“We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them,” said Kawai, a half century-long company veteran tapped by President Akio Toyoda to promote craftsmanship at Toyota’s plants. “When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything.”
It’s not a Luddite reaction to eschew the new technology in favor of the old, not always. I still do work on my own gas powered lawn equipment. It takes me longer, I’m less skilled generally than a pro, but I learn a lot every time. And part of that learning is helping me diagnose problems or hopefully in the long run get more life out of the equipment I have. In some ways, if we don’t practice those hard won skills we become victims to the status quo. If you delegate tasks to robots because they can do them “better” and for less pay, then what you get is a high tech version of the status quo. A robot will not see the inefficiency in what it’s been tasked with doing. It’s not going to notice the room for improvement. It’s not going to suggest to the line manager, “Hey this bolt needs to be mechanically hardened, it seems like it might sheer off easily”. Same is true for the Engineers and Designers who make the production lines, if they aren’t well versed in the steps or willing to take feedback from the production line, how long before we call an end to innovation? One of the great strengths of Japanese car manufacture after World War 2 was the W. Edwards Demming method of statistical quality control. Part of that is not simply always getting zero defects out of a production line. Some of that is gaining input from the workers as the whole car is put together. If you don’t have a feedback loop, and that’s what this article is pointing to, then you’re going to be making the same car at the same price for a very, very long time. Statistical quality control implies continuous improvement not just in the product but for the experience of the workers too, including safety, and doing a great job, enjoying what you are doing. All those come into play and are lost when as much of the work as is possible is turned over to the robots. Let’s not lose those hard won skills of knowing how to be a machinist, fabricator and assembler. Let’s exercise them, and become better at what we’re downing now, and what we’re doing in the future.
Presented for your approval. to you dear reader. These two seemingly benign mobile phone pics were taken from a nameless, faceless supermarket store chain (I will withhold their name for now).
I have shopped at this store regularly since around 2005 or so and since at least 2006 have shopped there once every two weeks spending anywhere from $50-$100 (not much compared to big families I’m sure). But what ticks me off is that no matter how refined the Inventory and Tracking systems are for any regional grocery store chain, and no matter how much I use my ‘loyalty’ surveillance card for that particular regional grocery store, they still seem to be stuck in the 20th Century. I say that as I have observed the following bad habits time after time, and not just with one regional grocery store but with the top two store chains where I live. Neither one, no matter how much data they collect can seem to keep carrying some items I purchase once every two weeks. Or maybe less frequently than that depending on the product. For instance look at the two photos presented at the top of the webpage. On the left you see what I would describe conservatively as the ‘oddball’ or ‘old-fashioned’ specialty laundry supply shelf. In this regional grocery store, that’s on the very top shelf where it’s less convenient to reach up and haul down a 5 pound box of some kind of laundry product. All the ‘average’ mass market stuff is at waist level or on the bottom where it can easily be slid onto the shopping cart’s bottom cargo shelf (so it’s already a struggle to get to this stuff). The product I like to purchase is the Calgon water softener. Why you ask? Well let me first turn back the clock to the 1970s and this old TV commercial:
As a kid I didn’t do laundry. My Mom would do all the washing and folding up until I was in my later teens. That’s when I had a few experiences washing and folding myself (and occasionally fixing the washing machine too!). I never once in that time really thought about fabric softener or any of those additives market to the heads of households. Whether it was for fragrance or softness or any of those other qualities I didn’t really care once I left home. I just wanted the soap to dissolved completely, do it’s job and rinse completely out of the clothes. Over time the soap/detergent issue came up time and again where a load of laundry would be fouled with undissolved detergent granules that just wouldn’t rinse clean. Which is EXACTLY the opposite of what a clothes washer is supposed to do. At the very least, a clothes washer should do no harm, and not make your clothes dirtier by leaving this sugar like residue clinging tenaciously to your jeans and shirts. But I digress, what I’ve always wanted was a measure of insurance that I wouldn’t suffer from undissolved detergent. The surest way towards that is using really hot water at the initial stage or using a chemical like Calgon to help all the detergent mix into the water. And that’s the refinement I eventually developed all on my own living by myself, doing my own laundry. It took years to get to this point.
So the day that I eventually caved into buying Calgon (I don’t remember when it was exactly but I did it some years before I got married), I stuck with it. My grocery store had no problem keeping that product in stock along with such other oddities as 20 Mule Team Borax and Color Safe Clorox bleach (in the blue box). You can see both of them in the pictures above. The other store I visit also keeps a handy supply of Fel’s Naptha and Downy Flakes as well for the people who crave the old-fashioned products that aren’t designed to ‘Do-it-All’. In fact I think I’ve even seen little blue bottles of ‘Bluing Agent’ to get white dress shirts extra white too. I fully understand the connection, nay emotional tie some seniors and very valuable store customers might have to their favorite brand name cleaner. I too count myself among their ranks.
However, now you can imagine my surprise when I discovered for the first time in 9 years or more that my grocery store has suddenly run out of Calgon. Worse yet as the ‘Before’ picture shows, it’s GONE. No shelf label, no space set aside. It would have been located roughly in that gap between the two Oxy-Clean bottles near the middle (one with green cap, one with yellow). That’s where the Calgon had been sitting for literally 9 years at that store. But I paused and I thought I might become and old man and complain bitterly that, ‘they keep moving things in this store, I can’t find anything’. In fact I did a hardcore search up and down and on successive visits, never once seeing the Calgon return. So I gave up. I stopped using it because I couldn’t find it anywhere else. Months pass, almost 5 months in fact. Out of the blue I decided once more to look and see if they ever got anymore Calgon boxes. I had not looked in that long because it showed no sign of ever returning. I even had looked at buying it by the case online through Amazon (minimum 10 boxes per case at roughly $5.20 per box=$52.00 plus shipping). When I looked this time however, I found it!
Calgon had magically re-appeared not in the same spot, but at least near it’s friend 20 Mule Team Borax on the top shelf as always. There it was, and not just one box. I counted at least 7 boxes in total so someone must have purchased at least 3 boxes out of the case they put on the shelf. Whew! I thought, how lucky am I that whatever oversight, misstep or mistake was made it is now rectified. But it wasn’t enough for me, to just be happy and let this go. I have had more than one of these episodes occur at both the grocery stores I visit. Let me tell you another story about a loyal shopper in search of a brand name product that suddenly vanishes altogether.
My favorite gum, Trident Xtra Care (in any flavor whatsoever, I’m not picky)
Trident Xtra Care gum, I’ve seen it come and go. And now I can’t find it anywhere even after a small glimmer of hope at a national drug store chain. I’ve been buying it every week from two different supermarkets. And yet, no love in return. I had hope when one of the supermarkets it started carrying it after dropping it for a while. Now even the drugstore where I had found a stash of gum has now dropped it too.
Hershey’s Extra Dark is not the same as Hershey’s Special Dark. They are in different leagues, worlds apart from one another.
Special Dark as you recall from your trick-or-treating days is the Bit-0-honey of the Hershey’s Mini Assortment bag. It was like black licorice, blech! It wasn’t all that special, but more bitter than anything else. I despise Hershey Special Dark. However it’s cousin Hershey Extra Dark is different. It’s a 60% Cocoa dream and smoother than any Cadbury, Ghirardelli or Scharffen-Berger. It is the most inexpensive choice save for Cadbury but Cadbury Dark is a dead ringer for Hershey Special Dark and just as objectionable from a taste standpoint. However as I have been pointing out, my favorite product apparently is too difficult for the local grocery stores to keep in stock. I have to go for weeks without a decent chocolate bar usually ending in me buying a Cadbury Special Dark which as I have said is no different than Hershey Special Dark. The best way for me describe it is like eating Nestle bittersweet chocolate morsels (somewhat bitter but WAY too much sugar and 0% cocoa butter).
I guess I should be thankful I make enough money to buy these items regularly. I am so lucky, how lucky I am to have the ability to earn money and have spare time to write about these minor annoyances. It’s true. But at the same time I am achingly curious over the decisions that drive what stores choose to stock and those they let lapse through a fiscal quarter and fiscal year. Is it all a big mistake or is it absolutely necessary to meet your quarterly sales targets? So one customer (namely ME) is inconvenienced and is unlikely to say or do anything about their favorite product going missing without explanation. But this is where I’m drawing the line and asking why, especially give the technology underlying the whole product mix and stocking practices at any retailer. Those guys know what they are doing and I’m an unhappy customer. I am writing this as a way of identifying the damage in the network and will have to begin routing around just like the Internet. Goodbye Supermarket brick and mortar store, hello Amazon dot Com.
Slight change of pace this week leading up to the Thanksgiving Holiday. There’s a great video out there for all to see from the creator of the CMOS imaging chip (second generation digital imaging device according to his slides). Dr. Eric Fossum talks a little about the implications of cheap image senors, then talks about the technical challenge of getting around CCD’s limitations.
Check out the video of the Lecture. Dr. Fossum attempts to address the societal and privacy implications of his invention the CMOS sensor. You don’t find too many scientists willing to engage in this type of presentation. And he brings the thorny issues early in the presentation so that he doesn’t run out of time to cover them by sticking them at the end.
Also interesting in this video is Dr. Fossum’s story about how he was assigned the task of improving the reliability of CCDs (charged coupled devices) that were being sent into space. Defects in the sensor could occur when a highly energetic particle entered the sensor and created a defect in the sensor itself (ruing the ability to read out data accurately from the chip). The CCD works by collecting a sample than moving it one step at a time out to the edge of the chip, where it then gets amplified and read, and recorded. So if a defect occurs, the buckets moving a particular row or column of pixels will hit the defect and alter the reading or stop it from reading altogether.
Dr. Fossum was able to get around this by building an amplifier into each pixel. This was achieved, hanks to the scaling down of micro-electronics available in silicon semi-conductors and Moore’s Law. A double-benefit of using CMOS semiconductors for the sensor is you can add all kinds of OTHER electronic circuits on the same chip as the sensor, so things get really interesting because you can integrate them on the silicon (bring up performance, bringing down costs). As Dr. Fossum says, “basically we can integrate so many things, we can create a full camera on a chip. All you do is add power, and out comes an image,…”
Also liked this quote, “The force of marketing is greater than the force of engineering…”
Lastly, he covers his research of quanta-image sensor (QIS) which sounds pretty interesting too.
Always nice to get an update on the elmcity project from Jon Udell. It is the ‘calendar’ of calendars and a great project showing how one can leverage open data, but at the same time confront some technological challenges too.
As I review and improve the elmcity hubs in selected cities, I am again reminded of William Gibson’s wonderful aphorism: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Yesterday we saw that the future of community calendars hasn’t yet arrived at the University of Michigan. But today I was delighted to see that it has arrived, in a big way, for the Ann Arbor public schools. Almost all of them, it turns out, are making good use of Google Calendar to publish machine-readable calendar information. This morning I rounded up thirty of those calendars and added them to Ann Arbor’s elmcity hub, bringing the total number of feeds from 194 to 224.
In a fight between Superman and Spiderman who would win? That’s a game we used to play as kids. Nowadays the question is more like in a fight between your personal data and a Government request to Google to access that data who would win? All evidence points to you being the loser. Read On:
The number of U.S. government requests for data on Google users for use in criminal investigations rose 29 percent in the last six months, according to data released by the search giant Monday.
Not good news in imho. The reason being is the mission creep and abuses that come with absolute power in the form of a National Security Letter. The other part of the equation is Google’s business model runs opposite to the idea of protecting people’s information. If you disagree, I ask that you read this blog post from Christopher Soghoian, where he details just what exactly it is Google does when it keeps all your data unencrypted in its data centers. In order to sell AdWords and serve advertisements to you, Google needs to keep everything open and unencrypted. At the same time they aren’t too casual in their stewardship of your data, but they do respond to law enforcement requests for customer data. To quote Seghoian at the end of his blog entry:
“The end result is that law enforcement agencies can, and regularly do request user data from the company — requests that would lead to nothing if the company put user security and privacy first.”
And that indeed is the moral of the story. Which leaves everyone asking what’s the alternative? Earlier in the same story the blame is placed square on the end-user for not protecting themselves. Encryption tools for email and personal documents have been around for a long time. And often there are commercial products available to help accomplish some level of privacy even for so-called Cloud hosted data. But the friction point is always going to be the level of familiarity, ease of use and cost of the product before it is as widely used and adopted as Webmail has been since the advent of desktop email clients like Eudora.
So if you really have concerns, take action, don’t wait for Google to act to defend your rights. Encrypt your email, your documents and make Google one bit less culpable for any law enforcement requests that may or may not include your personal data.
This past June, fellow High Tech History writer Gil Press wrote an entry in recognition of International Business Machines’ centennial. In the interim, I came across a documentary created by noted filmmaker Errol Morris for IBM that draws on the experiences of, among others, the corporation’s former technicians and executives to tell a thirty-minute story of some of IBM’s more notable achievements in computing over the last one hundred years.
In this instance, Morris’ collaboration with noted composer Philip Glass resulted in an expertly produced, sentimental (occasionally overly so), and informative oral history. Morris and Glass previously worked together on the 2003 Oscar-winning documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. And this was not the first time that Morris had been commissioned to work for IBM. In 1999 he filmed a short documentary intended to screen at an in-house conference for IBM employees. The conference never took place…