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.