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July 2010 -Programmed obsolescence?

We have been having niggling problems with valve controls on some of our lung function gear of late. After trying all sorts of things we discovered there was, in fact, a software patch to deal with the issues we were trying to resolve. Why we needed software to fix the problem I am not sure. Indeed, was it fixing the problem or applying a fudge factor to overcome the problem? Probably better to not go there.

I have noticed that as the equipment we have has evolved there has been a progressive removal of "user" controls and interventions. Calibration is no longer by pots but via software. There are "factors" in the set up screens and one analyser, that really did require "driving", is no longer produced. You may very well think this is the trace of cynic in me speaking, and I could not possibly comment on that, but I find this disconcerting. The driver for this evolution is enabling people with less understanding of the equipment, and the physiology I fear, to make measurements and produce diagnostic reports. I admit I find it hard to blindly accept that a piece of software can be as competent as an experienced scientist. Particularly when you cannot verify or validate the algorithms behind that software. We are forced to make an act of faith.

As we become more and more software dependent, we also discover that, increasingly quickly there comes a point where your equipment becomes obsolete because the latest software upgrade can't be run on your system. We have had the word that the next upgrade for our lab system will not support our exercise system. Should we want to upgrade the lab system and keep the exercise integrated, we will need to replace the exercise gear. This is despite the fact that the system is working faultlessly. This is just the sort of rationale our organisation will respond favourably to!

At home as well, I am finding that I can no longer upgrade my photo editing software, as the processor and operating system are no longer compatible with the package. Of course the processor is not compatible with the operating system upgrade either! Sure my computer is two years old. My phone is less than a year old and already I am being bombarded by information exhorting me to invest in the next generation of phones!

Is this really progress?

I find that in my garage, at least when the car is not in residence precluding it being used for more rightminded purposes, I can step back in time. As I do more, and better, woodwork, I find myself gravitating to hand tools rather than machines. There is much more pleasure to be gained from finishing a piece of timber with a handplane than with a planing machine and sander. What is more, the finish is going to be of higher quality. An aberrant section of grain can lead to major tearout in the planer that is difficult to repair, but with properly tuned handplanes the damage is minmised and can be dealt with relatively easily. Hand working a piece of timber gives one an understanding of it, its grain structure, its inherent character. All the senses are stimulated. Furthermore you do not need to wear ear protection and are more likely to retain all your digits when working with hand tools. Sure there are roles for machines, and I do use them, but I find increasingly the pleasure comes from hand tools. Today I would rather spend money on quality handtools than on machines.

We all need computers to massage, oops I mean manage, our measurements but I do wonder whether we need increasing automation? I wonder whether we have as good an understanding of flow loops today as we did when we had to measure everything off the output from a chart recorder or an oscilloscope screen? I am not advocating a return to the pre computer days, but I do think that one of the keys to producing quality work is understanding how our measurements are made. With increasing automation this is becoming more difficult.

What will be the ultimate programmed obsolescence? Check your own lung function next time you visit your doctor using a coin-operated, self service lung function analyser?

The race is on. Will I become obsolete or switch to furniture making first?

'til then,

K

July, 2010

kevin.gain@health.wa.gov.au

 

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