with the occasional bits of postage: maybe only print ten or twenty pages a year. So anything that can drive that twenty pages down to zero and therefore eliminate the requirement for a printer entirely – thus saving money, hassle, and the environment – would be a total win.

Tickets and passes can become digital because the thing that needs the pass (you) can display it in a different way than paper (your phone). But postage is different, since the thing (your parcel) does not have an alternate display (its label). That label contains the destination of the parcel in human-readable plaintext, along with other stuff including a QR code verifying the parcel’s selected service (e.g. first class, second class, etc.), weight, dimensions, sender, account details, and so on.

The reason the label needs to be printed is because you can’t rely on humans to reproduce a machine-readable QR code with a pen. So that’s that – we’ll always need printers for postage.

Or do we? What if Royal Mail gave senders a unique string of characters that represented all the information currently in the QR code: something like XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX? Write that string on the parcel, and voila: no printing required.

Write the Address

Technically you could have only the unique string on the parcel since it has all information required, but I think you’d still want the destination on the parcel as well as a failsafe, and crucially, to make the posties’ lives easier.

Pay After Posting

Under this scheme, the sender would need to assess the postage required for their letter or parcel by weighing and measuring it. That’s not hard but it’s yet another step, and perhaps an unnecessary one since I assume Royal Mail must check whether parcels have the appropriate level of postage required. If they’re already doing that, and if I trust them to do it well, why not just let them charge me whatever’s required so I don’t have to measure and weigh myself?

So I’d set up an account with Royal Mail with my payment information, tell them I was sending something (maybe I’d take a photo), they’d give me my unique string (which now also includes my account info) and at some point during the delivery process they’d charge me for the correct amount.


I admit I have no idea how expensive or annoying it is for Royal Mail to read handwritten addresses versus scanning a QR code. But OCR is pretty good these days and we could help it along by selling cheap rolls of labels with specified areas for the unique string and the destination address, plus some orientation markers.

Something like this

This is more of an idle thought than a deeply-researched proposal: I’m not a postage expert so I’m sure there are obvious flaws. Still, I’ve spent a lot of money and time on posting things – my company has sent tens of thousands of parcels worldwide and I used to do it myself back when I sold Mars maps as a teenager (a story for another time). So I know the pain points on our side, at least!