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February 14, 2002

Vending Machines Suck, Part One
Heartless Capitalist Bastards

Ever since I entered the workforce, I've always bagged my own lunch. I won't say I do it all the time - there are times when it's just easier to go grab a slice of pizza or a pita. If we don't have leftovers, a quick trip over to Wendy's for some chilli or a taco salad is just fine. But generally, I pack my lunch. It's cheaper, and generally healthier for me.

It is extremely rare, however, that my lunch fulfills my dietary whims during the workday. Yes, I know there's a perfectly good Macintosh sitting in my desk drawer, flesh firm and sweet, waiting for me to polish it and taste its delicate flesh. But my body tells me, "Screw that, gimme SUGAR!" When that happens, my only recourse is the vending machines located here at work. We've got quite a few, thanks to the size of the workforce here, so the selection is pretty good, and the machines are refilled frequently.

A trip to the vending machine is always fraught with at least a tinge of anxiety. If you've ever used a vending machine in your life, you'll know what I'm talking about. Will it work? Will it swallow my money and not give me anything? Does it take loonies, or only quarters? As commonplace and popular as they are, vending machines are only machines, and sometimes can really piss you off.

There are a few different types of vending machines, not all of which I have a problem with. Canned beverage dispensers I've never had a problem with, other than the price of a can of pop (watch for Part Two: Robbery or Victimization). The funky snack elevator-type machines I actually like - they're fun to watch, operate smoothly, and have that awesome power-activated door at the bottom. Very spooling. Coffee and hot chocolate machines I don't have a problem with simply because I don't use them. If I want to be scalded by something in a small paper cup, I'll go to Tim Hortons and at least enjoy it, thanks.

Then there are the snack dispensers. You know the type - about seven different levels, clear face, filled with chips, chocolate bars, gum, candies, and sometimes even pastries, all dispensed by a wire screw. Key word there, "screw". Because that's what it does to you sometimes.

I find it happens most with bags of cellophane, like chips, or Nibs, or jellybeans. (Boxes of stuff or chocolate bars are usually pretty safe.) You insert your money, hit the correct sequence of letter and number (E9 for Nibs), and you watch the screw start turning, pushing your selected treat closer to you, where it should eventually fall down into the catch bin where you can retrieve it from the one-way door. As will happen, sometimes that screw will stop turning, and the snack you were so looking forward to is sitting there, suspended in mid-air, being held back by only a small wrinkle of cellophane still stuck behind the screw. Well, crap.

What to do? You have options. You can walk away, giving up your right to that snack, and giving someone a freebie. You can do it again, and hopefully get the first one you wanted, and the one behind it too, but that only works if you have the coinage to do so, and if you trust the machine to not screw you out of the 2nd one. Or, you can go against all the dire warnings about tipping and a crushing death, and start rocking, shoving, and/or kicking the machine, enforcing your God-given rights to that processed foodstuffs. (I happen to have a 4th option; going to the person here at work in charge of the vending machines and saying, "It stole my money again," and getting my money back.)

It's frustrating, it's annoying, and it's entirely preventable, folks. Do you know whose fault it really is? The manufacturer of said screw-type vending machines. With the exact same hardware, and only a minor change to the software running the machine, we could significantly reduce plight of being robbed by a machine. If they were to splurge and add some extra hardware, these unsung daily personal tragedies could forever be ended.

My solution would be to over-run the screw a bit. Instead of programming the screw to turn only one full turn, program it for, say, one turn plus another eighth of a turn. That extra eighth should be enough to ensure that your snack foods will be released and drop as promised to where you can retrieve them without a fight. "Wait a minute," those of you who are thinking ahead will say. "That'll mean that eventually, for every 8 people, 9 items will be released! No way a vendor will want to lose that money! They'll charge more!!" And you'd be right, but I'm not done. All the machine has to do is wait a second or two and reverse back that eighth of a turn. See? With something so simple, complaints would go down, and the threat of having your machine rocked, kicked, abused, or generally maligned would go way, way down.

How about that added extra hardware? Either a motion sensor, light curtain, or even a simple shock sensor in the catch tray that will let the electronics know if the snack did indeed fall out of the holder. If it did, nothing need be done. If not, keep turning the screw in small increments until the sensor tells you that the snack has fallen. Simple. Easy. And so, so effective.

So why hasn't it been done? Am I so special that I'm the only one who's thought of this? Has my mechanical aptitude and problem solving opened new vistas of understanding of vending-related problems? Based on my history of discovering that my great ideas have already been done, I seriously doubt it. Either the manufacturers aren't getting the message from the vending companies that their machines steal from customers, or somebody is willing to overlook the fact that some people will be stolen from, and others will benefit from it. It all evens out for them, so why should they care? Heartless capitalist vending bastards!

Some day I expect that these kinds of machines will be obsolete, and you'll only find them in the smoky taverns in small cities that don't even have cable TV yet. Newer, more intelligent and benevolent machines will take over our snack dispensing, and we'll all be happier for it. Until then, however, I'll always hold my breath as I watch that screw turn, wondering, "Will I get my Nibs today?"


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