Touring an Amazon Fulfillment Center (OAK4)

Scott Loftesness visiting OAK4

A few days ago I signed up for a tour of one of the nearby Amazon Fulfillment Centers – OAK4 – located in Tracy, California. I was pleasantly surprised to find availability for a tour almost immediately – didn’t have to wait for availability. You can check availability of a tour near you on this page. You can also read more information about what you’ll see on a Fulfillment Center tour.

I was one of about ten people taking the tour. We met in the lobby of OAK4 and were greeted by a team of four Amazon associates who led us on the tour of the facility. They escorted us to a large briefing room where we learned more about the process flow of goods through the Center and got outfitted with headphones and a wireless receiver so that we could hear the voice of the tour leader as she took us through the white noise of the Center. I’m wearing mine in the phone above!

I particularly enjoyed seeing the “stow” process – where incoming goods are randomly placed into bins on pods that robots move around the facility. In my picture, you can see the pods in the background – yellow stacks powered underneath by Kiva robots that whisk the pods around from place to place. Fascinating to watch the movement in action!

Anyway, back to my fascination with “stow” – because it’s a random process. Here’s Amazon’s description:

Instead of storing items as a retail store would—electronics on one aisle, books on another—all of the inventory at Amazon fulfillment centers is stowed randomly. Yellow, tiered “pods” stack bins full of unrelated items, all of them tracked by computers. This counterintuitive method actually makes it easier for associates to quickly pick and pack a wide variety of products.

The “stowers” job is a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Up comes a pod of bins delivered by a robot. The stower has a table of boxes filled with all manner of different items – selects one of the items and finds a place to stow it in one of the bins. The computer tracks this item placement so it knows where each and every item is located – in which bin in which pod. When a order arrives, the pod is delivered by the robot to the “picker” who retrieves the item and places it into a tote that will contain all of the items for that particular order. From there, the tote moves on to be packed into a box, labelled and sent off for shipment.

It’s amazing to see all of this operating at such massive scale. If you have an opportunity to visit one of the twenty or so Amazon Fulfillment Centers near you that offer tours, I highly recommend taking the tour. It’s fascinating! Thanks especially to the team at OAK4 for taking our group on such a great tour!


Last Friday my friends Doug Kaye, Steve Disenhof and I spent some time at the recently re-opened Salesforce Park in San Francisco. This park is above the Transit Center on the roof – elevators at either end bring you up to this roof top level.

One of the fun things to see at the park is a fountain (you can just see the holes for the nozzles in the white ring above) that’s triggered when a bus comes through the Transit Center below. There’s a glass wall behind the fountain that makes for some fun reflections. That’s a reflection of Steve walking in the upper right corner (with the hat!).

With this image, I tweaked it a bit in Lightroom, Photoshop and Topaz Simplify to give it a more painterly effect in black and white. The original image – shot with my iPhone Xs Max – is below:

A Few Links for Labor Day

Here are a few links to articles and podcasts that I found interesting this Labor Day morning and over the past few days:

  • Malcolm Gladwell and Timor Kuran. A few days ago someone mentioned The Portal podcast hosted by Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) and, in particular, the episode with Duke University professor Timor Kuran (@timurkuran). Their discussion about Kuran’s theory of preference falsification was fascinating – especially about how things in society can “cascade”. A day or two later I happened to watch this New Yorker video (April 2018) with David Remnick and Malcolm Gladwell (@gladwell) during which Gladwell highlights perhaps his favorite New Yorker article titled Thresholds of Violence (October 2015) – about how school shootings have caught on in America. In that article, Gladwell talks about Stanford professor Mark Granovetter‘s famous 1978 paper about how riots happen – in particular how “a riot is a case of destructive violence that involves a great number of otherwise quite normal people who would not usually be disposed to violence.” He asks the question: “But what if the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic is to go back and use the Granovetterian model—to think of it as a slow-motion, ever- evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?” The connection between Kuran’s false preferences and Granovetter’s threshold models of collective behavior was striking to me. I highly recommend both the Gladwell video and the Weinstein/Kuran discussion on the podcast – fascinating stuff with profound implications for our time.
  • Podcast: Land of the Giants – by Jason Del Rey. A few fascinating episodes exploring the success of Highly recommended!
  • Podcast: The Moment with Brian Koppelman and his interview with author Ben Mezrich (author most recently of Bitcoin Billionaires which I also really enjoyed reading – see my highlights here).
  • Photography (YouTube): Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera Challenge – Sean Tucker – The challenge provides a photographer with a minimalist cheapie camera – and follows him shooting with it. Good fun!
  • Travel: The Insider’s Guide to Santa Fe – from Outside magazine and Tourism Santa Fe. One of my favorite small cities and the home of Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.

Demons hate fresh air!…

While driving to the post office this morning to drop off a photography book that I sold, I was listening to the latest edition of Len Edgerly’s Kindle Chronicles and his discussion with his longtime friend Bryan Person.

At one point, Len mentioned how he uses Austin Kleon’s latest book Keep Going as a trigger for morning journaling – and how one chapter in particular, highlighted the benefits of just taking a walk and getting away from “our devices!”

From Austin’s blog:

Here’s Linn Ullmann, in an interview with Vogue, on her father Ingmar Bergman:

My father was a very disciplined and punctual man; it was a prerequisite for his creativity. There was a time for everything: for work, for talk, for solitude, for rest. No matter what time you get out of bed, go for a walk and then work, he’d say, because the demons hate it when you get out of bed, demons hate fresh air. So when I make up excuses not to work, I hear his voice in my head: Get up, get out, go to your work.

This notion, for me, is one of the things I enjoy about street photography. While it’s fun to take some pictures, chase the interesting light, find exciting “stages” and backgrounds and great people, a big component of my enjoyment is just getting out, walking, and enjoying the fresh air and the scene. My friend Doug Kaye and I have talked about on our walks – how great it is just to get out of the house, into the city, and getting some exercise – both physically and for our minds.

At the moment, I’m just back from a walk at our local neighborhood park. It’s a lovely warm (but not too warm) Saturday afternoon and there were several couples out walking as well, a group taking portraits with the pond/fountain in the background, a couple chatting seriously while sitting on one of the picnic tables, etc. I often take my AirPods along on these walks to listen to a podcast – but today I didn’t. I wanted to just be in the moment, alone with my thoughts, without any other audio stimulation. It was great! Twenty minutes yielded just over a mile of walking – and the fresh air certainly helped chase the demons away.

On Not Being Eric Kim

Admiration. That’s what I have for street photographer, blogger, and vlogger Eric Kim. I started following Eric’s blog several years ago as he began actively writing about the joys he found in street photography. His blogging efforts led him to pursue teaching street photography classes in various cities around the world and, more recently with his partner Cindy, an active publishing (both open source and for sale) and photo gear related business (see his product page).

Eric’s blogging has evolved beyond the mechanics of street photography into his philosophy of life – his joys, his worries, and his endless pursuit of creativity. I enjoy reading him for his quick comments and insights – almost always stimulating my thoughts off in an unexpected direction. Reading his work and watching his talks open my mind in new ways.

Recently, Eric gave a talk at Google which is available for watching on YouTube. One of the best parts of his talk – much of which is focused on his approaches to creativity – starts at about 19:30 into the video. He shares one of the photos of an older woman with a big smile that he captured years ago on the streets of New York City. His description of that image, how he shot and and his interaction with the audience about the photo is just great. (He sells a signed limited edition of this print on his website.) He’s written about this on his blog as well.

As for me, Eric’s had an impact recently – he’s helped jumpstart me back into more actively writing for my blog. Watching his work, I’ve come to realize that sharing is both worthwhile and also easy to do with today’s blogging tools. I’m able to quickly have an idea and – on any of my computers or mobile devices – being drafting a blog post on that idea.

This post is a great example. While waiting for my coffee to brew this morning, I was thinking about Eric and that segment where he shares the store of the smiling older woman. That got me thinking about how I admire what he does – and what he’s been doing for years now. And so here we are. Thanks Eric!

Book: Parable by Jess Walter

In last week’s Kindle Chronicles podcast, Len Edgerly interviewed Amazon’s Julia Sommerfeld about her work as the editorial director of Amazon Original Stories. Amazon Original Stories “brings unforgettable short fiction and nonfiction to Kindle” and the stories are available to Amazon Prime members at no additional cost.

In the interview, Sommerfeld happened to mention a short title “Parable” by Jess Walter that’s part of the Amazon Original Stories series “The One” – “true stories that stay with you.” Walter is the author of a major recent best seller, Beautiful Ruins, that I’ve not read but have heard good things about – “a story of an almost-love affair that begins on the Italian coast in 1962 . . . and is rekindled in Hollywood fifty years later.”

On a recent hour long drive we listened toJess Walter read the story (with the Original Stories series you get both the Kindle book and the Audible audio book) – and enjoyed it very much. It’s a dog story – and, like most dog stories, also a love story that makes you remember how having a dog affected your life. In addition to the story, Walter’s narration is perfect for the book.

The Kindle Chronicles is one of my favorite weekly podcasts. Edgerly has maintained a rigorous every Friday posting schedule for almost 600 weekly episodes – for me, the Chronicles has become a regular Saturday morning listening pleasure every weekend!

Enjoying Sean Tucker

One of my favorite YouTube channels is Sean Tucker’s. While it’s nominally about photography, Sean’s videos are as much about his philosophy of life and living. As he says: “I’m more interested in the ‘why’ of photography than in the ‘how’.” I’ve listed Sean as one of the photographers who inspires me on my Inspiration page.

During a recent workshop, the instructor played one of Sean’s videos – which is very much about the “how”. It’s one of his best tutorial videos – all about the exposure triangle and how to shoot in manual mode.

Highly recommended!

A more recent one that I also really enjoyed is this one: Taking Portraits of Strangers (feat. Gabrielle Motola). After an introduction by Sean, Gabrielle talks about her approach to shooting portraits of strangers – by approaching them, talking to them, and capturing their images. She shares some great insights into that style of street portrait photography!

Be sure to subscribe to Sean’s channel so that you get notified when he’s posted a new video. I find they’re always very worthwhile!

Seeing Georgia O’Keeffe’s Living Modern

A few weeks ago – after returning from a week in Santa Fe – I made a day trip to Reno to visit the Nevada Museum of Art and its Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition Living Modern (organized by the Brooklyn Museum). I caught a morning flight from San Francisco and arrived at the museum just as it was opening at 10 AM. The sun was pretty dramatic on the museum building that morning.

The exhibition was beautifully displayed – a combination of both O’Keeffe’s artwork (paintings and drawings) and her clothing. The combination helped illuminate my understanding of her as a person – particularly her emphasis on wearing black – and her use of light and shadows in her artwork.

One of my favorite drawings of hers – Winter Road – was on display near the end of exhibition. It’s a drawing of a long driveway – strikingly done.

Winter Road

The exhibition displayed her artwork on the walls while her clothing was displaying in the middle on mannequins. The combination provided a lovely juxtaposition allowing a movement back and forth across the two domains.

In a different area of the museum there’s another exhibit of O’Keeffe’s camping gear. She was quite an outdoor woman – spending overnights camping out in her favorite locations in New Mexico.

The gift shop in the museum had the following quote from O’Keeffe – which sums her her clothing style!

I hadn’t been to Reno in many years so it was fun to catch back up with the city a bit while I was there. About a block from the museum is the breakfast and lunch spot Peg’s Glorified Ham and Eggs. Naturally I had to try it out – having breakfast for lunch!

After lunch, I stopped by the National Automobile Museum – about 160+ classic cars from the original collection acquired over the years from casino owner Bill Harrah. A worthwhile visit – the movie provides a great overview of the collection and about Bill Harrah.