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A Japanese liquor and beer vending machineThe Economist's Technology Quarterly supplement last week had an article about how more and more companies are "outsourcing" tasks to... their customers. The article caught the attention of Michael as well as others, and I think it's a useful analogy for use in discussions about outsourcing.

Fast Company Now brings us some great examples of just how far vending machines can go. As is commonly the case, a look at everyone's favorite tech-crazy country (Japan) demonstrates where the rest of us may be in a few years.

In the middle of cooking, only to find that you don't have enough rice? No need to go to the grocery, just walk down to the corner and get some from the vending machine. Same story for eggs. Need to use a public restroom, but it's all out of toilet paper? Get some from the vending machine. Fish just got your lure? Get one from the vending machine. You can even use an automated kiosk to donate blood.

Didn't think it could get any weirder? You can even buy USED SCHOOLGIRL PANTIES from a vending machine. Though I guess you won't find those machines in Tokyo anymore...

I remember seeing vending machines in the São Paulo subway that sold books. It seems like a great idea... put whatever the latest bestselling pop novels are, and people can read them during their commute. They did that, but they also had an interesting range of other books, like a vegetarian cookbook and a Sherlock Holmes book. Of course, they also had some that looked to be slimmed-down textbooks on things like civil legal code. I really can't figure that one out at all...