Friday, December 28, 2007

No rest for the wicked

On December 25, the Thin Film Manufacturing mail server bounced 544 spam messages.

Which in addition to allowing me to observe that these people truly have no life, encourages me to remind legitimate correspondents to check their maillogs. The filters are sometimes overly aggressive. I can usually fix the problem, but only if I know about it. I'm unlikely to spot your mail in the bounce log.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

All I want for Christmas is a new clean company

The long-awaited consolidation in the wafer cleaning space seems to be actually happening. Lam Research plans to acquire SEZ Group, bringing a portfolio of pre-clean, etch, strip, and post-clean products under one roof. After the all-cash transaction closes, Lam will end up with all the assets of SEZ Group, including the Villach, Austria headquarters and facilities.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Feed the hungry, kill an afternoon

Best procrastination site ever. You've seen those "click here to donate a cup of food" sites? Here's a better version. Take an online vocabulary quiz. For each correct answer, the sponsors donate 20 grains of rice. Right answers get you harder questions, wrong answers get easier ones. The top levels will challenge just about anyone, hence the afternoon killing potential.

(For the skeptics, even tiny amounts add up. There are 29,000 grains of rice in a pound. Donations to date add up to shiploads.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Here comes another lawsuit

Apparently the "Here Comes Another Bubble" video annoyed a copyright owner, and YouTube has taken it down. It can also be found here and here.

The EFF has a detailed discussion on fair use in user-generated videos such as this one. Legally, creators of parodies and other critical works are on pretty solid legal ground: these works are protected speech, not actionable infringement. The problem is that the DMCA forces hosting services to pull material and investigate later in order to protect themselves, often without adequate explanation to the user. A more transparent process is desperately needed.

P.S. Thanks to Keely for alerting me to the broken link.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Those who can't remember history

Internet bubble? That's so last century. Or not. (Video link.)

Update: Apparently someone complained to YouTube about copyright infringement by the above video. It can also be seen here and here.

How long is a process generation?

A little over four-and-a-half years. TSMC announced the shipment of the company's one-millionth 90-nanometer process 300-mm wafer, which took place 53 months after process launch.

Obviously process generations overlap. The 90-nm generation was in development for years before the first wafers shipped, and will continue to produce products for years into the future. And obviously companies with less capacity than TSMC will take longer to reach the million-wafer milestone.

Though most industry coverage has moved on to the next thing by the time the first wafers from a new generation ship, it's good to remember that the process's economic impact is just beginning at that point.

Why I'm studying Japanese

Despite a slow period in the late 90s and early 2000s, Japan remains a leading investor in semiconductor design and manufacturing. In fact, SEMI reports, the country accounted for about a quarter of global equipment sales from 2003 to 2006.

While emerging markets generate lots of excitement, mature economies like Japan (and the US) have lots of structural advantages. They may go through rough years or even rough decades, but their very size ensures their diversity and resilience.

Monday, December 3, 2007

A step in the right direction

Cymer announced that the company's EUV source has achieved 100 W burst power, and claims to be the first to achieve this milestone. The laser-produced plasma source uses a tin target with a carbon dioxide laser. No word on pulse frequency, lifetime, or spectral purity, though presumably these were discussed at the recent International EUVL Symposium.

Monday, November 26, 2007

New materials aren't free

The lead editorial (PDF file, free registration required) in this month's issue of the MRS Bulletin observes that few researchers know how much the materials they're investigating actually cost. The author makes an extremely important point. While it's true that cost is negligible for research quantities of most materials, it most certainly is not negligible for industrial quantities. In fact, cost is one of the reasons why silicon dominates both the photovoltaic and integrated circuit markets, and one of the most serious obstacles to any competing technology. Researchers who choose to ignore cost considerations are likely to be rudely surprised when industrial interest in their creations fails to materialize.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Well, maybe not

You know what they say about best laid plans... Only 10,580 words since my last word count post, which gives a total of 97,880 for the year. 150,000 is still within reach, but does require a bit more consistency.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

This is not a drill, those are real dollars you're losing

What is six weeks of production worth? That's what ASMC says it will lose after a power outage at the company's Shanghai fab. Back in March, when Samsung lost power at six fabs in Giheung, South Korea, to a faulty switchboard, all six were back online within a day or so. I don't know what accounts for the difference between the two, but I would say Samsung's superior disaster preparation paid for itself.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Going along to get along in China

The current congressional hearings into Yahoo's role in the arrest of several Chinese dissidents should serve as a cautionary tale for companies doing business in China and other repressive states. On the one hand, I have a lot of sympathy for Yahoo's local employees in China: they really had no reasonable choice but to comply with Chinese law, no matter how repressive that law may be. Yahoo isn't paying them enough to become prisoners of conscience themselves.

I have no sympathy whatsoever for Yahoo's executives, however. China's appalling human rights record and vicious suppression of dissent are well-documented. They should have known that sooner or later someone would use their service for the "free exchange" of information that the Chinese government wouldn't like, and that they'd be stuck between American principles and Chinese laws. The backlash they are now experiencing is a completely predictable consequence of their approach to the Chinese market.

It's easy to say that any company doing business in China has to comply with the same laws, and any company avoiding China on human rights grounds is likely to place itself at a competitive disadvantage. In reality, Human Rights Watch explains, there are laws, and there's a gray area of unwritten understandings. For instance, some companies proactively censor material that they think might be objectionable, while others block only material that has been specifically banned. Some servers are physically located in China, under the jurisdiction of Chinese courts, while some are not. Some companies respond to criticism by changing their policies, some by spinning out Chinese subsidiaries that they cannot control. It's up to customers and shareholders to differentiate between those that try to maintain open information principles under very difficult circumstances, and those that toss principles under the bus as soon as it's expedient.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Don't scrap that wafer

IC manufacturers throw away about three million prime wafers a year. Solar cell manufacturers are getting squeezed by a silicon shortage.

If that sounds like a business opportunity waiting for a product, you're right. IBM has figured out a way to de-pattern scrap wafers, cleansing them of IP so that they can be recycled.

Now, reclaimed wafers are nothing new. I suspect the difference is a better way to get rid of the IP, but I'm waiting to hear more from IBM.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Too good to be true?

In my interviews with solar cell experts, several people have warned me to take efficiency claims with a large helping of salt, especially those that haven't been verified by an independent lab such as NREL. It turns out that bogus claims are an especially serious problem for organic solar cells, serious enough to warrant an open letter in Materials Today. That makes sense: organic cells have attracted more than their share of hype, but have yet to demonstrate commercially useful performance.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

When failure is not an option

People who work in life critical situations generally take a zero tolerance approach to mistakes. Whether you're landing airplanes, performing surgery, or handling nuclear missiles, it's important to get it right every single time.

Error management is a discipline unto itself, and far too broad a topic to explain here. The interesting part, though, is the balance between rigorous attention to detail and non-punitive management (PDF file) of the people actually doing the work. On the one hand, it's important to have and follow detailed procedures. On the other, if you fire everyone who makes a mistake, people will just hide their mistakes and you won't know where the problems in the organization actually are.

That's at the organizational level. Unfortunately, errors that come to the attention of people outside the organization are likely to become evidence in a lawsuit. (This is especially an issue with medical errors.) There's that punitive culture again. Can doctors learn from their mistakes if they are punished for admitting they made them? (Along these lines, I've mentioned Atul Gawande's excellent book Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance before. It's worth a look for a doctor's perspective.)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fun with construction materials

Coming this weekend, the Head of the Charles Regatta, the world's largest two-day rowing event. However, the Head of the Zesiger could be at least as entertaining. It's MIT's Cardboard Boat Regatta. Prizes include the Titanic Award, for best sinker.

If you try again and still don't succeed

As previously noted, Sanyo has been having trouble getting a good price for its semiconductor subsidiary. Thus, the Wall Street Journal reports, the company has decided to shelve the sale and restructure the business on its own.

(Sorry, Journal links are for paid subscribers only.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chain of woe

Here's a nice piece of reporting from the Wall Street Journal. They follow a subprime mortgage from the homeowner to the ultimate purchaser of the loan. In this case, every company along the way has closed or is struggling, and the original borrower has lost his home.

(Sorry, paid subscriber link.)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

New theories percolate to the surface

I tried three times to write something insightful about percolation theory, and decided I couldn't because I don't know enough about it. Yet. I'll be working on that. Meanwhile, I mention the topic at all because I'm seeing it appear in all sorts of contexts, from pore structures in low-k dielectrics to heterojunctions and carrier conduction mechanisms in advanced solar cells.

Percolation theory, as the name implies, looks at the way liquids infiltrate and work their way through porous media. Much of the early work was done by hydrologists, but the same mathematical formalism turns out to apply to many types of structure formation. In porous low-k dielectrics, for example, percolation affects conversion of the poragen, outgassing of any reaction byproducts, infiltration of moisture or other contaminants into the film, and so forth. Interesting stuff, and it's becoming more relevant as more electronic devices use materials that don't form nice uniform films.

Uncle Sam needs you

The former commander of coalition forces in Iraq is quoted on CNN as being highly critical of the administration's conduct of the war, and of the lack of congressional oversight. But that's not all he said. The whole speech doesn't provide as much political fodder, but is much more thought provoking.

The bottom line is that American soldiers will continue to die as long as civilian politicians put political advantage ahead of development of a real strategy that can draw support from both sides of the aisle. (A point also made by the Iraq Study Group.) But we are all culpable, because that situation will continue as long as voters allow (or encourage) it, and the media feeds the flames.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The duty of writers

Doris Lessing, recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, on political correctness and the obligations of writers. (Not a recent essay, but still relevant.)

Meanwhile, the Guardian has a good sampler of essays and reviews by and about Lessing.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Don't try this at home

Every once in a while, a martial arts school will claim that "real training" requires the use of live weapons, and will brag that all of its sword forms (or all students above a given level) use edged blades. A pair of fencers did some experiments that show why anyone who makes such a claim is probably either lying or insane. (My experience is with Japanese swords, rather than rapiers, but I would expect the same conclusions to hold.)

Friday, October 5, 2007

You think you've got it bad?

I love my clients, I really do. I especially love that they pay me to write, rather than do web development, because that means I never have to have conversations like this one. (Caution: bad language.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Better living through marketing

Wired Magazine presents the Lamest 'Value-Added' Products. It's not really surprising that seven of them are bottled water products. (Including two different ready-to-freeze ice cube blister packs.) Three more are vodkas. (One of them filtered through diamonds, for no apparent reason except to drive up the price.)

But I agree with the editors that the number one most lame value-added product is . . . air. Canned. With artificial fragrance added.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

How to get good press

Rule #1: Return phone calls. Always. Even if you have no idea who the journalist is, and no intention of talking to them anyway. At least have the courtesy to say so.

I've recently run into a cluster of people who don't seem to have figured that part out. Very frustrating, but it ultimately hurts them more than it hurts me. I can always write about someone else, while there's no way to recapture a lost opportunity once the publication goes to press.

When you've lost the Journal, you've lost the business community

The Wall Street Journal is one of the most Republican papers in the country, but even the Journal suggests that Republicans are no longer the party of business. Well duh! This business owner, at least, is far more concerned about health insurance than taxes, for instance.

(Paid subscriber link, sorry.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The day DRM died

Amazon has launched a DRM-free music store. 2 million songs, MP3 format, 256 kbps encoding, no restrictions. With two major labels (EMI and Universal) having dropped restrictions, device-agnostic music is only a matter of time.

How to be an evil overlord

First rule of crisis management: contain the problem. Whatever you do, don't make it worse. Apparently, the ongoing protests in Burma had nearly petered out before the regime made the mistake of annoying the country's Buddhist monks. (Beating several and reportedly killing one.) Now they've got thousands of people in the streets, and any crackdown will echo around the world. Oops.

(Nor is the short term success of any such crackdown a foregone conclusion. In a devoutly Buddhist country, ordering soldiers to attack unarmed monks chanting loving kindness mantras is problematic, to say the least.)

Fifty years ago today

Fifty years ago today, federal troops escorted nine black students into Little Rock's Central High School.

It wasn't the end of racism in America. Goodness knows we're still fighting that battle. It wasn't even the end of racially motivated mob violence. But it was the end of the notion that such violence, or the white supremacist attitudes that motivated it, carried any kind of moral authority. As Eisenhower made clear (PDF) at the time, "A foundation of our American way of life is our national respect for law." Mob rule could not be, and was not, allowed to trump the rule of law.

(The Eisenhower Presidential Archives has an extensive collection of documents related to the Little Rock crisis.)

Atoms are really really small

When the first STM images appeared, they were a revelation. No one had ever seen individual atoms before. Since then, various technologies have pushed imaging to mind-boggling extremes. The latest is the announcement from FEI that they've resolved the dumbbell structure of germanium, a 0.14 nm feature. Wow.

(Both silicon and germanium have a pair of atoms, or dumbbell, at each lattice point. Germanium is larger, so resolving it is slightly easier. Slightly.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Can we have a do-over, please?

Sanyo Electric Co.'s semiconductor subsidiary is for sale, and apparently the auction isn't going to close until the sellers get a result they like. The subprime mortgage shock to global credit markets has made potential buyers nervous, while the banks holding Sanyo's corporate debt are eager to put a floor under the sale. Nikkei Business has the story.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Three cores are better than none

A few weeks ago, I was talking with someone about redundant cells as a route to improved memory yields. I asked whether multiple cores might provide a similar boost for logic chips. My interviewee (who will remain anonymous to avoid embarrassment) didn't seem to think much of the question, suggesting that redundant cores would only make sense for chips with many more cores than are currently available.

So I felt vindicated this week, when AMD both announced a triple-core chip and confirmed that it is based on a quad-core architecture in which "one of the cores is disabled." For instance by a manufacturing defect.

People who've been around a while may remember that Intel pulled a similar trick with the 80486SX microprocessor, which was simply an 80486DX with a defective math coprocessor. And why not? Getting a lower price for a less capable chip is certainly better than adding to the scrap pile.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Back to high school

I usually give the mass media a pass on technology issues. If physicists are arguing about something, it can be very difficult for a reporter who doesn't cover the space to even understand the question, much less say anything intelligent about it.

I couldn't let this howler go, though. From the usually excellent LA Times: "Solar panels are usually made of silicon, and the world is running out of it."

Um, no. Silicon is the second most common element in the earth's crust, after oxygen. Subtract the organic matter from ordinary dirt and what's left is mostly silicate or silicon dioxide. We'll run out of, say, hydrocarbons long before we even scratch the global supply of silicon. While there are supply issues around the very pure silicon needed for solar panels and integrated circuits, they have to do with capital expansion lag in those markets, not the fundamental availability of the material.

Keep the hand moving

13450 words since my last post, giving a total of 87,300 for the year. As noted, I expect the daily number to jump quite a bit over the next month, but I'm keeping my expectations moderate. I'll be happy if I get to 150,000 for the year.

Foundries like 450 mm, too

People often take it as given that discussions of a move to 450 mm wafers are driven by high-volume low-mix fabs, such as Intel's microprocessor lines or Samsung's memory fabs. Not so fast, says TSMC. DigiTimes reports that the foundry believes larger wafers are essential for its long term growth and productivity improvement as well. (Long term meaning beyond 2012, which TSMC sees as the target for 450 mm pilot production.)

The arguments in favor of a bifurcation between high volume and high mix fab designs do have merit. On the other hand, a shift as big as a wafer size transition requires lots of resources from all along the supply chain. There are advantages to getting the whole industry on board the same train, too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Be careful what you wish for

The downside of posting an ethics policy is that then you have to follow it, no matter how tempting the alternative. Which is also the upside, of course. Public stands are more difficult to abandon.

I thought of that this summer, when an agency distributed their clients' Semicon West materials on video iPods. Which, I must admit, are fairly slick gadgets that I wouldn't mind having. And the agency said other journalists didn't have a problem, so it's not like I would be doing anything different from my colleagues....

Yes, I sent it back. They say everyone has a price so I'm not going to claim that I can't be bought, but the price tag is more than $300. The agency made a donation to the Glide Foundation instead. Now that's not a bad way to get my attention.

Writing business FAQ

(Yes, I'm going through my inbox.)

The Wyrdsmiths blog has done a tremendous public service, posting an index to the best of Miss Snark, by category. This is pretty much an FAQ for all things related to the business of writing and selling fiction, with lots of relevance to nonfiction as well.

Shrinking to greatness, or not

Motorola made two simultaneous announcements the other week.

They announced a focus on product development, to create a steady stream of innovative new cellphones rather than one-hit wonders like the Razr.

And they announced a 15% cut in R&D spending.

What's wrong with this picture?

The claim is that the spending cuts will make R&D spending more efficient. Where have we heard that before?

Where was that junction again?

As junctions get smaller and shallower, the exact location of dopant atoms becomes critically important. Researchers at Imago Scientific Instruments say they have used atom probe tomography to map the locations of individual dopants, showing, for instance, that arsenic atoms tend to cluster around silicon defects.

Multilingual people may laugh now

My on again, off again struggles with the Japanese language continue. Yesterday, I spent a great deal of time figuring out that "three ocean electric machine" is not some kind of boat, but rather the literal translation of Sanyo Electric Co., Ltd.'s Japanese name (三洋電機). Which, given that the article was in a business magazine, shouldn't have been a complete shock. Doh!

Friday, September 14, 2007

One word at a time

About a month ago, I looked around, realized that I was completely unpacked and hadn't done any furniture shopping in weeks, and sighed with relief because I might actually get back into a routine and get my word counts back to something respectable. (With perhaps a trace of panic because I could no longer use life chaos as an excuse.)

About a week ago, I realized that my word count was still insignificant, and that in fact it wasn't actually all that impressive before the move hit, anyway. Uh oh. (Word counts are a huge deal to a working writer, since word count ultimately puts a ceiling on your income. You can't publish something that hasn't been written yet.)

Lots of fretting about creativity and writer's block and similar concerns ensued. But somewhere in there the advice that I've heard (and given) so many times bubbled to the surface. "To increase your word count, you sit down and you write."

I had to admit the little voice had a point, so I tried it. My daily total doubled overnight. Whodathunkit?

Critics often sniff at such statements and point out that more does not mean better. Who cares how much you write if it's all sludge? It's funny how writing seems to be the only field where practice is frowned upon. Baseball players take extra batting practice to get back on track. Artists carry sketchbooks around. Stock traders eat sleep and breathe market information. Surgeons who specialize in particular operations have better outcomes. Yet writers seem to get the most respect when they are complaining about their inability to write. (An attitude that all too many writers-who-aren't-writing encourage.)

The thing is, the random neuron firings that we call the subconscious (and, if we're lucky, inspiration or genius) are more likely to happen if the brain has lots of material to build connections with. Write more (and read more), and you'll have more things to write about. Even if Sturgeon's Law applies, the more sludge you sift through the more likely you are to find gold.

I don't know how long this burst of productivity will last, so I'm not going to jinx myself by posting totals. For now, though, it feels like I've crawled out of a tunnel into the sunlight.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Reader discretion advised

I wasn't sure whether I should post this link. I decided it was too good not to share, but too dangerous to post without a warning. DO NOT visit Making Light unless you are prepared to disappear for several hours. Yesterday, I found Galadriel's secret love child, Mary Sue. Today, it was Winnie the Pooh escaping the Fall of Numenor in Christopher Robin's umbrella. Collateral damage to much of English literature ensued.

If you do indulge, the comments and links are often the best part.

This would be one of my favorite sites on the Internet if I weren't afraid to visit for fear of total productivity collapse.

It's just a jump to the left

Fascinating. I somehow neglected to reset the time zone for the blog when I moved. I discovered this while reading a post with a time stamp that hadn't happened yet.

Now fixed. Apologies for the confusion.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What would Joe Sixpack do?

One of the great shared assumptions of the American middle class is that America is a land of opportunity: work hard, save your money, and you've got an excellent chance to have a better life than your parents did. This assumption drives much immigration to the US, past and present. It also drives much American social policy: if you can't get ahead in the land of opportunity, then either you aren't working hard (the conservative view) or you have somehow been deprived of a fair chance (the liberal view), or some combination of both (the moderate view). Among people who share this assumption, working hard is clearly the rational, self-interested thing to do.

Long term poverty is therefore a paradox. Poor people will see a larger improvement in their lives from each extra dollar, and therefore should be even more motivated to save and work hard. Yet study after study shows that poor people are less likely to finish school, more likely to make poor financial choices, more likely to develop crippling addictions. From a conventional economic point of view, this is clearly irrational behavior, which can only be explained by some combination of laziness, poor role models, lack of accurate information, and dependence on government handouts. (Liberals and conservatives are likely to pick different mixes of these characteristics.)

But what if you assume that poor people are as rational as anyone else? Steven Pearlstein explains that a rational model of the behaviors seen in very poor communities might reach a very different conclusion. If the chance of building a better life appears to be zero, then maybe blowing that $100 bill on a night out isn't so irrational after all. Sure, saving it might help pay this month's rent, but it won't help with next month or the month after that. Enjoy it now and it won't get stolen, either.

A rational person model has important implications for social policy, as it implies that trying to "fix" the apparently irrational behavior of people in poor communities is pointless. Rather, the goal of social policy should be to try to align the rational decisions of poor people with those of the middle class. That probably means closing the gap: encouraging poor people to believe that the middle class is accessible to them.

It's an interesting article. Pearlstein makes a far more rigorous argument than most people on either end of the current political debate. Agree or disagree, he at least offers a new way to think about the issues.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Teaching the Best and Brightest

Education researchers and school systems invest enormous sums in figuring out the best ways to teach students with learning disabilities. Students at the far upper end of the IQ scale tend to get much less attention. They're smart, they'll do okay anywhere, right?

No, actually they won't. It turns out that gifted students have about the same dropout rate that students with learning disabilities do, probably due to boredom. Sometimes they blossom when they reach schools like MIT or Stanford, where they find peers for the first time in their lives, but sometimes they never get that far. Time explains the lost potential these kids represent, and considers ways to keep them from falling through the cracks.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Way down in the mines

The unconfined compressive strength of coal is about 3000 psi. Rock weighs about 160 pounds per cubic foot. Those miners in Utah are about 1500 feet down.

I'm not a mining engineer, but it looks to me like those "seismic bumps" are the mountain telling them that they're too close to the edge. I hope no one else dies before they get the message.

Update: Robert Ferriter of the Colorado School of Mines is a mining engineer. He's surprised that area was still being mined at all.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Yes, really, a word count!

I somehow managed to keep track of my totals through the move and related chaos, which is an accomplishment in itself. The total itself is less impressive, though. 20,500 words since my last report, giving a total of 73,850 for the year.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

All silicon products not created equal

While it's true that many specifications are more relaxed in solar cells than in ICs, that doesn't mean that tackling the solar cell market will be easy for IC manufacturers. Rebecca Tang, general manager at Mosel Vitelic, warns that process control, product quality, and fab management all require a change in perspective. IC manufacturers and equipment suppliers who assume that their expertise in these areas will continue to apply may be in for a rude awakening.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Time for designers to tighten up?

Design re-spins are bad. They cost money, they delay the product, and they force the group responsible to revisit a project that they thought was complete. No one wants a re-spin.

One way to reduce re-spins is to build more margin into the design. More margin means more flexibility to handle process variations, more tolerance for unexpected conditions in other parts of the design.

Unfortunately, as Cadence VP Steve Carlson points out, all that margin erodes product performance and, ultimately, boosts development costs. Oops!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hogwarts train runs on time

Selling 10 million books in 24 hours is (relatively) easy. Just put J. K. Rowling's name on the cover next to the phrase "Harry Potter and..."

The hard part is actually getting that many physical copies into the hands of that many people, that fast. For that, you need production and distribution technologies that didn't exist when the first Potter book came out. Forbes explains.

That time of year again

I must admit, with everything else going on this summer I did not exactly greet Semicon West with boundless enthusiasm. More like, "Semicon West? Already? whimper..."

But the show takes place whether we're ready for it or not, and this year brought the usual mix of big equipment announcements and less spectacular, but equally important innovations. Probably the biggest of the former was Applied Materials' line of high-k and metal gate products. Among the latter, I was especially intrigued by K-Patents' refractive technique for chemical composition monitoring.

I also spent some time wearing my Solid State Technology contributing editor hat, with two articles in the magazine's e-daily. One introduces Intermolecular, a company bringing combinatorial methods to process integration challenges. The other brings a photomask vendor, a design software supplier, and a chip manufacturer together to talk about yield challenges.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Reimagining Potter

Movies are different from books. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix seems to be the first of the Harry Potter movies to recognize and embrace the differences.

Potter purists will hate it. Things were left out. Things were added. It isn't what Rowling wrote.

No, it isn't, and that's okay. Where the book (the longest of the series so far) rambles across the long expanse of the school year, the movie careens toward its epic climax, feeling shorter than its 138 minute run time.

Movies are different from books. Finally, the Potter movies stand on their own.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Looks good on the bottom line, too

What does leading edge design get you? Premium prices and fat profit margins. iSuppli did a teardown of the iPhone and estimates the profit margin at close to 50%. That's component costs only, not including logistics or stuff like software designer salaries, but it's still a pretty nice number.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sure, it's sexy, but does it work?

The Economist has an interesting article comparing the cost per ton of various forms of CO2 abatement. A negative cost per ton means that the abatement saves money and reduces emissions at the same time: better insulation, more efficient light bulbs, and fuel efficient cars all fall into this category. A positive cost per ton means that the abatement reduces emissions, but also costs money: alternative energy sources and planting trees, for instance.

Unfortunately, the positive cost methods get most of the media attention, government investment, and so forth, even as they fight an uphill battle because they are, in fact, more expensive. The negative cost methods are, for the most part, low-tech and boring. Who cares about light bulbs? Let's build wind farms! Except the light bulbs will pay for themselves many times over before the wind farm gets through its environmental impact review.

(Link by way of DD's Eco Notes.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Welcome to the gray market

One of the biggest advantages any brand has is the perception of quality. Brand owners spend huge amounts of money to convince consumers that their products are made better, designed better, and backed by a better customer service organization than lower priced, generically branded competition.

That's why the reports of quality issues associated with Chinese manufacturers should horrify any brand owner. One distributor spiked wheat gluten with plastic to increase the measured protein level, and killed who knows how many cats. Another replaced glycerin sweetener with diethylene glycol, also known as antifreeze. And now it turns out that the gum strip that helps prevent tread separation was simply left out of imported tires. All of these problems have in common a willingness to cut dangerous corners in order to cut costs, precisely the attitude that brand owners imply is rampant in off-brand products, and the attitude that consumer protection laws were written to punish.

The hard lesson is that government is not going to be much help. The US government has no jurisdiction. Foreign governments have no interest in slowing the flood of US capital, and often have inadequate consumer protection laws anyway. If you care about the quality of the products that carry your brand, you're going to have to monitor that quality yourself. Otherwise, you're only an unethical supplier on the other side of the world away from watching all your hard-earned brand equity go down the drain.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Things that make you go hmmmm

Quasicrystals are one of those topics that I've always been intrigued by, but never had a chance to really investigate. (Quasicrystals are materials with aperiodic ordering: x-ray diffraction shows that they have internal symmetry, but they lack the translational symmetry that true crystals have.) Now they've given me a reason to find the local engineering library: work to be published in the Journal of the American Mathematical Society shows that the standard equations used to calculate electrical conductivity don't work for quasicrystals. The very idea makes my head hurt if I think about it too much. Clearly one for the research file.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Gutenberg 2.0 still in beta

I'm not the only one to notice the Sony Reader. The Weekly Standard has a review. The author concludes what I suspected: selections and features are limited, but the device is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

More than spelling your name right

I suspect a lot of my readers know this already, but here's a good short guide to talking to the press, written from the interviewee's point of view.

The only thing I would add: if you don't have anything to say, don't say anything. If you're initiating the conversation, make sure what you have to say is really newsworthy, and be prepared to explain why. If I'm requesting an interview, make sure you're prepared to have a substantive conversation about the topic. A content-free or off-topic interview doesn't do either of us any good.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Time to get a life

Sometimes, privacy advocates raise serious issues that should worry all of us. What happens, say, when your bank records, medical records, and credit card purchase records are all accessible through giant databases? What happens when poor security at one retailer puts millions of people at risk for identity theft?

And sometimes, you have to wonder why they don't spend all that energy on world hunger or something. The latest non-issue concerns Google Street View, which shows street level photos of a particular address. For instance, one woman found an image of her cat sitting in her apartment window. Panic ensued.

Never mind that the courts have repeatedly held that there is no expectation of privacy on a public street. Google has a larger audience, but newspapers, law enforcement, and your neighbors have always been free to watch and take pictures from outside your property lines. If you don't want people or their cameras to see in your windows, close the curtains or plant a hedge.

(Full disclosure: My husband works for Google, though not on this project. It would be a silly non-issue even if he didn't, though.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

I have a phone!

Thanks to email and cell phones, having your permanent number disconnected isn't the disaster it once was. Still, having the new number makes me feel a lot more grounded and stable.

If I'm in your address tool of choice, please update it with the following permanent information:
+1 425 402 1608
PO Box 82441
Kenmore, WA 98028

All other information you may have is now obsolete. As always, the About Us page is the definitive source for current contact information.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

See you on the other side

Time to shut down for the upcoming move. I expect to be mostly offline until after Memorial Day, but will have access to email. That is probably the best way to reach me. For up to date contact information, please visit the About Us page.

Friday, May 18, 2007

When everyone wants to know you

There's an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine about independent musicians in the Internet era. Many of them are only able to reach an audience at all because of the Internet, but at some point the fan intimacy that made them successful becomes a huge burden. I can understand that. Ten emails a day from readers would be fantastic, but a hundred? A thousand? How do you balance that kind of load against the solitude that creativity demands?

(Link by way of 43 Folders.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Follow the money

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Tom Abate compares the fabless-foundry model in the semiconductor industry to the division between content creators and printing presses in the publishing business. It's a good analogy, even if I don't quite see why you would want to compare two industries when the general public doesn't understand either of them. Better to describe the semiconductor industry more clearly and leave publishing out of it.

Anyway, his underlying point is that the movement of semiconductor manufacturing out of the United States risks "hollowing out" the US semiconductor industry. Where manufacturing goes, he argues, R&D and the rest of it eventually follows. Unfortunately, SIA president George Scalise's suggestion that tax incentives for US fabs are the solution completely misses the underlying dynamics. As Big Steel learned a generation ago, protectionist tactics may slow global trends, but can't stop them.

A better way to look at it might be to realize that profit and growth are more important than control of specific market sectors. American metallurgists began to come back when they turned to specialty metals, like titanium. These metals are more difficult to work with than steel, so companies could differentiate themselves by their capabilities rather than their costs.

Similarly, the foundry model works to the extent that semiconductor manufacturing is commoditized, and commodity markets inherently favor the lowest cost producer. Rather than struggling to hold on to such a business, the US semiconductor industry might be better off looking for areas where technical capability is, so far, inadequate. Don't think of it as abandoning manufacturing, think of it as akin to Intel's transformation from a marginal DRAM company to an enormously successful microprocessor company.

(I keep meaning to write about these ideas for the Back Story section. That, like much else, is on hold pending the move.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Holistically redefine collaborative models with process-centric imperatives

Attention Mac users! Do you envy Windows's deep connections to the corporate world? Is your life a constant struggle to deploy paradigm-shifting modalities that maintain your facade of conformity? Suffer no more! Simply install the Corporate Ipsum Dashboard Widget, and have all the corporate lingo you could ever need at your fingertips. Freeware.

Comment Policy

With a political debate breaking out, things may be about to get heated around here. Seems like a good time for a preemptive repost of the Comment Policy:

Comments are the sole responsibility of the author. I will not edit the content or attribution of any comment, but I reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason. Obscenities, personal attacks, and irrelevance to the topic at hand are the most likely reasons, but I may add others without notice as circumstances or personal whims dictate.

I'd also like to remind anyone who objects to this policy, or to the editorial policies of any other site, that the Internet is a big place. In my corner of it, I make the rules. If you don't like them, you can very easily set up shop in your own corner and make whatever rules you like there.

On the software side, Movable Type flags anonymous comments as junk and does not notify me that they've been posted. If you want to be sure your comment appears in a timely manner, sign it. Movable Type also logs the IP addresses of all commenters.

Red states, blue states, and literacy

Someone left a lengthy response to yesterday's post on literacy. My reply got too long to wedge into the comment box, so I decided to make it an independent post. You might want to read yesterday's comment for context first.

The overwhelming majority of the country was purple, not red or blue, in the 2004 election. Which is to be expected with only a 3% popular vote margin nationwide.

The literacy study didn't break things down to the level of individual publications, so there's no way to tell (from this data) whether people are reading The Nation or The National Review. Presumably a bit of both. Access to the Internet in particular means access to a vast array of opposing views, which can only help informed debate.

Even a bad New York Times article contains more facts than a good Fox News (or CNN, or CBS, or pick your favorite TV news) story. That's simply the nature of the medium. You can fit far more information into 3000 words than you can into three minutes. (Try it. Read the front page of any newspaper aloud for three minutes and see how far you get.) As for bias, well, the most recent major embarrassment for the Times involved Judith Miller's blatantly pro-administration reporting.

The statistics correlating social ills with voting are actually quite interesting. For example, Massachusetts, a blue state if there ever was one, has lower teen pregnancy, divorce, and crime rates than ultra-red Texas. That probably has more to do with other social variables than with politics, but provides at least one counter example to the claim that pro-Bush areas have fewer social ills. (Yes, some of the statistics quoted are a little old. Anyone who can find links to newer data is welcome to post them.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

People are reading after all

I knew there was something I liked about the place. For the second year in a row, Seattle topped the list of America's Most Literate Cities in 2006. So maybe my previous observation about the lack of books in Seattle homes doesn't tell the whole story. My other two favorite cities, San Francisco and Boston, came in at #9 and #11, respectively.

The political component of the survey is also very interesting. It seems to suggest that people who learn about the world through newspapers, books, and the Internet soured on Bush much earlier than people who learn about the world through television. The top 15 Kerry-voting cities ranked, on average, more than 20 places higher than the top 15 Bush-voting cities on most literacy measures.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Anyone got $600 million?

$1 per installed Watt is the holy grail for solar panel producers. At that price, payback time is about five years and solar energy becomes a realistic alternative for average users. Achieving that price requires significant cost savings: April 2007 module prices were nearly $4.90 per watt.

Yet researchers at Hewlett Packard argued, in a study funded by NREL (PDF file), that such dramatic cost savings can be achieved by any company willing to invest in large scale manufacturing, even absent major improvements in the underlying solar panel technology.

Gigawatt scale production facilities could expect to see huge savings both from more efficient manufacturing of intermediate components like glass sheets and aluminum rails, and from better equipment optimization. The equipment optimization piece is where companies like Applied Materials come in. When you sell (or buy) 100 identical systems, non-recurring engineering costs are a much less significant fraction of the total, and yield goes up.

The study estimates the capital cost of such a facility at $600 million or so (2004 dollars). That's a hefty chunk of change, but certainly within the reach of any company that can spend $3 billion for an IC fab.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Trying to multitask

Let's see. I spent one week in April traveling, and another in bed with some kind of bug. Given that, I think my total of 8550 words is actually pretty good. That gives me 53,350 for the year. I don't have high hopes for May, since I'll lose at least another week while moving. We'll see what happens.

New address

Effective May 21, our new address will be:
Thin Film Manufacturing
PO Box 82441
Kenmore, WA 98028

The phone company warns that the more effort I invest in publishing the new number, the more likely it is to change. Meanwhile, the old one still works and will forward to the new one. For up-to-date move information, including phone and courier details, please see the About Us page. All electronic contacts stay the same.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Where were the generals?

USA Today has a thorough discussion of failures in generalship during both Vietnam and the current Iraq War. One of the author's most important points is that moral courage is essential to generalship: having the courage to present unpleasant truths to civilian policymakers, and to the public if necessary, is just as important as courage under fire. In a democracy, generals owe their allegiance to the nation, not to a particular President or Defense Secretary.

Peter Drucker emphasized the importance of moral courage in corporate leadership as well. In the long run, dishonest accounting and other dicey business practices cause damage far beyond whatever short term benefit they achieve. Too often, though, the participants in corporate scandals float to earth under golden parachutes while shareholders and ordinary employees struggle with the mess they left behind.

Moderating comments

As an anti-spam measure, comments are now held for review after posting. When I have time, I'll set up authentication so trusted commenters aren't moderated, but that's going to take a little while.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Who was that violinist?

Joshua Bell was recently named the best classical musician in America. A few days before that, he played at Washington's L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop, just to see what would happen. Mostly he was ignored, but the few people who noticed what was going on got a real treat.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Starvation the safest option?

I'm probably like a lot of people. I buy organic produce when I can because it tastes better, but don't worry too much about the ingredients in other foods. The manufacturers have too much to lose to mess up, right?

You would think so, but apparently some genius in China decided that spiking vegetable proteins with fertilizer was an easy way to boost profits. (The fertilizer increases the apparent protein content, and therefore the selling price.)

The whole foods advocates do have a point: if you cook your own food from fresh ingredients, you can be pretty sure about what's in it.

Oh, wait. Wasn't there something about E. coli contamination of fresh spinach? Sigh...

Monday, April 23, 2007

One of the best, one of the brightest

Journalist David Halberstam was killed in a car accident on Monday. He was 73.

It's impossible to do justice to his work here. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Vietnam in 1964. In 1972 he published The Best and the Brightest, probably his most famous book and one of the definitive analyses of American involvement in Vietnam. More recent books included Firehouse, about New York City firefighters and Sept. 11, and Bill Belichick: The Education of a Coach. An aspiring journalist who read nothing but Halberstam's books wouldn't go too far wrong.

Journalism needs more like him. America needs more like him. He'll be missed.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Getting better all the time

I've been reading Atul Gawande's new book, Better, about medical performance and ways to improve it. One of his most important points is that positive deviants -- people who lie at the upper end of the bell curve -- exist everywhere, and consistently achieve above average outcomes. They range from mothers in Third World villages who raise well-nourished children in spite of overwhelming poverty, to doctors in India who achieve some of the best ulcer surgery results in the world under conditions that would terrify most Western doctors and patients, to cystic fibrosis clinics whose patients live more than ten years longer than those at average clinics. Superior performance in these cases does not come from better technology, but from better science: seeing which interventions make things better, applying them consistently, and never being satisfied that something is "good enough."

Medicine makes the contrast between good and merely average performance especially stark-- patients who get better care generally live longer -- but the bell curve exists in every field. It's the difference between the Hall of Fame baseball player with a lifetime batting average above .300, and a weak hitter with an average of only .250 or so. (For non-baseball fans, that's a difference of only 50 hits per thousand at-bats.) In semiconductor manufacturing, the difference is measured in percentage points of yield, or weeks of production ramp, and it adds up to millions of dollars.

Technology certainly helps -- those doctors in India could do even better with better facilities and adequate supplies -- but it is only a tool. Performance is a process.

Electronic paper emerges

Congratulations to the folks at E-Ink. I had a chance to play with a Sony Reader, which uses their Imaging Film. The display was very, very nice. I'm not quite ready to jump on the e-book bandwagon, but I'm getting really close.

One lucky idiot

I hope New Jersey Governor Corzine, currently in the hospital with twelve broken ribs, makes a full and complete recovery.

Still, he's made himself the poster person for the vast improvements in auto safety over the last few decades, as well as a case study in how hard it is to protect people from their own stupidity. He wasn't wearing his seat belt. His SUV was going 91 mph in a 65 mph zone. His driver had four previous accidents.

Corzine is lucky to be alive.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Doesn't anyone read any more?

So we spent the weekend house hunting. We probably visited eight or nine different homes, some of them twice. And about the time I got home, I realized there was something very strange about all of them.

No books.

A few places had a coffee table book or two set out to impress buyers with their good taste, but no indication that anyone in the house actually read anything. No Serious Literature, no junk novels, no technical reference libraries. I didn't even see any children's books, although I guess those could have been tucked away in a toy chest or something.

They all had very nice televisions, though. Sigh...

Monday, April 16, 2007


Note to self: if you change the blog password before you go on a trip, make sure the computer you take on the trip knows what the password is.

I'm back now. Sorry about the dead air.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Forget the techie stuff, where are the cats?

By special request, a link to the Summerhill Kitten Farm.

The blogroll will come back eventually, but I haven't yet figured out the best way to work it into the new template.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Grain goes missing

How do you lose 800 metric tons of wheat gluten? ChemNutra says it imported the stuff from Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development, then shipped it to Menu Foods and other companies. Both the Chinese government and Xuzhou claim that the company has never exported wheat gluten to the US or Canada.

All of this matters, of course, because the wheat gluten turned out to be contaminated, leading to a massive pet food recall, lots of sick pets, lots of unhappy owners, and inevitable lawsuits. The earliest known source of the stuff -- ChemNutra, at the moment -- is in a world of trouble with their customers.

Stealthy in plain sight

The current issue of Technology Review features "stealth startup Rinera Networks" in a special section on emerging technologies. Seems to me that it's pretty tough to be stealthy when you're being featured in Technology Review.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

News 2.0

The latest Columbia Journalism Review offers a lengthy analysis of the impact of the web on newspapers. It turns out that editors and reporters have largely embraced the web: it's more dynamic, can easily accommodate materials other than the written word, and offers a much closer connection to readers. On the business side, both the top national papers and the community-oriented weeklies are doing pretty well. The mid-size local and regional papers are struggling, though. They don't have the resources for the excellent total package delivered by national papers, or the close community connections of the weeklies.

Long, but worth reading in its entirety.

When a loan isn't a loan

There's an interesting article in today's Wall Street Journal about financial products that comply with Quranic prohibitions on interest while still offering a competitive rate of return. The interesting part is that Malaysia is leading the way. Malaysia's financial sector has historically been dominated by ethnic Chinese, and the new financial products are seen as a way to help promote entrepreneurship among the country's Muslim majority.

(Sorry, available to Journal subscribers only.)

Monday, April 2, 2007

All the news

The long-ignored site newsletter has new software, and a new page. It will have new content eventually, too, but I wouldn't count on that happening before the move.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Annotating the blog

There's a new link over on the right, titled Back Story. It's the result of my recent musings about ways to support non-linear content within a chronological weblog format. The Back Story section also follows the "fail faster" rule: get something out there for people to pound on instead of trying to perfect the first release. In other words, the section is highly experimental and subject to change without notice. Comments welcome.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

There's a new sheriff in town

In case you had any doubt that elections matter...

Whether you agree with these actions or not, it's pretty clear that the November election changed the relationship between the White House and the Congress pretty dramatically.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

6000 words

6000 words since my last count. That gives me 12,800 for the month so far, and 44,800 for the year. Not much of March left, so I'll have to work to match last month's number. Amazing how hard it is to write and look at real estate listings at the same time.

Please pardon our dust

Yes, we've moved. Things are likely to be in flux for a little while as we update templates and such. For now, you can get to the home page at, and to the pre-move blog archives at

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

this is another test

test posting to Katherine's new blog from Tinderbox.

Testing 1 2 3

testing Katherine's new blog