Intel’s Department of Analogies

I love analogies. They’re a great way of allowing people to have in depth conversations on a subject without any person in the conversation actually knowing anything, and it looks like Intel’s takes their analogies very seriously.

As I’m watching this episode of Nova (my typical exciting Wednesday evening), the host is trying to explain miniaturization of semiconductors, and he’s interviewing some representatives from Intel. How do you make semiconductors palatable? By using completely unnecessary props.

  1. A wall mounted light switch. Now, this is actually a somewhat reasonable as the transistors they’re talking about are switches (unless you operate them in triode mode lol), but do you really need a wall switch that looks like it was literally ripped out of a wall to illustrate this? Is the audience really benefitted by seeing the physical light switch? Could they not just picture a wall switch in their heads?
  2. A block of cheese. The explanation as to why silicon is so easily miniaturized was that it could be cut in half and still exhibit the properties it needed. Like cheese. The Intel representative then continued to cut the block of cheese into smaller and smaller pieces. Okay thanks for illustrating that cheese can be cut into smaller pieces?
  3. Pepperoni. Transistors can’t be miniaturized forever. Why? Transistor current leakage! Which is like… pepperoni? Another Intel representative (who appeared to be in a commercial kitchen) showed that a silicon wafer chip was like a pizza, and the transistor was like the pepperoni. She then replaced the pepperoni with even smaller pepperoni, describing the effects of miniaturization. She then explained that at that point, you can’t really make the pepperoni any smaller. Wait a minute… what did I just gain from seeing the pepperoni? And if the pepperoni is just going to represent shrinking transistors, couldn’t you just use the cheese again? Or is adding cheese to pizza just too weird? And weren’t you supposed to illustrate the transistor leakage with your analogy?

So what’s the moral of the story? Uhh… I don’t really know. Looking back at what I wrote, it seems like my real complaint was the dubious use of props in conjunction with dubious analogies… But I do have a mission for you: next time someone brings up an analogy to explain something, derail the conversation completely by asking unnecessary questions about the analogy itself until the conversation just dies. Bonus points if you can be paid for doing it!

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