97 posts categorized "Paul W. Smith" Feed

The Technology of Abolishing Jobs (by Paul W. Smith)

Donald Trump Job Creation

“I will be the greatest jobs President that God ever created.”

 @POTUS Donald Trump campaigned with this and won, partially due to the job-loss-induced frustration in places like the Rust Belt.  Building a border wall and introducing import tariffs will help some, but they won’t fix the problem.  Technology is the real villain, and many of the jobs lost over the past generation are gone forever.

 What really happened to the disappearing jobs?  A study from Ball State University revealed that only 13% of lost manufacturing jobs could be blamed on foreign trade, while the remaining 87% were due to technology. At least for the near future, they don’t see it getting any better. 

Service/knowledge jobs have also been disappearing.  Some loss is due to computers, which have increased the productivity of these workers several-fold.  If your call to tech support goes through a series of number pushes on your phone to finally get a live person, you have experienced one example of this first-hand. Many of us frequently interact with ATM’s and Self-Checkout lines – two more examples of technology improving business productivity.    Apple’s Siri can now take dictation for many documents and messages.  Google’s translation program is fast and accurate.  Massive Open Online Courses are disrupting the business of higher education.   Automated online ordering is rapidly demolishing the brick-and-mortar business model. The perp-list is long and it’s growing.

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The Smell Test (by Paul W. Smith)

Dog Nose Smell Test 2

If you’ve ever owned a pair of Adadas shoes or worn a Rollex watch, you probably grasp the appeal of fake stuff.  The Chinese are well-known for their addiction to fake stuff, although no one is really sure why.  It might be simple economics (fake stuff is cheaper), or it could be the lack of effective laws to combat faking.  Whether to impress or save money - or both - fake stuff is big in China as well as the rest of the world. 

The people who make fake stuff also grasp this, and they have parlayed that understanding into a $461 billion industry.  When it comes to shoes or handbags, it is a substantial economic threat that erodes innovation and dilutes brands.  When extended to pharmaceuticals or children’s toys, it can be dangerous. 

The Internet hasn’t made this any simpler.  Start searching for a new camera online, and you will quickly find a wide range of prices for what seems to be the same model.  Closer inspection might show that some of the good deals are actually grey market items, which can have more shades than Christian’s ties but are typically legal (though unauthorized by the original manufacturer.)  Most serious photographers are smart enough to avoid the remarkably good deal on a Nikkon. 

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Placebo Power (by Paul W. Smith)


There are certain philosophical questions that may never be answered, at least not to the satisfaction of a pragmatic engineer like me.  If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  Why is there something rather than nothing?  What is the sound of one hand clapping? And of course, the ever popular – What is the meaning of life?  

Although any one of these could keep a person’s brain tied up in knots for a very long time, I’d like to add one more to the list - Is a placebo still a placebo when you know it’s a placebo and it still works? 

When the word placebo enters the conversation, most of us think of a drug trial.  Some of the folks in the trial will get the actual drug being tested, and others will receive the placebo - a presumably worthless decoy.  If an inactive, nondescript pill can’t outperform a soon-to-be outrageously expensive miracle drug, there’s a problem in Big Pharma Land

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My God, What Have We Done?* (by Paul W. Smith)

The Gadget Small

Atomic bombs are in the news of late.  Last year we marked the 70th anniversary of the first use of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima.  A treaty intended to keep Iran from getting one is still being argued on Capitol Hill.  All eyes are on North Korea, where Supreme Dictator Kim Jong-un grows ever closer to having a viable nuclear weapon of his own (10 kilotons as of a September 2016 test).  In a perfect world, we would be the only country with an A-bomb arsenal, and we would trust ourselves to stay away from the button. 

In the summer of 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to let him know that the Nazis were working to extract and purify uranium-235.  Although this was quite difficult to do at the time, it was known to be a key ingredient for an atomic bomb.  Nazi success in this endeavor would not end well for the rest of the free world.  FDR’s immediate reaction was to kick off the Manhattan Project, with the goal of beating the Germans.  And so began the atomic race. 

The project was managed from start to finish by Robert Oppenheimer, who orchestrated processes of gaseous diffusion, magnetic isotope separation, and mechanical centrifuging to get “The Gadget” ready for testing in the summer of 1945.  Since this had never been done before, no one was totally certain whether the test, code-named “Trinity”, would be a colossal dud or a civilization-changing event.  The flash, reportedly seen by a blind girl 120 miles away, affirmed the latter and set off some profound and diverse responses.

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U, Robot (by Paul W. Smith)

  Asimo and C3PO
Artificial people are not a new thing.  To be clear, I am not talking about  non-human legal entities, nor do I mean the sort of folk you meet at cocktail parties who can talk for hours without saying anything.  Here I refer only to people whose creators are other technically skilled people. 

This notion of artificial people goes back as far as recorded history, with mythical “beings” dating to circa 400 BC.  The famous notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci contained sketches of humanoid mechanisms dated 1495.  It’s unclear if he ever tried to build any of them, but in his day when scientists often ran afoul of the Church, doing so openly would not have been wise.

More recently, Disney has dabbled in this stuff as well.  I remember as a teenager on one of my first visits to Disneyland, there was much buildup and excitement leading to “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln”.  After all the fanfare, a somewhat stilted life-sized likeness of Honest Abe spoke briefly in a small, dimly lit theatre.  Another early Disney entry into artificial creatures was the Enchanted Tiki Room, where to this day the artificial birds continue to annoy unwitting crowds. 

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Thinking Outside the Book (by Paul W. Smith)

Beginning surgery copy

As I was growing up, we had a kindly old family doctor who would make house calls if you couldn’t come to his office (yes, I’m that old).  When he retired, his son took over the practice and took care of me during my anxiety-ridden teenage years.  There was a time when I had difficulty sleeping and Doc Jr. prescribed warm milk with a drop or two of vanilla before bed.  Although I can’t prove it, I’m pretty sure he’s the doctor on whom the character Marcus Welby, MD was based.

Fast forward to more recent times, and medicine (even on TV) is a bit different.  One of my favorite fictional docs is Gregory House, whose medical genius far surpasses his bedside manner.  With his A-Team of talented young physicians in tow, House solves the most difficult diagnostic puzzles, often trying 3 or 4 off-the-wall treatments before finding the correct one.  His best line to a patient?  “You’re going to die, but at least we know why.”

The medical profession has known since Galen that classroom knowledge can take you only so far; actual practice on real humans is the only way to grow the experience base and nurture the requisite intuition.  When my primary care physician begins a statement with “In my 16 years of practice….”, I feel reassured.  I’ve checked, and the Physician’s Desk Reference doesn’t list warm milk with vanilla as a substitute for Xanax.

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