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November 2014

Global Oil Prices and the Costs of Automation

In the automation industry, there are thousands of factors that determine how a fiscal year will go. Because automation is so heavily related to other important sectors of industry and job growth, it can be extremely interesting to note the ways in which seemingly disparate factors can aggregate to determine the success of individual automation projects.

For example, something as fickle as global oil cost has an impact on the automation industry for a number of reasons. In recent months, we have seen noticeable fluctuations in oil prices, though it had been a steady market for a long time. This has taken some by surprise, and now markets must catch up and account for the ways in which the future of the oil market will continue to affect the output of many industries.


Impacts on Other Industries


In automation, our health in any given year is largely determined by the health of our customer companies. As our customers need to factor an increased amount of their revenue to buying oil, their financial plans will change in other parts of their companies, which may mean changes for any outstanding projects like the development of new automated systems.


Impact on Buyer Markets


Even if a customer company is not directly impacted by changing oil prices, their customer companies, materials suppliers, or end consumers may still be impacted. For example, in today’s oil market, American oil dependence is switching to American and Canadian sources and away from sources in Russia and Iran. However, if an American company relies on Russian suppliers for a different resource, the availability and price of that separate resources may change as the Russian economy changes due to decreased foreign demand for their oil.


The Temporary Domestic Results of Changing Oil Prices


As oil prices change in America, we can see evidence of a consumer base that responds quickly. For example, as American oil prices have dropped due to decreased demand and an influx of domestic supply, the market for cars has picked up (though this defies expectation as in past times, consumers were usually disinclined to decide on a certain type of car during times of volatile oil availability). Manufacturers need to be able to adjust very quickly for these kinds of rapidly changing markets, and in turn their technology companies, like those who build their automated machinery, need to be available to provide support and repairs for machines for which optimal support is necessary for increased capacity. Changing oil prices also affect shipping companies, agricultural businesses, retail, and many other industries.


The Affects of Oil Prices on Jobs


According to, though we might expect increasing oil prices to lead to more jobs with oil companies, this is not what happens in practice. In fact, oil companies tend to be very small-scale employers and do not represent a particularly large portion of the American job supply.

In addition, employers across industries tend to not raise salaries in accordance with rising oil prices. This is often related to recession-like conditions in which people are forced to cut leisure spending in order to have enough for necessities.



The Switch to Alternate Energy Sources


Because many industries have witnessed drastic market changes as a result of volatile oil prices in the past, many companies have now switched to natural gas and other energy supplies. This fortunately means that in today’s market, the impact of volatile oil prices will not be so extreme or direct on many industries, which will slightly lessen the overall burden on companies that do still rely on oil.

In automation, this motivates our desire to embrace alternative energy sources, and to ensure that machines are energy efficient. This will help our customer companies in their efforts to decrease their dependence on oil and will ensure that if there are market fluctuations, that their production will not become wildly more expensive.

Grace Hopper

October 2014

Women Pioneers in STEM

According to a recent article at, in the 1930s and 40s, as many as 40% of computer science students were women. Today, it is closer to 17%. Unfortunately, very little is known about what caused the culture shift that saw women dropping out of STEM fields in great numbers, and today if you were to ask a computer scientist, there is a good chance that he or she might not know that some of the world’s first and best computer scientists were women.

Until recently, women have largely been prevented from pursuing careers outside of the home (especially in careers that were considered inappropriate for women like medicine and science), and today women are still in the minority in many of these fields. While we must keep this in mind to understand the degree to which most women have faced prejudice and oppression in our history, it is not necessarily accurate to understand our society in this way as it might cause us to oversimplify the actual positions of many women who were able to achieve success in science and technology.

In fact, though it is true that many women in history have faced extreme prejudice in their pursuit of higher learning, women of higher social class, especially beginning in the 19th century, often had much greater access to a diverse education. Thus, many women were able to work around the prejudice in their culture in order to pursue academic and scientific careers.

Later, in the early 20th-century, while many women tried to break into math and science, most were relegated to jobs that were considered lower level and routine. Thus, it would not have been unusual to encounter a woman whose job title was “computer.” Only some were able to gain access to the support and resources that were necessary for them to get recognized for their contributions to their fields.

But of course, this small sample of women who were able to pursue STEM careers does not negate the amount of prejudice that most women would have faced. Yet, these women were able to begin the process of breaking down the barriers of prejudice and misinformation that kept so many convinced that women could not be scientists.


Ada Lovelace

Today, Ada Lovelace is recognized as the author of what is effectively the first ever computer program. In 1842, Lovelace, who by this time had already established herself among the ranks of the top mathematicians and engineers of her age, was asked to translate a paper by Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea. In the process of translation, Lovelace made many notes and annotations on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine that are today recognized as an “early model for a computer and Ada’s notes as a description of a computer and software” (Wikipedia). Ada Lovelace is frequently used today as a symbol of the potential of women in technology careers, and has been honored in many ways, including a day of recognition on October 14.


Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper is today recognized as one of the most important developers of computer language and modern computer functionality. She is credited for developing the first compiler for a computer language at a time when, she claims, most people believed that a computer was not capable of  much more than arithmetic. Her pioneering work in computer languages led to the development of COBOL, which was designed based on her idea that computer languages should not be so dissimilar to written English.



Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville was an active member in the scientific community of her era and established herself as a strong voice in the mission to improve public awareness of the importance of scientific subjects. She made her name as a science writer, performing the valuable task of “translating” highly academic scientific and mathematical language into texts that would be useful to a wider public. Joanna Baillie praised Somerville as “one who has done more to remove the light estimation in which the capacity of women is too often held than all that has been accomplished by the whole Sisterhood of Poetical Damsels & novel-writing Authors.”(Wikpiedia).


Reflections on Women in Academic Fields

It is interesting to note that for many of the women who are considered pioneers in science and technology, it was considered noteworthy that they had chosen not to pursue an education heavy in literature and the arts (as though these were the specialties of women and as though women were not similarly prevented from pursuing careers in these fields). For example, Ada Lovelace’s mother specifically designed her education to be heavy in math and science so that she would not become a poet like her father (Lord Byron), as though STEM fields and poetry were opposite extremes and to learn one was to ignore the other. Similarly, we see Mary Somerville praised specifically for her dissimilarity to women who write novels.

By the 19th and 20th century, women authors were becoming more prevalent, but just a generation or two before you would have found far fewer known women authors to choose form. As with anything, our societal assumptions are likely to change between generations, but it is interesting to note that, not only have we historically made it difficult for women to work at all, but we have compounded this with the difficulty of making certain careers doubly more difficult to reach. For example, when at the turn of the last century you might have encountered more women studying math, it would have been likely that many of those women were training to become teachers.

Teaching is still a women-heavy career, but at that time it was one of the only fields that many women could choose if they did want to study STEM subjects. As we continue to address the problems of gender bias and lack of diversity in STEM fields, it would likely be beneficial for us to make a study of the ways our cultural assumptions (and the evolution of those cultural assumptions) have created these very particular niches.

For example, while today many institutions are specifically targeting women for STEM careers, it is interesting to note that 76% of all public school teachers are women, while only about 36% of graduate students in math are women. The first woman in America to get a Ph.D. in Math was Winifred Edgerton in 1886. She was one of only a small handful of women to receive a Math Ph.D. by the turn of that century.

It has been 128 years since Edgerton completed her degree. Women now represent the majority of college students, but are still well in the minority of students in most STEM fields. It becomes easy to see how deep these cultural assumptions can go, but this makes these standards that much harder to challenge.

John Lewis

October 2014

The Politics of Funding Space Exploration

In a speech in 2004 given in response to calls for direction in the space program, former President George Bush claimed that “This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart.” For many, there is lots of truth in this statement as the exploration of space seems to provide us with a way to contextualize our existence as humans, and because it allows us to probe at questions that border on metaphysics.

However, when a program depends on the federal government for funding, it is not enough, unfortunately, that a program may seem to be in our natural human interest or of any kind of moral imperative. For politicians who are asked to evaluate both practical and lofty matters with equal regard, it is very important that these kinds of programs also offer politicians some realizable goals with direct human and economic benefits for the American people.

This leaves scientists and engineers with an especially difficult job — beyond the intensive research and development already involved in a project, they must then publicly justify their projects just to keep them alive.


The Factors in Keeping the Space Program Alive

When the country faces economic trouble, the space program tends to be one of the first to suffer. As Roger D. Launius notes, “The American public is notorious for its willingness to support programs in principle but to oppose their funding at levels appropriate to sustain them.” The reasons for this are myriad.


Misconceptions on the True Cost of Space Travel

In several surveys taken over the last two decades, researchers have demonstrated that the public does not have a good conception of the actual monetary cost of the spaceflight program. As recently as 2007, respondents believed that NASA’s budget was about 20-25% of the federal budget, which amounts to about $2.7 trillion. In reality, the budget for NASA has never exceeded 4% (during the Kennedy administration). Today, the budget is closer to about 0.5%, around $16.2 billion per year.

Pop science icon Neil Degrasse Tyson has theorized that if more people were made aware of the actual budget of NASA, that they would probably be more inclined to favor increased financial support, and based on experiments generated so far, the evidence seems to support his claim. Scientists at the University of Houston found that when respondents were corrected in their ideas about NASA’s budget, that there was “a 29 percent mean increase for support for additional NASA spending.”


Perceptions of the Relative Importance of Space Travel

As a nation, we are pretty constantly faced with some very difficult political decisions. The degrees to which we choose to intervene in international affairs and the degrees to which we choose to respond to unrest at home generate moral unease and force us to question the relative monetary value of our programs. For those Americans who face very real daily struggles to find work, shelter, food, and education, it may seem that if we are failing to address our immediate instance of need here at home, that we have no business investing in programs that offer no direct, immediate address for our very real problems.

In the past, politicians have generated support for these kinds of programs by framing space exploration as a means to revitalize the economy, create jobs, provide us with critical information about the health and safety of our planet, and protect our place as a country at the forefront of scientific exploration and discovery. If there are not politicians advocating for the practical benefits of space travel, there will be little opportunity for public response.


The Need for Advocacy and Lobbying

In order for any particular project at NASA to get funded, it must be properly and vigorously represented to politicians by scientists and lobbyists. In his doctoral thesis at MIT, David André Broniatowski lists this as one of the first factors in the long-term political sustainability of a space program. Further, lobbyists must be able to present a realistic picture of the total cost of a program to politicians as surprise costs can be a major factor in the eventual cancelation of a program. Broniatowski places this burden on NASA, claiming that “a system that is designed without explicit consideration of political concerns faces design irrelevance.” However, it can often be difficult for scientists to create full and comprehensive budgets for a project at their outset.


A “Perfect Storm” of Factors

In his popular study on the role of public opinion in the life of the space travel program, Roger Launius remarks on the perception by many that politicians since Kennedy have not been as aggressive and driven in maintaining the space program. He notes that, while the perseverance of politicians is one factor, that really “in the end a unique confluence of foreign policy crisis, political necessity, personal commitment and activism, scientific and technological ability, economic prosperity, and public mood made possible the 1961 decision to carry out a forward-looking lunar landing program.”

And while we may be able to meet many of these factors, we are also faced with the fact that today, the goals of our space program have become much more complicated and technically difficult. For example, in‘s listing of NASA’s 2014 goals, continued work on travel to Mars and the development of commercial space flight are included. Each of these programs may seem like something out of science fiction, and for good reason: the scientific and technological demands of each are huge, which means that getting all of these factors to align perfectly becomes even harder.