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.