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Two Tales of Technological Evolution

Tale #1: A Visit to Borders

I visited Borders over the weekend to buy a gift certificate.  The first thing I noticed when I entered the store (having not been to this particular location in perhaps six months) was the vast expanse of empty racks in the middle of the place where CDs used to be displayed.  According to the counter clerk, they were in the process of phasing out most of their CD products — all but new releases — due to the rising popularity of iTunes and other internet-based digital music sources.  “Nobody is buying CDs anymore,” she explained.

Apparently, nobody is buying books at Borders anymore, either.  Something about the book racks also struck me as odd while I was standing in line, and as I was leaving I figured out what it was: the racks had been cut back to half their length. That is, the racks perpendicular to the walls used to be made up of two oak shelving units, but the units on the end had been removed.  Now, they may plan to simply reshuffle their existing book inventory into the space vacated by CDs, but this particular change didn’t look recent – and why would they remove a good portion of the existing inventory from the floor, rather than waiting until the new area had been prepared? 

Given the company’s financial situation, it may be that I was witnessing one small step in the slow demise of the Borders chain:

Borders (BGP) has struggled for several years as the No.2 operator of book store behind Barnes & Noble. When Border’s released its last set of earnings it said it would cut the number of Waldenbooks stores from about 300 to 50 or 60. With Border’s losses, that won’t be enough. The pressure from online book operations led by Amazon (AMZN) and new e-book readers is overwhelming Borders. In the fourth quarter of last year, sales at Border’s branded stores dropped 15.3%. For the full year 2008, Borders lost $157 million on revenue of $2.8 billion. Borders recently extended its $42.5 million senior secured term loan with Pershing Square Capital Management, moving the due date to April 1, 2010. That may be the day that Borders goes away. Border’s shares trade at $1.47, down from a 52-week high of $8.02.

Tale #2: A Visit to the Dentist

Two years ago, I was glad to finally have an excuse to get rid of my last unsightly amalgam filling. Unfortunately, there was some sort of material flaw in the porcelain crown that replaced it, and today I had it replaced gratis.

Only, they didn’t replace it with quite the same thing.  Or in quite the same way.

Rather than the two-visit process I had to go through the last time, with those gag-inducing trays filled with molding putty and seemingly-endless custom fitting of the crown made from the resulting molds, I was in and out in about three hours, of which maybe ten minutes involved fitting and polishing.  Best part: no molds.

The new process involved inserting a small scanning device into my mouth before and after the old crown was removed, to create 3D images of the perfectly-fitting existing crown and the cleared-out bonding surface along with the surrounding molars.  Immediately after the second scan, a 3D image of the tooth as-it-was appeared on the screen next to my chair, the dentist made a few adjustments to add some material at certain adjustment points and then fired it off  to a milling machine in the next room — just as if she were printing a document.

About fifteen minutes later, she returned with the new but uncured crown to make a few adjustments to the fit. After about five minutes of grinding and test-fitting, it was into the curing oven for about 40 minutes. Then it was bonded in, and after another five minutes of fitting, it was done and I headed back to work.

That’s a pretty neat bit of medical technology, I think.

This is the same dentist with whom I first experienced digital X-rays a number of years ago, and who (with improved resolution on the X-ray interface) determined at my last exam that I have extra roots on all of my teeth, and not just the molars…something the new technology is showing to be surprisingly common.  Even better – she’s bringing in a 3D digital X-ray system soon, which should provide images at even higher resolution.

While I figured out the bricks-and-mortar bookstores’ days were numbered the first time I ordered something from Amazon back in 1996, the rapid evolution of medical technology is pretty surprising.

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