Friday, December 19, 2008

Just another day at the office

Like many writers, I'm interested in how other writers work. This profile of Jon Favreau, President-elect Obama's chief speechwriter, is an interesting look at his process. Writing speeches for the soon-to-be Leader of the Free World is apparently not all that much different from the writing I do. The challenge is to keep The Muse from noticing the pressure and expectations, insane as they must be.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Where do we go from here?

Ross Douthat has written a blog post for The Atlantic that captures, I think, much of the moral muddiness around the Bush administration's interrogation policies. As he says,

A term like "stress positions" sounds like one thing when it's sitting, bloodless, on a page; it sounds like something else when somebody dies from it.

Of course, people who use terms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" and "stress positions" do so exactly because of their bloodlessness, the filmy curtain they draw over what's really going on in places like Abu Ghraib. The photos from Abu Ghraib (benign introductory text, links to distressing images) yanked the curtain aside and forced Americans to see what was being done in their names. And now, having seen the photos, having seen the recently released Levin-McCain report (PDF), we have to decide what we want the new administration to do about it.

It's tempting, for all the reasons Douthat gives, to quietly put the curtain back in place, tiptoe away, and try to pretend it never happened. We can do that, but if we do we lose an opportunity to regain our moral authority. We lose the right to pretend that our proud defense of human rights and the rule of law is anything other than a rich nation's luxury, which we will abandon whenever it gets in the way. Americans may want to move on, but the rest of the world is watching to see what our promises really mean.

Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora testified to the Senate Armed Services
Committee in June 2008 that “there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.” -- Levin-McCain report.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Memes that deserve to die

It's not a depression if "depression-themed" merchandise is salable.

First, it's not a depression if people actually have money to buy cutsie depression-themed junk, as opposed to, say, food, clothing, and shelter.

Second, it's not a depression if people are able to see anything remotely humorous about the state of the economy or the possibility of a depression.

I'll be kind and assume that those who see economic depression as a market opportunity simply don't know what they are talking about. And so I'll suggest that such people browse the Dorothea Lange archives rather than speculating on the sort of personality that might see bread lines and massive population displacement as a good thing.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

TGIF (Almost)

It isn't Friday, but this link is for everyone who wishes it were. Mozart meets sidewalk performance art. (Video, with sound. Work-safe.) (Link by way of Andrew Sullivan.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

And now for something different

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a blogger for The Atlantic, has been running a Friday poetry feature. Intriguing, thought provoking, and worth a visit.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

January 20, 2009

Election Day is the day we Americans congratulate ourselves on the robustness of our democracy, the day the world's democratically elected leaders and dictators alike congratulate the President-elect and pledge to move forward. For at least a week or so, hope and bipartisanship reign. (Well, sometimes.)

But any two-bit dictator can hold elections. Even Zimbabwe held elections.

No, the real celebration of American democracy is Inauguration Day. For more than two hundred years, through wars, political scandals, brutally partisan campaigns and national tragedies, outgoing Presidents have seen their successors sworn in, and have quietly slipped back into their roles as mere citizens.

On January 20, 2009, George W. Bush will do the same.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Raise a glass

When you vote today (you are voting, right?), be nice to the poll workers. Poll work involves long hours, grumpy people, and brain-crushing tedium for not very much money. In spite of that, most of the poll workers I've encountered are genuinely trying to do a good job, and our democracy couldn't function without them.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Economic Crises 101

From Megan McArdle at The Atlantic, an extensive reading list for those seeking a better understanding of the current financial crisis.

Full disclosure: I've only read a handful of these myself.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Change is coming

Barack Obama was born in 1961.

James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi, enrolled in 1962 with the help of 5,000 federal troops.

Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. Equality was only a dream at that point, as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act weren't passed until 1964 and 1965, respectively. The 24th Amendment, prohibiting poll taxes in federal elections, was ratified in 1964.

In 1967, when the Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage, such laws still existed in sixteen states.

Just over forty years later, the son of such a marriage is the Democratic Party's nominee and a strong favorite to become the next president of the United States.

Win or lose, it's a historic moment. Don't forget to vote.

(Vote early if you can. Turnout is likely to shatter all records, so be prepared for long lines.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ink by the barrel

The old saying "never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel," still holds. Press coverage of John McCain has become steadily more unfavorable since a senior adviser attacked the New York Times.

Now, attributing the negative coverage to McCain's attacks on the press is a bit simplistic. In the same period, McCain's poll numbers have dropped, he has attacked Obama, and the economic news has been uniformly bad, all of which might lead to negative coverage. Still, attacking the press for reporting unflattering facts (i.e. doing its job) is unlikely to improve your coverage.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What deregulation looks like

Over in China, we're seeing a textbook demonstration of the importance of the rule of law and the need for government to guide the market's invisible hand. We're also seeing why government can't be trusted to supply that guidance on its own.

Milk producers -- either individual dairies or processing plants or both, it's not yet clear -- diluted milk with water, then added melamine to make the protein content look better than it was. Rather than being confined to a few rogue producers, this practice apparently took place on a massive scale and over an extended period of time.

Meanwhile, the government regulatory apparatus was either absent or corrupt, or both. Some of the largest offenders were exempt from government inspections under a self-regulation program. When children started getting sick, some of the suspicious products were recalled by individual companies, though without any explanation of the underlying problem or any coordinated effort to inform the public. Inquiries were suppressed in the runup to the Beijing Olympics. The whole mess came to light only when a foreign investor started to worry about its own liability -- after deferring to its Chinese partner for weeks -- and informed New Zealand's government.

There are episodes like this in America's past, too. They are why the FDA and the USDA exist. It's unfair to suggest, as some commentators have, that the Chinese people are any less ethical than anyone else. The problem is that there is no way for the ethical Average Wen to hold the unethical minority accountable. No whistleblower protections, no aggressive personal injury lawyers, no elected officials accountable to the people. When a major embarrassment like this happens, accountability is imposed from the top down -- I'm sure a good number of midlevel bureaucrats will lose their jobs or their lives over this -- but the emphasis is on containing the embarrassment, not fixing the underlying problem. Bottom up accountability would go a long way to reducing the frequency and severity of such incidents.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Hang on to your sneakers

The bad debt recovery plan failed to pass the House. CSPAN has the roll call.

No word yet on when, or if, it will come up again, or what the next step might be. In the interim, this would be an excellent time to see how your Congressman voted and send thanks or concern as appropriate.

Where to draw the line?

When is a company too big to fail?

That's one of the critical questions in the current credit mess. The Wall Street Journal explains how the decision to let Lehman Brothers fail turned out to be disastrously wrong.

It was wrong because it turns out that no one knows which investors have exposure to which financial instruments. Including the investors themselves. It's something like a financial butterfly effect: a subprime loan defaulting in Cleveland can cause a storm in Hong Kong.

That appears to be the logic behind the Treasury plan's focus on the underlying assets. If the bond secured by that subprime loan doesn't default -- or if the default is absorbed by the taxpayers -- then the damage to holders of related securities can be contained. We hope. Since no one knows how the various assets are connected, no one knows who the ultimate winners and losers will be.

(Wall Street Journal links; subscription required.)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Elitist is as elitist does

Another campaign season, another chance for charges of "elitism" to fly back and forth. Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that the word has no meaning if Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild can use it to describe anyone. And let's skip over the question of why mediocrity is more acceptable in a president than in, say, a surgeon or an airline pilot. Would you want a doctor who bragged about being last in his class at med school?

Instead, I'd like to look at the idea that attending a top school necessarily hangs that red 'E' around your neck. I can't say what the Ivies are like, but I did go to MIT, where any notion of one's personal specialness lasts about as long as it takes for the grades on the first exam to come back. Most MIT students were near the top of their high school class. Most will be merely average at MIT. Far from reinforcing arrogance, my time there was a four year lesson in humility.

Do some people come out of top-tier schools convinced that they are God's gift to the world? Of course. But would those people be any less arrogant if they'd floated through a less challenging program with fewer intellectual peers? Somehow I doubt it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

And still more about credit

Megan McArdle at The Atlantic has lots of good discussion about the financial markets and why the rest of us should care. Worth a visit.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why credit matters

As the dimensions of Treasury's plan to buy bad debt become clear, I'm seeing lots of rumblings along the lines of "So what if credit gets tight? Lax credit standards got us into this mess! Maybe we should live within our means for a change!"

Which is true, as far as it goes. Certainly giving no down payment mortgages to anyone with a pulse turned out to be a remarkably bad idea.

But last week's problems weren't about mortgages, they were about commercial paper. Commercial paper is the short term loans that companies like Intel and Toyota use to finance their businesses. It's about the safest non-government debt there is, and it usually pays an interest rate only a hair above short term Treasury bills. Last week, the interest rate on short term Treasuries went to almost zero, and the rate on Intel's commercial paper went to six percent. (Why? Because the money market funds who invest in commercial paper started hoarding cash to meet a flood of redemptions.)

Well, okay, so what does that mean?

Suppose I decide to go to a conference. It's related to a particular project, so either a client has agreed to reimburse my travel or I'll pay for the conference from the project fee. The hotel and the airline want their money upfront, though, while the project fee won't come in for a month or so. My credit is good, so I just use a credit card, paying the card company a nominal fee to use their money for a month or two.

But what if the card company suddenly doubled or tripled my interest rate? Or refused to authorize the transaction? I might have the money socked away, in which case paying for the conference displaces whatever I was planning to buy instead. Or I might decide to stay home. Staying home cuts that amount of revenue from the hotel and airline, and it might even mean that I'd have to cancel the relevant project altogether. The credit environment changed for reasons that have nothing to do with me, but the way I run my business still has to change.

Companies like Intel are in the same position. When Intel builds a fab, it has to make substantial investments long before chips start rolling off the line. It has to buy equipment (and the equipment suppliers have to pay their vendors), it has to facilitize the building, it has to pay the designers and all the overhead they incur. Some of that money comes from existing operations, but some of it comes from credit. If the cost or availability of credit changes radically--as it did last week--suddenly the whole economic model for the project changes. Again, the economic model changed for reasons that have nothing to do with Intel: their business remains fundamentally healthy. Still, Intel might have to rethink their investment in the project.

Repeat that experience across the entire economy, and you have big big problems. If companies don't invest, they can't grow, and if they aren't growing they aren't creating jobs. People who scoff at the implications of a credit freeze just don't know what they're talking about.

Which is not to say that the Treasury plan is without flaws. As originally proposed, it gives way too much power to an unelected political appointee whose term expires in four months. It offers way too little upside to taxpayers who are, for the most part, completely blameless. And it's not at all clear that it will even fix the underlying problems. Congress needs to address all of these issues.

But Congress can't sit on its hands, either. The partial solutions we've been seeing for the last several months seem to be making things worse, not better.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Who watches the watchdog?

The web is drowning in discussion of the current financial tsunami. For a reasonably accessible explanation of what's going on and what it all means, I like the economics columnists at The American Scene. Their conclusion seems to be that the Fed and Treasury had to do something to help the markets deal with all those bad assets (mortgages, but mostly over-leveraged financial instruments based on pieces of mortgages). Going forward, though, the massive transfer of debt from private actors to the US taxpayers raises the potential for all kinds of other bad consequences. It's critical to re-establish accountability, both among the executives who got their companies into this mess in the first place, and within government. It's not at all clear that Treasury's current proposal will do that.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Wanna buy an insurance company?

This evening, the Federal Reserve agreed to take an 80% stake in AIG, the world's largest insurer. Between Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and now AIG, the portfolio of shaky assets owned by US taxpayers is becoming quite impressive.

More important, I think we can say that the notion that financial markets can be trusted to regulate themselves has now been well and truly kicked in the head.

I don't pretend to understand credit default swaps -- apparently the people investing in them didn't either -- but I can accept the argument that the Fed had to act because the consequences of AIG's collapse would be catastrophic. The corollary, though, is that market discipline can only be trusted if one is willing to accept the occasional catastrophic collapse. Which, clearly, we are not.

History repeats

Last year, American house cats. This year, Chinese infants. Apparently melamine is still the food adulterant of choice.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fox guards henhouse

From the New York Times article about corruption at the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service:

They also said they did not view socializing with oil company representatives and taking gifts as inappropriate because they said they needed to be part of the marketing culture in order to market the program’s oil and gas. Several of the lower-ranking program officials have been transferred out of their old jobs, the report said. It recommended stronger supervision and a series of changes to make clearer the limits of acceptable behavior, some of which Mr. Luthi said have already been implemented.

Let's be clear here. Socializing is one thing. But on what planet does anyone believe that the "limits of acceptable behavior" include things like having sex or snorting cocaine with customers? Is there any manager reading this who wouldn't fire such an employee on the spot?

One of the arguments for government investment in renewable energy has been that oil and gas technologies have had a cozy relationship with government for years. Investments in renewable energy have ample precedent, and simply serve to level the playing field. But leveling the playing field is pointless if the other side has bribed the referee.

Update: Energy Outlook offers more context, explaining why anyone would bother trying to corrupt a bunch of accountants in Denver in the first place.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The limits of talking points

I don't talk to a lot of politicians, but I interview plenty of business executives and technologists. The difference between someone who really knows the topic and someone who is repeating prepared talking points is obvious almost instantly. In this interview, Governor Palin is clearly repeating prepared talking points.

There's nothing wrong with talking points. They're a quick way to summarize a complex position, a business strategy, or a technical argument. They're a good starting point for further discussion. The public relations people I work with use them all the time.

But most of the public relations people I know understand their limitations, and will happily connect me with someone knowledgeable when I ask questions that require more expertise. They present the strategy, but they don't decide the strategy, and they know it.

Unfortunately, Governor Palin isn't running for White House press secretary.

Eight US presidents have died in office. One has resigned, and two more have been (unsuccessfully) impeached. Does even Senator McCain believe that this pick truly puts "Country First?"

(More politics, I know. I keep trying to stop, but the election keeps making smoke come out of my ears. I do promise to work on topical balance, though. Thank you for your patience.)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Your way or the highway, Senator?

There are two kinds of political bipartisanship.

On one hand, there's the kind that realizes that, as Americans, we all share a lot of common interests. It seeks to use those common interests to build consensus. That's Barack Obama's kind of bipartisanship, much to the dismay of his more partisan supporters.

On the other hand, there's the attitude that says, "be reasonable, do it my way." Under this approach, prominently displayed during the last few years, calls for bipartisanship are just a weapon with which to bludgeon your opponents into supporting your most extreme policies.

John McCain's acceptance speech, with its call to "put the country first," sure sounded like the first kind of bipartisanship. Good for him! Except most of the rest of the Republican National Convention, and of McCain's campaign to this point, sounded depressingly like the second. Actions speak louder than words.

Yeah, I know, another political post. I should really ignore the news until November, huh?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

They made me do it

I'm trying to avoid political posts, I really am, but this is too much.

After spending months bashing Barack Obama as a neophyte with little experience in government and less experience in foreign policy, John McCain selected a running mate with even less experience in government and no foreign policy experience at all.

Except she's a woman. Chosen, the pundits say, in order to attract Hillary Clinton's core supporters. (Who are apparently expected to overlook her hardline conservative positions on social issues.)

This goes well beyond pandering; it's sexist and insulting. Clinton was a serious candidate. Palin is a token.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

How to really support renewable energy

I was going to write a political post here. I decided against it: the election is generating enough sound and fury on all sides without my help.

Instead, I'll link to an especially sensible proposal on funding for the political football known as the Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit. What about a tax on non-renewable electricity? An extra penny per kilowatt hour would add only a dollar or so to the average bill, but would more than cover the cost of extending the tax credit indefinitely.

Unfortunately, the idea that more expensive energy might actually be a good thing is likely to be too toxic for either party to touch, especially in an election year. Sigh...

Friday, August 15, 2008

The new power breakfast

If you get enough exercise, you can eat anything you want. According to the BBC, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps consumes about 10,000 calories a day but maintains himself at only about 8% body fat.

The problem for us mortals is that "enough exercise" can add up to a pretty enormous commitment. Phelps spends five hours a day in the pool, and it's a safe bet that his workouts are a bit more demanding than your average recreational swim.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Watch what they do

NATO is a military alliance. Members explicitly agree that a military threat against one is a threat against all, demanding a collective response.

Clearly, NATO members are not interested in mounting a military response to Russia's invasion of Georgia. Yet equally clearly, that's exactly what NATO membership for Georgia would mean. (At least in theory.)

It's unfortunate that the Georgian people are the ones who have to experience the difference between words and actions.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Making space

What's your job? Is it making stuff, or answering email? And how much time do you spend actually doing it?

Merlin Mann has a short series on the importance of making time for real work. It also explains why you may not get an email response from me right away.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

All sunshine not created equal

Conversion efficiency, open circuit voltage, and other solar cell performance parameters are critically important to solar cell manufacturers and their customers. These parameters define the financial model for an installation, from the size of the array needed for a given output power to the installation's likely generation revenue. They set a viability threshold that new technologies must cross. Yet measuring them accurately turns out to be surprisingly challenging.

Though the whole point of solar energy is that the sun is readily available, the sun is a terrible light source for accurate measurements of solar cell parameters. Clouds, haze, and the time of day and time of year all cause deviations from the often-quoted 1000 W/sq. meter solar irradiance value, and from the "standard" solar spectrum. Instead, companies use solar simulators.

No solar simulator will precisely match the sun's spectrum, though, which means the cell being tested might respond differently in actual use conditions. Correcting for spectral mismatch is especially complicated for organic solar cells (as discussed in an article in April's IEEE Spectrum -- free for IEEE members), but several people have warned me not to trust non-certified reports for inorganic thin film cells, either.

With the solar industry's rapid growth, it was only a matter of time before someone stepped up to fill the need. VLSI Standards has introduced an NREL-traceable Solar Reference Cell, using a monocrystalline silicon cell for calibration of solar simulators. The company also offers calibration services for certification of customer reference cells. (This product is so new that it isn't on VLSI's site yet. Contact the company for more information.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reading the tea leaves

I've added the Energy Outlook blog to my regular reading list. It's pretty dense, but a good window into issues like oil prices and alternative energy policy. I wouldn't say it's a must read for people interested in photovoltaics, but it's worth a look.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Comments Enabled (a note from the friendly system admin)

From your friendly sysadmin ...

Comment posting has been turned on again, if we get more SPAM beating our filters we'll need to disable it again without notice.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Semicon West is just one day old, and I've already accumulated five thumb drives. I like them a lot better than paper press kits or even CDs. The materials are right there in electronic form, and when I'm done the thumb drives themselves come in very handy.

I remember the first time I ever saw one of those things, holding it in my hand and thinking "ubiquitous data." The most valuable part of any computer, from low-end PCs to massive server farms, is the data it contains. Flash memory puts that data in the palm of your hand, and that's why demand for flash seems to be perfectly elastic. The more people have, the more they want. An address book is useful, but having your favorite music and pictures of your family with you when you travel, that's valuable.

Monday, July 14, 2008

This is getting ridiculous

I was at a presentation this afternoon in which the Safe Harbor statement in the beginning itemized all 37 forward-looking statements from the presentation, then itemized all the uncertainties inherent in both the semiconductor industry as a whole and the particular company's outlook. It was almost as long as the presentation itself. I think lawsuit phobia is just a little out of control...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Coming soon to a web near you

Yep, it's shameless plug time. One of the reasons I've been so quiet lately is that I've been working on a study of thin film photovoltaics for NanoMarkets. The study takes a comprehensive look at the various thin film photovoltaic technologies, and considers how they are likely to match and expand the universe of applications. I'm quite proud of it.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Sow the wind...

Last year, President Bush pushed for a comprehensive immigration reform package. The bill lost, mostly due to hardliners in his own party who demanded, and got, a crackdown on illegal immigration. Now business owners are reaping the whirlwind.

The alliance between the socially conservative and fiscally conservative wings of the Republican Party has never been a comfortable one. So far it seems to be holding together, but the difficult economy tends to pit the two sides against each other. We'll see if the stress becomes a fracture over issues like immigration.

Senator McCain, meanwhile, is caught on the fault line. His own instincts seem to favor immigration reform, but he took a hard turn to the right after that position nearly cost him the nomination.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Around the blogosphere

The folks at Solid State Technology have invited me to maintain a blog under their umbrella, so I'll also be posting at I expect that incarnation will be a bit more consistently on-topic than this one.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Where's the growth?

I haven't been following the SEMI book-to-bill ratio closely, mostly because I've been doing so much work in the solar space. It's been struggling along below 1.0 for more than a year, though, and really started to slide last July.

That, more than anything explains why semiconductor equipment suppliers are so interested in photovoltaics. Solar is growing fast. ICs are not.

Now, as I've said before I'm not convinced that solar cells are the long-term savior some people claim. But for the short term 50% growth is 50% growth.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Here comes India

Nikkei BP reports that the first customer for Applied Materials' SunFab turnkey solar cell manufacturing line will be Moser Baer Photo Voltaic Ltd. The new plant, located just outside New Delhi, is part of an aggressive expansion plan that will take the company to 500 MW of capacity by 2010.

The article is part of a three part series on the growth of India's electronics industry. Like most Nikkei coverage, it's excellent.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Throwing transistors at the problem

What a difference Moore's Law makes.

A few years ago, I briefly tried PersonalBrain, a visual notes organization tool. I thought the concept was interesting, but the program was too slow and it was too difficult to see enough information to be useful.

Skip forward two or three technology generations, double or triple my amount of monitor space, and those limitations have pretty much vanished. Yes, the software itself has evolved in that time, but the basic interface is unchanged. You still need a lot of space to see what's going on. It's just that now that space is available on my secondary monitor, leaving my main monitor free.

I don't yet know if PersonalBrain is going to become part of my toolkit, but the hardware has caught up enough to at least give it a reasonable trial.

Jumping on the solar bandwagon

Semiconductor manufacturing equipment suppliers have been looking at the photovoltaic space for a couple of years now, seeking a way to leverage their expertise as IC growth slows. This week, Intel and IBM joined them.

These are smart companies, so I'm not going to say they're wrong, but I am skeptical. Solar cells make DRAMs look like highly differentiated products, while both Intel and IBM live in the performance-driven microprocessor space. It's not clear to me how they're going to get the margins they need to make the solar business interesting.

(Yes, I know that Japanese companies like Sharp and Sanyo have been in the photovoltaic space for years. Those companies are structured quite differently.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Yes, we have laws here

The US Constitution survived the Civil War, World War II, and McCarthyism. It looks like it will survive the war on terror as well. Once again, the Supreme Court affirms the rule of law.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Journalism meets politics, chaos ensues

A few days ago, I finished a feature on high-k dielectrics. I read about ten technical papers, conducted a few hours of interviews, and distilled it all down to just over 2000 words. I probably did a pretty decent job, though I won't know for sure until it's published and I hear feedback from readers.

But is my article the definitive word on high-k dielectrics? No. There were people I would have liked to interview, but couldn't in the time I had available. There were papers I should have read, but didn't have time or didn't even know about. This was a 2000 word article for a general audience, not a comprehensive review for specialists. I'd encourage anyone in the field to use it as a starting point for further research, not as their only source.

The same is true of most political coverage. Most journalists do the best they can, and try hard to capture the nuances of policy positions, but they're human. They have their own biases, which they may or may not be self-aware enough to see. They have limited time to do the research, limited access to sources, and limited space to explain what they learn. Most would readily admit that they can't give the definitive last word on a subject at the time. Maybe in the book they hope to write once the campaign is over...

And so, sometime in the last few days, a reporter for the (London) TimesOnline had a conversation with the Obama campaign. They probably talked about the various unfounded rumors spreading about Obama, and how it appears that a substantial fraction of the American public actually believes them. The reporter probably asked something like, "Wow, that's definitely a problem. Is there anything you can do?" Then the campaign spokesman probably said something like, "We hope so. We're setting up a team of people to find sites that post this stuff and try to get the facts out there."

The reporter wrote his story, and gave it this lead:
A crack team of cybernauts will form a rapid response internet “war room” to track and respond aggressively to online rumours that Barack Obama is unpatriotic and a Muslim.

The article goes on to discuss what some of the problematic rumors are, the impact they may have had on polling data, and public statements that the candidate has made. It includes no further details on the proposed war room. Nothing about how many people it involves, which particular sites the campaign is likely to track, how it decides which rumors to counter, or exactly how it plans to respond.

I read the article, shrugged, and thought, "Yeah, I can see why they would need to counter some of the sludge that's going around."

Holly read the article, and went ballistic, using phrases like "thought police" and "intimidating bloggers." In the lengthy threads that ensued, both yesterday and today , she clarified that her primary objection was to the squelching of rumors that Obama is "unpatriotic."
Who defines that? Who defines what is a negative statement, and what is or is not a rumor of being unpatriotic?

“Unpatriotic” can mean anything the candidate doesn’t like. It is not, as Shakespeare would have said, “an ever-fix’d mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken…”

It is, instead, a wide-open field perfect for what the military would define as “mission creep.”

And THAT is where I drew my line.

I've never met Holly personally, but I've known her online for a long time. I think it's fair to say that I have a more generally benign view of government than she does. Maybe I'm being complacent in seeing nothing more than a politically savvy attempt to deal with damaging rumors. Maybe her use of terms like "thought police" is justified, maybe it's paranoid.

Based on the evidence of the article alone, it's impossible to tell. The article contains no details beyond the lead I quoted above. We don't know what other details are in the reporter's notebook and didn't make it into the article. Since the war room doesn't actually exist yet, we don't have any independent evidence of what it's actually doing, either. Without more information than is provided here, any comment about the war room's activities has more to do with the commenter's views than with what the campaign is (or is not) actually doing.

But the point is not the righteousness (or not) of the Obama campaign's rumor-debunking efforts. The point is that no piece of political journalism (or any journalism) should be seen as more than a starting point for further research. Read journalism from multiple sources, especially those with whom you disagree. When primary sources are available, as they often are for government agencies and political campaigns, see what they have to say. The more important the question is, the more careful you should be. No one cares if you are wrong about Britney Spears, but a one-sentence lead in a British paper is a pretty shaky hook for an opinion (positive or negative) about a candidate for President of the United States.

Plague descends, comments turned off

Comments are temporarily off due to a plague of comment spam that I don't have time to address at the moment. It's purely bad timing that this cuts off further comments on yesterday's post. If you'd like to comment, send me email and let me know whether you'd like your comment published, and what attribution (if any) you prefer.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Toward vigorous public debate

One of the blogs I read is hosting a vigorous argument over the announcement that the Obama campaign is putting together a team to debunk Internet rumors. The original post suggests that they are attempting to intimidate critics. (Please follow the links, as the linked articles are far less inflammatory than the base post.)

Purely as a practical matter, I think it's highly unlikely that they are going to visit lots of individually run blogs and yell at people who post falsehoods. They just don't have the resources. It's far more likely that they are going to take on the likes of Instapundit and Drudge Report, who have audiences larger than many newspapers. Once a rumor is repeated on sites like those, it takes on a life of its own and really can't be ignored.

But even if they did respond to smaller blogs, so what? The whole point of blogging is that individuals can get their opinions out there, and now it's intimidation if campaigns actually pay attention?

Sorry, I don't get it. Yes, it would be intimidation if representatives of a campaign appeared at your door in person, or threatened dire consequences for speaking your mind, but that's not what's happening here. We're talking about public responses to comments made in a public forum. It's the adult equivalent of freaking out because your parents read your MySpace page. Only less rational, because you can bet the Obama staffers will make sure their behavior (in a public, hostile forum, remember) is absolutely above reproach.

(I'm also a bit puzzled that this is even newsworthy. Political campaigns on both sides of the aisle have had "war rooms" and "truth squads" for years. The only thing new is the emergence and influence of Internet media, coupled with a candidate who understands their importance.)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Nanotubes creep forward

Nanotube electronics are gradually making their way toward commercialization. Nantero announced a collaboration with SVTC Technology that will make Nantero's CMOS-friendly nanotube process available at SVTC's development fabs. This news builds on the earlier announcement that Brewer Science had commercialized a carbon nanotube coating.

I remain skeptical, but this is the kind of effort needed to convince the skeptics.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Isn't it ironic

The first viable female candidate for the US presidency lost, in part, because she was perceived as the candidate of the establishment. She couldn't break the glass ceiling because she very carefully positioned herself as part of the old boys' club.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Looking for energy strategy, not tactics

Kissing up to a repressive regime is not an energy policy. Massive subsidies for corn-based ethanol -- which takes almost as much energy to make as it yields -- are not an energy policy.

Both parties are equally at fault here. President Bush visited Saudi Arabia, but Congress has been loudly demanding increased Saudi oil production. The Farm Bill faces a presidential veto, but Congressional leadership appears to have the votes for an override. Neither seems able to see energy as a critical strategic issue, too important to be held hostage by partisan bickering.

Barack Obama's energy proposals nod toward ethanol production, but also call for significant investments in conservation and alternative energy technologies. John McCain's web page ignores energy issues.

Monday, May 12, 2008

PDMS suppliers wanted

Does anyone out there know of a source for PDMS sheets, about 3 mils thick? A reader inquired, and I came up blank as well. Most people seem to make their own, but apparently that's not an option in this case. Send me an email or leave a comment if you can help.

Again, this is only a request for prefabricated sheets. The raw material is easy to find.

More recognition for OLEDs

I guess I'm not the only person who was impressed by Sony's OLED TV. The Society for Information Display will give it the Display Device of the Year Gold Award at their conference next week in Los Angeles.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Show us the money

Much to the relief of the equipment companies, the chipmakers seem to be shouldering the burden of the 450-mm wafer transition. Intel, Samsung, and TSMC have agreed on a common timeline, targeting production by 2014.

The 300-mm transition, you'll recall, created a lot of bad blood between the supplier and customer camps. The fabs pushed for an aggressive timeline, but (due to the dot com bust) failed to actually buy the equipment once it appeared. Oops. As a result, SEMI members have been pushing back hard at aggressive 450-mm proposals.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Last dog has died

It's all over but the shouting in the Democratic nomination race. Barack Obama will be the nominee. With a strong win in North Carolina and a near tie in Indiana, he's pretty much slammed the door on whatever chances Hillary Clinton might have had.

There may be plenty of shouting yet, but it won't change the outcome.

I don't have a horse in this race. I've been undecided for months. But I'm paying a lot of attention to energy policy these days because of my work on photovoltaics, and the proposed gas tax holiday is one of the most blatant examples of political pandering I've ever seen. From a policy standpoint, it's idiotic, and Senator Clinton is smart enough to know that. I'm glad to see that the voters saw it for what it was.

Monday, April 28, 2008

DRAM market claims another victim

This just in: making money in the DRAM business is (still) hard. SMIC joins Elpida and Qimonda among companies who have recently abandoned the sector. Naturally this is good news for other DRAM suppliers.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fresh food? How quaint!

From Texas, a reminder that modern life has its downside. Apparently the children taken from that FLDS compound are headed for foster care, at least temporarily. And apparently the Texas child protection authorities have a long list of ways in which these children differ from most children in foster care: they're polite and modest. They're used to eating fresh vegetables from gardens they helped tend, and meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals they helped raise. Educationally, they're probably at least equal to and possibly ahead of students their age from public schools.

Regardless of whether the allegations against the FLDS are true, it ought to be possible for us all to agree that maybe their parents were doing something right. We're in a pretty sad state as a society when polite, educated children with healthy diets are seen as unusual.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hype overshadows graphene's real promise

Graphene is in the news again, with the announcement that researchers at the University of Manchester have demonstrated (PDF) a graphene-based single electron transistor. That's an exciting development, but the hype machine immediately went completely out of control. Wired declared that Moore's Law is saved, while less restrained corners of the blogosphere announced that "silicon is out, carbon is in".

Well, not exactly. First of all, most of the devices in question were measured at 0.3 K, not exactly a practical temperature for commercial electronics. Second, the whole point of the referenced paper is that the behavior of Dirac fermions(*) under such extreme confinement is chaotic. Somehow I don't think the CMOS industry is quite ready for design models based on quantum statistics. And finally, all of these experiments used mechanically exfoliated graphene, which is a fancy way to say "we rubbed a pencil lead on a silicon wafer and told a grad student to find the graphene flakes." Again, not a commercially viable strategy.

This is not to denigrate the very interesting work being done at the University of Manchester and elsewhere. Graphene is an excellent system for important studies of very fundamental physics. But researchers have a long long way to go to develop a commercializable process, much less make a noticeable dent in the silicon market. Let's keep our expectations in line with reality, shall we?

(*) What's a Dirac fermion? Did I mention that carriers in graphene don't behave like normal electrons?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

My brain is full

After all my good resolutions about posting more, I got kicked in the head by an article I'm writing about graphene. Graphene is a 2-dimensional carbon crystal with all sorts of interesting properties, among them being that the electrons behave like relativistic particles. Who knew! Being a materials scientist by training, I learned what little I know about relativity from Star Trek.

It's been a tough slog, and I'm not quite done, either. The good news is that it's also been fascinating. Always a good thing.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Journalism 101

Heheheh. The Economist offers insider tips for getting the most out of conferences. They are talking specifically about the recent NATO summit, but the same general ideas apply just about everywhere.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Virtualizing conferences

While researching graphene electronics, I found an excellent resource courtesy of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara. They held a two week seminar on the subject last year, and put all of the talks online. Not just the slides, but audio and video of all the presentations. Definitely worth a look.

(Highly technical: physicists talking to other physicists. As this is a fast-moving field, these talks may not represent the current state of the art.)

The research was for a feature for Solid State Technology magazine, hopefully the May issue.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

No education system can exceed the quality of its teachers

"The only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction."

That's the key takeaway from a big McKinsey study (PDF file) on global education policy. Regardless of country, teacher quality has more impact on student performance than any other factor, including class size and per capita spending.

That's not exactly news. The interesting part of the study is its examination of best practices for improving instruction, both by recruiting better teachers in the first place and by developing the skills of teachers once they've been hired.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Where does hydrogen come from?

Over at, I've been participating in a blog thread about the economics of hydrogen vehicles and the outlook on energy issues in general. Interesting stuff.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Anyone out there using Twitter? I've just started playing with it. Few-to-few twittering is clearly useful, for instance as a way to help a small group converge on a meeting place, receive travel updates, and so forth. I can't decide whether many-to-many broadcast twittering serves any purpose at all, though.

For those interested in helping me investigate the question, my Twitter name is kewms. You'll need to ask to follow me.

(Political) life is a fantasy

Having been at MRS all week, I mostly missed the latest campaign brouhaha. I do think, though, that the suggestion that it's possible to "forget" or "misspeak" about something like dodging sniper fire (with your daughter!) is ridiculous. Repeating such a provably fictitious story, with increasing amounts of detail, even in the face of ridicule by people who were there, suggests a disdain for one's audience that's extreme even by political standards.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

And now the news

(Once again, all references are to MRS paper numbers, abstracts for which can be found at the conference site.)

Today at the MRS Spring Meeting, John Robertson reported (paper A13.1) that his group at Cambridge University has achieved n-channel mobility of 450 cm2/V-sec in microcrystalline silicon TFTs, and 100 cm2/V-sec p-channel mobility. Both those values are very good, and that's a problem. Plenty of models exist to explain why the material's mobility might be bad, and those models break when the mobility is good. More research needed.

(Special thanks to Dr. Robertson for walking me through yesterday morning's session on graphene, too.)

Meanwhile, Yifei Huang and a Princeton University group demonstrated (paper A13.2) a self-aligned process for low temperature polysilicon TFTs. It uses nickel silicide source and drain regions, aligned using the gate structure. At low annealing temperatures, the nickel doesn't react with the gate and can simply be etched away. Results were among the best ever recorded for top gate TFTs.

In the solar cell sessions, Makoto Shimosawa described (paper A14.1) Fuji Electric's FWave flexible solar material. It laminates roll-to-roll amorphous silicon/amorphous SiGe tandem cells (deposited by PECVD on plastic) onto steel foil. Each 2 square meter sheet generates 92 watts at peak output and weighs just 16 kg (including the steel foil). The company is now ramping production to wider rolls, targeting production of 40 MW per year.

The a-Si/a-SiGe tandem cell may be on its way out, though, as Xixiang Xu's group at United Solar Ovonic reported (paper A14.2) better results with small area triple junction a-Si/nanocrystalline-Si/nc-SI cells. Scale-up to large areas and optimization of the nc-Si component cell are the next steps.

The conference's own coverage is definitely worth a look as well.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Moses lists FTW!

*snort* What if the Bible were (a) a blog and (b) open for comments? What might the blogosphere have to say about Genesis or Exodus?

Guide to the perplexed

For those who don't know what the last two posts were talking about, MRS stands for Materials Research Society, the professional society for materials scientists. I'm in San Francisco for the MRS Spring Meeting this week.

Among other things, MRS gives people in the field a handy crib sheet to use when people ask, "so what's materials research?"

Briefly, materials science is the glue that pulls together subjects as diverse as Mayan bronzes, high temperature superconductors, organic and inorganic semiconductors, and ink rheology. All of these areas involve manipulating the structure and processing of materials in order to achieve the desired properties.

A whirlwind tour of this evening's MRS poster session

References are to MRS paper numbers. All abstracts can be found at the meeting site.

Two papers from Kyoto University, by Hideo Ohkita et. al. (AA5.32) and Jiamo Guo et. al. (AA5.33), presented good fundamental studies of charge generation and transport in fullerene-polymer bulk heterojunction solar cells. Extra points for providing copies of their posters as takeaways.

In paper KK5.14, Hagay Shpaisman, et. al., take a skeptical look at multiexciton solar cells, questioning whether they offer much improvement over the more conventional, and more tunable, tandem cell.

Yong Soo Kang, et. al. (KK5.1) presents a novel electrolyte for dye-sensitized solar cells, in which hydrogen bonds pull oligomers together in situ to form a self-solidified polymer that can still penetrate the cell's titanium dioxide nanostructure. Someone who saw me taking notes added the caveat that one of the components of the electrolyte is still a liquid; the author wasn't around to answer questions.

I'm not sure I quite understand this one, but in paper AA5.86 Janelle Leger and Glenn Bartholomew propose a single-layer polymer-based p-i-n transistor. The semiconducting polymer incorporates ion transport agents and ion-paired monomers, apparently creating an all-in-one electrochemical cell.

Everyone talks about how nice roll-to-roll fabrication would be, but Daniel Tobjork and coworkers (AA5.45) have actually done it. They used reverse gravure coating to put P3HT:PCBM / PEDOT:PSS organic semiconductor structures on plastic. Results were comparable to those achieved with spin-coating; roll speed controlled the coating thickness.

MRS breaks down the energy puzzle

Recommended reading for anyone interested in renewable energy and related issues: the MRS Bulletin's April issue. It's a comprehensive look at everything from controlling fossil fuel emissions, to hydrogen storage and transportation, to energy conservation. There's a lot of material here, but it's well worth the time. Reasonably accessible to nonspecialists and nontechnical people.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Scraping the bottom

How bad is the silicon shortage? People are sending email asking to buy Thin Film Manufacturing's inventory of silicon scrap.

No, I don't have any.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Old-style organizing, online

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that Barack Obama may be the first Internet president (if he wins). Apparently Rolling Stone thinks so too, and they have much better access to his operations than I do. A very interesting look at mixing newfangled tools with old-fashioned activism.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Paying for teacher performance

Most studies show that teacher quality directly correlates to the quality of a school. And so you see all kinds of proposals for beefed up licensing requirements, more stringent evaluation of teachers, easier removal of underperforming teachers, and on and on.

Now a charter school in Manhattan is testing a much simpler approach: if you want better teachers, pay them more. A lot more.

Makes sense to me. Better pay is presumed to attract better performers in every other profession, from computer programming and graphic arts to finance and athletics. Better pay makes it easier to give a job your full attention, which can only improve results. Perhaps even more important, people who make more money generally get more respect from both society and their employers. Friends of mine who've left teaching cite lack of respect as a very serious problem: it's hard to earn the respect of students if you don't get it from administrators or parents. It's hard to maintain educational or disciplinary standards when parents and administrators won't back you up.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

How Apple Did It

Nikkei Electronics bought one of the first MacBook Air computers, and tore it apart. Fascinating reading, with lots of insight into the differences in design philosophy between Apple and companies like Sony. Six parts so far, looking at customer experience, battery design, workmanship, and thermal design, with videos of chassis opening and battery removal (video narration in Japanese).

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Circuses don't bring bread

While the Wall Street Journal's news coverage is excellent, its opinion pages tilt far to the right. I disagree with the Journal on almost everything. Still, this article on the New York Philharmonic's recent visit to Pyongyang hits the nail squarely on the head. The notion that one concert will have any impact whatsoever on the world's most closed society is beyond naive.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Does It Play in Peoria?

In advance of the Ohio primary, both Clinton and Obama have suggested that the US might want to reopen the NAFTA debate with an eye to increasing labor and environmental protections. This suggestion drew entirely predictable howls of dismay from the business press.

I'm not going to say the business press is wrong. The impact of NAFTA is too complex a subject to get into here. But what do you say to the people of Ohio? Ohio built its economy around manufacturing and trade in manufactured goods. As a result, the state has carried a disproportionate share of the burden of globalization. Manufacturing jobs have left the state, but financial services, software, and other technology-driven industries haven't moved in. Ohio's unemployment rate stands at 6%, a full point higher than the nation as a whole. The people of Ohio do not think that NAFTA has helped them, regardless of what it has done (or not) for the nation as a whole.

The same story is behind anti-globalization movements worldwide. Farmers in Pakistan do not welcome American cotton, nor is cattle ranching good for the inhabitants of the Amazon. Globalization is seen--rightly or wrongly--as enriching business owners while impoverishing their employees. Advocates of globalization assure us that is not the case, that global prosperity is a tide that lifts all boats.

Maybe so. But until the people of Ohio agree, treaties like NAFTA will rest on shaky political foundations.

The Biased Media

Reading the news online today, I was reminded of what Halberstam calls "The Afghanistan Principle:" journalists have more freedom the further away their subject is. If you're writing for the New York Times, you can say pretty much anything you want about the President of Afghanistan, but if you're too critical of the Mayor of New York, your editor will probably hear about it.

Good editors and good publishers do their best to fend off outside pressures, but they're only human. If fellow CEOs are haranguing the publisher and pulling ads, he's not going to be happy. The more unhappy he is, the more pressure editors and reporters will feel. At the other extreme, some publishers quite openly insist on content that conforms to their views.

As a reader, the best way to get better journalism is to reward those who supply it. Write nice letters, patronize advertisers, and tell the advertiser where you saw the ad. Positive letters are especially powerful, since so many people write only when they have complaints.

As a citizen, the best way to stay informed is to remember that the Afghanistan Principle works in reverse, too. There's lots of excellent coverage being written outside the US. Even government-controlled media at least illustrate what that nation's leaders want their people to think.

Needless to say, the Internet is the best anti-bias tool ever created. If you aren't reading at least one foreign news site regularly, you're seriously missing out. Be aware, though, that the Afghanistan Principle applies to blogs, too: like most bloggers, I would think long and hard before picking a fight with a neighbor or a client. The best approach is to use a variety of sources and make your own decision.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Revolution is Online

I've been reading David Halberstam's book, The Powers That Be, about media and politics between the Depression and Watergate. It's gotten me thinking. Franklin Roosevelt was the first radio president, and radio let him bypass the press and talk directly to voters in their homes. Kennedy, the first television president, beat a sitting Vice President in part because he looked so good while Nixon looked so very bad. (As Halberstam tells the story, Nixon was tired and sick even before the debate started, while Kennedy was well-rested, with a fresh tan from campaigning in California.)

I think Obama, if elected, will be the first Internet president. McCain and Clinton use their sites in fairly traditional ways: to get their side of the story out, to show video of the candidate, to ask for donations. Obama's site certainly does all that, but it goes far beyond the others in asking supporters to make calls, to volunteer, to get involved... and in recognizing the efforts of those supporters. It's also updated far more frequently, giving supporters a reason to keep coming back and not incidentally giving the impression of a far more active campaign.

Just one quick example. At the moment, the first page of John McCain's campaign blog has five items, dated from February 12 to February 25. Two respond to a recent New York Times story, one is a video clip of President George Bush (senior)'s endorsement of McCain, one has election results, and one links to polling locations in upcoming states. Over on Hillary Clinton's blog, there are also five items, dating from February 27 to February 28. Two are about donations: one asking for them and one recognizing donors. Two are news updates, "what the campaign did today." The fifth has photos from a campaign appearance.

Just comparing those two, Clinton wins the battle for the Internet hands down. More frequent updates, more content, more sense that there are human beings on the other side of the screen. But then there's the Barack Obama blog. Ten items, all dated today. Three video clips: ABC at Obama headquarters, a new ad, and a campaign rally. Two items recognizing supporters (with photos and profiles). Two items quoting public figures saying nice things about the candidate. And three with miscellaneous campaign stuff: pictures from another rally, a response to John McCain, and a link for information on March 4th results parties. (Oh yeah, and they posted two more items while I was writing this post.)

Obama's success to this point is due to his ability to put large crowds of motivated people to work: donating, caucusing, and talking to their friends. His mastery of the Internet is a huge factor in that success.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Brother can you spare $7 billion?

The transition to 450-mm wafers, if it occurs, is going to be really really expensive. I suspect everyone knew that already, but now Wright Williams & Kelly has turned its simulation tools loose to figure out just how expensive. Start with $7 billion for the initial supply of test wafers alone, and go from there. Among other worries, there's the very real possibility that CMOS will run out of steam before the industry can recover the transition costs.

Hmmm.... Maybe we can squeeze more productivity out of 300-mm wafers after all, huh?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Knowledge is power, political edition

The Texas Democratic Party allocates presidential delegates based on each district's general election turnout. Though the system has been in place for decades, apparently it came as a bit of a surprise to the Clinton campaign. (Which apparently expected to have the nomination wrapped up a month ago.) Elsewhere, the campaign has complained that its poor results in caucus states (beginning with Iowa, the first speed bump for what was supposed to be a juggernaut) are because caucuses fail to reflect the will of the broader electorate. That may be true, but the quirks of the caucus system are hardly news.

Hmmm.... Plans that fail to consider important, readily available information. Plans that rely on overly optimistic assumptions, with no alternative when those assumptions fail. Do those sound like the plans of an experienced leader and/or leadership team to you?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

One low-defect step for Sematech

Sematech's Mask Blank Development Center reports that it has demonstrated EUV blanks with just 0.04 defects per square centimeter, surpassing the organization's 2007 roadmap target. The announcement particularly noted contributions from Lasertec Corporation, which provided the necessary nanometer-scale inspections.

EUV-watchers may also want to make note of two upcoming events: the EUVL Mask Standards Workshop, to be held February 25 in conjunction with the SPIE Lithography Conference; and the 2008 Sematech Litho Forum, planned for mid-May in upstate New York.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Solving the omnivore's dilemma

I've been reading Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's about where food on the American table comes from, from gigantic industrial farms to local hunters and gatherers. Pollan argues, quite convincingly, that industrial agriculture is an ecological and nutritional disaster. It creates unstable monocultures, sustains them with huge quantities of chemicals, undermines other kinds of farming, and yet fails to pay a living wage to the people who practice it.

So far so good. Unfortunately, the book -- at least so far, I'm about halfway through -- is long on problems and short on solutions. It's all well and good to suggest that we should all eat locally and sustainably grown food, but Pollan also estimates that two-fifths of the world's current population would starve without synthetic fertilizers. Some argue that industrial agriculture makes the problem worse by crowding out local agriculture in the developing world, but Pollan completely ignores the question.

At the other end of the income scale, the United States and Europe have come to expect tomatoes in January and citrus in places where it could never grow naturally. Suggesting that large numbers of people will turn their backs on these luxuries seems ludicrously naive. Here in Seattle, some "community-supported" "local" farms include California citrus in their offerings, while others are very vague about which products they actually grow themselves. Clearly, their subscribers would rather fudge their definitions of "sustainable" and "locally grown" than do without.

I don't have answers either, I'm afraid, but then I don't tell people what they should eat. It would be nice to see someone like Pollan go beyond "agribusiness is bad" and suggest a scalable alternative.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tracking electricity costs

I went looking for information about electricity rates, and found a treasure trove. The US Energy Information Administration collects and publishes a huge amount of information on energy consumption, costs, and fuel sources, both in the US and overseas. It's pretty well organized, with both html and downloadable spreadsheets for most information. All courtesy of US taxpayers.

I was looking for the information with an eye to more work on photovoltaics. The more expensive conventional electricity generation becomes, the easier it is for solar and other technologies to compete.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

OLEDs time has (almost) come

I wouldn't say that $2500 for an 11" TV is the kind of price that's going to displace LCDs anytime soon. But it does let you be the first on your block to own an OLED display that David Pogue describes as "breathtakingly spectacular."

I agree with Pogue. The size will go up, the price will come down. Once that happens, older technologies could be in big trouble.

The story also offers (again) a lesson in just how long it can take for new technologies to make it to market. I first started writing about organic semiconductors in 2002. That's already six years, but I wasn't the first to notice them and they haven't really exploded yet.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Fancy titles don't make you smart

This would be pretty funny if the comments didn't raise the scary possibility that some people actually agree with the author. Yaron Brook argues that sweeping deregulation of health care would unleash the benefits of capitalism, leading to improved access for all Americans.

Never mind that study after study has shown that the highly regulated single-payer systems common in many other countries lead to better outcomes at lower cost. And that much of the advantage of those systems lies in better treatment of patients with chronic illnesses, precisely the ones deregulated insurers try to avoid.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Be careful what you wish for (political edition)

A compressed primary schedule usually favors the front runners. Early wins build momentum, and the compressed schedule means that there isn't much time for opponents or negative information to derail the train.

The problem (depending on your point of view) is that the schedule is set months before anyone actually votes. At that point, the entrenched party insiders (yes, I'm looking at you Senator Clinton, Governor Romney) probably have an advantage in fundraising and name recognition, leading to an advantage in early opinion polls. And, as party insiders, they have enough clout to have some influence over the schedule.

It's too early to say the scheduling strategy has backfired. But it is amusing to watch a couple of upstarts reap its benefits.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Your tax dollars at work

I've done enough traveling on business to appreciate the value of a good hotel room. A good night's sleep really does help you be more functional the following day. Comfortable rooms in major cities aren't cheap, so I don't cringe (much) when it costs three times more to attend Semicon West than to visit my family.

But then I look at the travel budget for officials at the Smithsonian, and I wonder what planet they're living on. Remember, these are government employees, traveling at taxpayer expense while keeping both hands out for donations. Thousand-dollar hotels for the head of a museum paid for by children's lunch money. Sheesh.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Found in the blogosphere

My friend Janet is blogging about art, and mindfulness, and culture, and all sorts of interesting stuff. With lots of fascinating pictures, too. Her latest, about Huichol art as a means of cultural communication, is especially worth a visit. Enjoy!