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.)