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The challenge of plumbing the toilet-paper pipeline

May 21, 2020, 12:54 PM UTC

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Let’s talk about toilet paper.

I know what you’re thinking. What does TP have to do with tech? Bear with me, and I’ll get to that.

First, let me direct you to Jen Wieczner’s “The case of the missing toilet paper” in the current issue of Fortune. I encourage you to read it for many reasons. It answers some of the existential questions of our time, including: What happened to all the TP and shouldn’t it be fully stocked by now? It speaks to the treacherous challenge of forecasting in a time of crisis.

And finally, it includes some of the driest and uproariously funny potty humor I’ve ever read in the august pages of our 90-year-old magazine. (Examples: Wieczner writes that “major companies are now absorbing the reality that something as mundane as toilet paper represents a uniquely complex supply chain challenge,” and that Amazon, which has had a devil of time keeping the stuff stocked, has been “flushing away potential sales of other items while it plumbs its TP pipeline.”

This is serious stuff, of course. Amazon’s very prowess at stocking only as much as its customers need has turned into a weakness, toilet paper-wise. What’s more, building a new paper line is orders of magnitude more expensive than ramping up detergent production. Who knew?

All companies have to learn to forecast better by watching for inputs they never knew existed. (Where were the A.I.s when we needed them?) P&G, for one, says it will use data to generate earlier demand-shock warnings, Wieczner writes.

If they can get it right, what Wieczner calls the Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020 will be a distant memory.


Like many who’ve passed through Washington, D.C., at some point in their careers, I once spent plenty of time at Kramerbooks & Afterwords in DuPont Circle. The store, at least at its historic location, is closing. Like many things these days, that just doesn’t feel right.

Adam Lashinsky


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


I can dream about you, if I can't hold you tonight. After years of development and delays, Virgin Orbit is ready to go into orbit. The company's Boeing 747 launch platform, called Cosmic Girl, will haul a demonstration payload airborne on Sunday. If all goes well, it will boost the 70-foot-long LauncherOne rocket to 35,000 feet, where the rocket will drop off and head for the heavens under its own power. Next week comes an even bigger milestone for the private space industry. SpaceX is scheduled to launch the first private mission with a human crew on May 27.

Word play. Speaking of drop offs, AT&T will drop its advertising campaign around "5G Evolution," the carrier's confusingly named flavor of 4G that is definitely not 5G. The move comes after a division of the Better Business Bureau that regulates the ad industry ruled AT&T's ads could mislead consumers. But the possibly still confusing "5GE" icon will still appear on customers' phones.

Is that a mask on your face or are you just glad to see me? Apple's latest iOS update includes the coronavirus exposure notification system that the company has been working on with Google. The Bluetooth-based warning system, which includes some tweaks requested by health authorities, requires users to download an app from local health authorities to function. The update also helps iPhones detect if a user is wearing a mask to bring up the keypad login screen more quickly.

Cancel culture. On Wall Street, Expedia reported the kind of quarterly earnings you might expect for a travel web site in the midst of a pandemic. Revenue declined 15% to $2.2 billion and the company lost a staggering $1.3 billion versus a loss of $103 million a year ago. Still, that wasn't as bad as some expected and Expedia shares, down 26% in 2020, gained 2% in pre-market trading on Thursday. Booming video-game plays did not help game publisher Take-Two Interactive quite enough. The publisher of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption said its net bookings jumped 49% to $729 million. But Take-Two's shares, up 20% on the year previously, dropped 4% pre-market.


Most of the reporting about remote learning has focused on the negative, but for some students, the chance to learn in an isolated environment is a benefit. Elizabeth Harris reports for the New York Times on the experience of special education and other students who find traditional school a challenge.

For some, the avoidance of distractions like disruptive classmates, or simply not being in a room filled with other children, has been a boon. Others have taken advantage of the ability, when offered by their teachers, to work at their own pace and take breaks when they want. Some students have found it easier to participate in remote classes without the social pressures of a physical classroom. Introverts who are the last to volunteer an answer in class, even when they know it, are now making themselves heard.

“Kids who would not have put a hand up at the end of a lesson are now emailing me,” said Mike Drosos, a seventh-grade math teacher at Voice Charter. He said that it seemed to help those students “when the teacher isn’t making direct eye contact six inches from their desk.”


Can I write off my rent? What you need to know about tax write-offs while working from home during the coronavirus By Lee Clifford

Everyone wants a piece of Jio Platforms By Lucinda Shen

Exclusive: Neo-bank Aspiration raises $135M in Series C funding round By Rey Mashayekhi

What happens to an investor’s shares when a company delists? By Eamon Barrett

This $350 cocktail machine wants to bring the bar to you By Nicole Goodkind

Photo essay: Italy reopens museums and churches By Alex Scimecca, Mia Diehl, and Bernhard Warner

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. There is a 50% discount for our loyal readers if you use this link to sign up. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)


The latest winning diversion in the Pressman household is Hulu's wacky yet compelling series The Great starring Elle Fanning as Russian leader Catherine the Great. Nicholas Hoult is also brilliant as Catherine's doomed husband Peter. Now I just have to stop saying "Huzzah" all the time.

Aaron Pressman