Technologies Old and New

A roundup of stories/posts/videos I found interesting:

The Jacquard Loom is historically important,  not only for its direct impact on the textile industry but also for the inspirational role that it played in the emergence of punched cards and computers.  Jacquards are still very much a live industrial technology, although the warp threads are now lifted by computer-controlled solenoids or hydraulic cylinders rather than by direct mechanical linkage.  Several attempts have been made to create affordable Jacquard looms for home use, but they have foundered on the cost of purchasing and installing a solenoid for every warp thread.  Here is a very clever way around that problem.

Also, an explanation of how a traditional Jacquard works.

Speaking of the textile industry, I wrote a couple of years ago about attempts to automate apparel manufacturing, especially the work of an Atlanta company called Softwear Automation and their product Sewbot.  So I was interested the other day to see this piece about apparel automation in Bangladesh.

See also this report from McKinsey on Nearshoring and Automation in the Apparel Industry.

Reviving manufacturing in Singapore, with the aid of robotics.

Are electronic medical records actually a detriment to knowing the patient?

Outgrowing Software…Benedict Evans suggest that when everything is a software company, then the important questions are somewhere else.

Also from Benedict Evans: Are You a Seal?  (If you are, watch out for Amazon!)

Constructing a bridge in Praguein 1357.

Speaking of construction: Automation in the Construction Industry


(An earlier version of this post was published at Ricochet; member feed only)


13 thoughts on “Technologies Old and New”

  1. Textile production was nearly the first “industry” to be mechanized/automated and clothing production may end up being the last. Every time I challenge my rudimentary sewing skills, I’m reminded just how contrary fabric is. I put industry in quotes because before mechanization, it hardly qualified as an industry, more a semi-organized handicraft with all the work being done in the houses of the workers.

    It was mechanization that drove the increased demand for wool that, in turn, drove the enclosure movement in England and the demand for cotton that had an eventual hand in our Civil War. Before mechanization, it took about five spinners or more to supply one weaver. This bottle neck, of course, made all fabrics expensive. Imagine what a tee-shirt would cost if it required several, maybe even tens of man hours. I tried to find just how much yarn a single spindle could produce in a year, I doubt it was more than tens of pounds. It would have to depend on how fine the yarn was. This is what made shear fabrics a status symbol. Remember the actual length, thus the effort needed to produce the yarn in a piece of cloth increases by the square of the thread count.

    The resistance of soft-goods manufacture to automation is what has driven them into low wage countries like Bangladesh. Once a machine can do the work, that advantage disappears and all the disadvantages of being located thousands of miles and several oceans from the market become more pronounced. This has to be a factor driving the migration on our southern border.

  2. Software is a tool. A very powerful one with appropriate hardware, but not the reason things are changing so fast. Its because it has been used as a tool for media, that it impacts the average guy.

    I could go on for a long time about the horrors of that influence on music, but it would be largely esoteric for most people. Its influence on TV and Movies is the most destabilizing for the vast majority of people. Its allowed more choice and the companies involved have made more money, at the expense of traditional media. I used to boost several Dish satellites, a technical exercise you understand, and there were 700 channels, laid our in the web browser interface I built. By far the best media interface I have ever seen. Hell I could search it. ;)

    There was nothing on! I found only the actual Sky channel worth watching. The one about the technology involved in the entire satellite to earth operation was at least interesting. Now I have Amazon Prime, for the free and fast delivery, as I can buy a lot of my groceries much cheaper. The TV and Movie service you get has perhaps more product than the 2 Dish satellites, but again there is nothing worth watching. Impressive really. ;)

    As for medical records, I don’t disagree but times are changing fast and I look forward to computer doctors taking over much of what is trivial, to free up real doctors as they are so heavily loaded now. As well I now have access to all my medical records, which I do like.

  3. Electronic Medical Records exist to do one primary job…..”upcoding”. If you understand the metrics by which insurers assign billing levels you can create documentation to justify the higher ones. Add three elements of medical history, two of family history, a review of systems that mentions 15 body parts instead of 10….presto! you get paid more.

    To the extent that it encourages physicians to be more thorough that’s for the good. But practically speaking it ends up being cut and paste of previous data and a clickity click through a menu. No fever, chills, night sweats, weight loss, possible pregnancy……does not matter if the patient is male and there for a sprained ankle.

    Back in the day I saw way too many rushed jobs. “uvula midline” when they’d had airway surgery and there was no uvula! I shudder to imagine how some of these “records” would look if you had to defend them in a lawsuit.

    All this being said the better EHRs did bring in useful info on things like allergies and if the system was of the inclusive sort you could see prior ER visits, pull up earlier imaging, find that complete H and P done by a fellow Old School type. But “knowing the patient”? Difficult.

    With my super human keyboarding skills learned back in the 1970’s, and my general orneryness, I spend the last decade of my career working ER….and hand typing everything. Rarely did I use the “templates” other than for the few things they were good for. Write a story. What did the patient say. What did you see. How did you decide what tests to order. Show you discussed this at length with patient and family. How did tests and treatment turn out. On discharge exactly what was the patient supposed to look for and what was their responsibility if various things ensued.

    I made it through my entire career without a lawsuit.


  4. Tacitus…”No fever, chills, night sweats, weight loss, possible pregnancy……does not matter if the patient is male and there for a sprained ankle.”

    I was told on good authority about a hospital which had 3 EMR systems…one for emergency, one for maternity, and one for everything else. They decided to consolidate into a single system, which resulted in a maternity doc, for example, having to answer questions about patient’s prostate. (And this was prior to the Woke takeover)

    Both the CTO and the hospital CEO were fired.

  5. David,
    That’s an awfully long article to say maybe something less than a pound a day, so my guess was low. When you look at all the other work that they talk about in preparing the fibers for spinning, the pounds per man-day would be somewhat less. Still, as late as 1843 when Dickens published his “Christmas Carol” Scrooge’s second hand clothes and bed linens were worth stealing at a time when theft could get you transported or hanged.

    For now, I expect there’s still enough hand content in most soft goods that the machines will be transported to the cheap labor. The production of yarn and cloth has also moved to places like Bangladesh and Pakistan to the point that a lot of the cotton grown here is exported.

  6. That EMR story is a decade old…
    The healthcare system is one perfect example of recent American development where everyone seems to hate changes that nevertheless just keep rolling along. Every patient says they want their own personal doctor who knows them, every doctor says they want to have more direct relationships with their patients, and yet the whole system continues to transform into a huge industrial assembly-line that doesn’t even succeed on its own terms, there’s no cost savings and certainly not better health outcomes. Just this week recent stories have insurers here saying they want 40%+ rate hikes, and major local hospitals are merging with another system across the state, “to weather the negative financial effects of the Covid pandemic” and “create a more efficient, cost-effective and integrated health system.”

  7. I was a fan and subscriber to Reason Magazine when Virginia postrel was the editor. When she left, the magazine became less interesting.

    I’ve always found her an interesting writer. One of her most interesting pieces of writing is her recent book “the fabric of civilization: how textiles changed the world”

    Not something that normally interests me so I was surprised how much I liked it and hope much I learned. It is a history of textile from caveman to present.

    Virginia dabbles in weaving, dying, knitting and so on herself. This gives her a great feel for the subject

  8. By 1990, Fort Payne Alabama made 1 out of every 8 pairs of socks produced globally. About 8,000 people worked in 125 mills.

    There are 2 main steps to making a sock

    Knit the tube on a Rotary knitting machine. This has been highly automated forever though it requires machine tenders and mechanics.

    Sew the toes closed. This was completely manual and very labor intensive

    I first heard about Fort Payne in the 90s when all the mills were moving to Honduras ad el Salvador. One of the mill managers explained that the cost of knitting the tube was about the same wherever they did it.

    They had never been able to automate toes sewing and the labor cost killed them.

    So jobs left.

    In the past 20 years or so, automated toe sewing machines have been developed. Now the manufacturing is coming back to the us.

    But not the sewing jobs. And not necessarily to Fort Payne.

  9. Second the Postrel “Fabric” book–I’ve recommended it here I think, definitely at Althouse.

    An eye-opener.

  10. The techniques of building the bridge in Prague is, allowing for differences in materials, the same that could be used today to build a pier in the middle of a fairly deep, fast flowing river. We don’t build bridges with stone arches much anymore but using piles to support the false work would have been SOP into the 20th century. The human powered “engines” would have been current through much of the 19th supplemented by animal power where that was possible.

    When you get down to it, just about everything we call technology dates from no more than 200 or so years ago. Compare how fast things have changed in these two centuries to how slowly things changed in the millennia before.

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