Saturday, April 30, 2016

SpaceX Has Been Preparing for Mars

It turns out that SpaceX's recent success in sticking the landing of a Falcon 9 on a floating barge is far from the most important R&D they've been doing.  ARS Technica brings an interesting story about how SpaceX has been experimenting with technologies needed for a Mars landing, and been doing it for years. 
In September, 2014, a Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida carrying a Dragon spacecraft bound for the International Space Station. The capsule carried some notable cargo, including the first 3D printer to be tested in space as well as 20 mousetronauts to study muscle loss. Yet the most far-reaching part of that mission came after the Falcon 9 deployed its upper stage and began falling back to Earth.
That's because during that launch—and about 10 others since late 2013—SpaceX has quietly been conducting the first flight tests of a technology known as supersonic retro-propulsion—in Mars-like conditions. It did so by firing the Falcon 9's engines at an altitude of 70km down through 40km, which just happens to be where the Earth's thin upper atmosphere can act as a stand-in for the tenuous Martian atmosphere. Therefore, as the Falcon thundered toward Earth through the atmosphere at supersonic speeds and its engines fired in the opposite direction, the company might as well have been trying to land on Mars.

These test flights were classic SpaceX—flying a primary mission, such as delivering cargo to the International Space Station, but also piggybacking other technology demonstration missions on top of it. 
SpaceX was operating in a regime that NASA has virtually no experience in: firing retro rockets to slow a vehicle while it's traveling at supersonic speeds in an atmosphere, thin as that atmosphere may be.  While lots of people have modeled this in CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) and run models in wind tunnel simulators, actual experience has been virtually nonexistent.  SpaceX actually started testing this on an early Falcon 9 rocket in 2013.  A year later, they had attracted attention from NASA, who sent a space agency WB-57 airplane and a Navy NP-3D Orion to trail the spacecraft and capture images and thermal data.
Among those eagerly watching the flight tests was Bobby Braun, an aerospace engineer at Georgia Institute of Technology, who has led a joint research effort with SpaceX and NASA to study supersonic retro-propulsion. "I have access to all of that data, and I’ll tell you that it's worked like a charm every time," he told Ars. "The stability was manageable, and while there are still some issues, there are no showstoppers."
Falcon 9 during a supersonic retro-propulsion burn.  From ARS Technica.
Just three months after that September 2014 test flight with government planes collecting data, NASA had seen enough, too. It signed a Space Act Agreement with SpaceX, saying it would provide assistance with deep-space navigation and communications if the company would share its flight data. If NASA were to try to conduct that kind of test on its own, the cost would probably exceed $2.5 billion or $3 billion, Braun said. "It’s a great deal for NASA, in my opinion, and it’s a great deal for SpaceX."
This week SpaceX announced plans to land a Dragon spacecraft on Mars by 2018.  Even if they don't make their two year goal, this would be a monumental achievement for NASA or any other national space agency, let alone a single company, considering the 6,000kg Dragon is nearly an order of magnitude (10x) more massive than anything previously landed on the red planet.  The Dragon capsule's SuperDraco thrusters, part of the launch abort system, are the key to this approach and show another difference between SpaceX and NASA.  Abort systems are something that NASA has ordinarily put on a vehicle and thrown away after a couple of minutes; using it for arguably the most critical part of the mission is another sign of classic SpaceX.   


Friday, April 29, 2016

Echoing Lots of Other People When I Say

Fuck cancer.  Seriously. 

I lost a friend this week to Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a blood cancer.  Because one of the main treatments for this is a bone marrow transplant, and I had helped Mrs. Graybeard through a similar treatment, we had talked about treatment details and I tried to help him out as much as I could.  He was diagnosed approximately a year ago, and passed away last Saturday at 48.  Far, far, too young; with kids still in school (one of four in college).  I met him when I started at my last job 20 years ago.  That means he was 28, and already a young star.  A brilliant young man.  We worked together on a first-of-its-kind design job for the company from about '03 to '08.  I did the analog/radio portion and he did the digital design, so we had to work together quite a lot. 

Back in 1997, when Mrs. Graybeard was going through her cancer treatment (I've told this story before), she had a stem cell transplant.  I go into a lot of details about that sort of treatment at that link.  It's relevant here because of the similarity between the treatment my friend was to get and the treatment my wife got.  In the case of the treatment for his Lymphoma, the main difference is that the patient's marrow is considered contaminated because the disease is a cancer of the immune system.  That means the transplant has to come from a donor, and that brings potential problems that aren't there when it's your own stem cells being put back, like my wife had.  Briefly, my friend couldn't complete the transplant.  I don't know the medical details.  There was talk about another "new, miracle" treatment but he didn't make it to that, either.
It's almost a cliche' to say the world has suffered a loss when someone passes, but in this case it's true.  If you fly, your flights are safer because of this guy. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Strange Story of Boaty McBoatface

Every so often you come across a story that just kinda tickles some neurons, or something.  I find it hard to forget.

So a few months ago, the UK Natural Environment Research Council opened a contest to name a new research vessel.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Weird history, yes, but history nevertheless.
Just a day after the NERC launched its poll to name the £200m vessel – which will first head to Antarctica in 2019 – the clear favourite was RRS Boaty McBoatface, with well over 18,000 votes. The RRS stands for royal research ship.
It was quite the competition until it closed on March 16,
Some undoubtedly were, with its website, which kept crashing on Sunday under the weight of traffic, showing dozens of serious suggestions connected to inspiring figures such as Sir David Attenborough, or names such as Polar Dream.

But the bulk of entries were distinctly less sober. Aside from the leading contender, ideas included Its Bloody Cold Here, What Iceberg, Captain Haddock, Big Shipinnit, Science!!! and Big Metal Floaty Thingy-thing.
Seriously, my UK friends: I love you.  

Anyway, the NERC has always said that they were going to view the winning name as a suggestion rather than swearing they'd use it, lest they find themselves sailing, as the Guardian put it, " a vessel that sounds like it was christened by a five-year-old who has drunk three cartons of Capri-Sun."
The RRS Insert Name Here.  Courtesy of the Guardian.

The Guardian waxes poetic over the name, reaching truly epic levels of tongue-in-cheekiness in anguish that the NERC will not use Boaty McBoatface as the vessel's name.  You should go RTWT.  
Boaty McBoatface was too beautiful to live. He was a rare and precious flower, simply not cut out for these ugly times. We created Boaty McBoatface. We created him after our own image, in a rush of optimism, deluding ourselves that he was ever worth a damn. Boaty McBoatface was a perfect idea in an imperfect world. He was all that we were not. He was strong. He was resolute. Truly, he was Boaty McBoatface.

Boaty McBoatface is dead. The government killed him.

Actually, that’s an exaggeration. The government has strongly hinted that it’s about to kill Boaty McBoatface, for it understands that vanquished hope is a more powerful tool than relentless despair. Present the people with an idol, then smash it before their eyes. Soon they will learn that resistance is futile, and the state’s power is absolute.
To be technical, the RRS Insert Name Here isn't a boat, she's a ship.  Ships are big enough to carry boats, which she will; boats don't carry ships.  We can't just change the name to Shippy McShipface, though, first because of the inevitable mispronunciations that will follow, but also because the people chose the name Boaty McBoatface.  She deserves to be Boaty McBoatface whether or not the other research ships laugh at her behind her back. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Still Making Chips

I'm still cutting aluminum for the CNC conversion project, I just don't have any finished pieces to show off.  Not since the weekend.  I've just been rough cutting and rough shaping all the pieces to minimize the cutting time on the small CNC mill.  Here's all the stock. 
The two pieces of angle aluminum on the right are the X and Y motor standoffs, cut to final size but not drilled and tapped.  That shouldn't take long.  The two pieces on the left that are kinda pentagons (but really squares with one corner triangle cut off) are the motor mounts these will mount to.  They're the right overall size but need all the holes drilled and bored.  In front of those is a rectangular piece with a lot milled away - you can see one end has an edge that's about half an inch wide and standing not quite a half inch above the rest of it: that's the Y-axis ballnut mount.  It's a little oversized and ready to drill and bore its holes, then thinned to final size.  The little piece to it's left is the X-axis ballnut mount I showed on Friday.  The two scrap triangles are behind that.

Behind all those pieces are the Z-axis ballnut mount and Y axis spacer (thicker chunk) standing vertically on top of the X-axis endplate.  None of those are rough shaped at all, other than being cut from longer pieces of bar stock. 

Not shown are the couple of cubic inches of aluminum chips and sawdust I've put in the Shop Vac.  All of the rough shaping has been done on the big mill because it can take such big cuts compared to my CNC mill.  I have a carbide square facing end mill like this one that's simply awesome to use, coming from my light duty Sherline hybrid.  I can take a 1/16" deep cut across the entire top of a 1 3/8" wide, 2.3" long aluminum chunk and it doesn't even sound like it's working.

By the way, I puzzled for a long time over how to take off the triangle on those (pentagonal) motor mounts.  I don't have any 45 degree blocks to set up the cut.  On the other hand, I have some V blocks with a 90 degree included angle (like these) and I realized I could set up the V block so that the edges are parallel to X and Y on the mill table.  That made the geometry perfect for a straight cut to remove the unwanted piece.  The corner of the square fit tight in the 90 degree V, leaving the piece to be cut off just hanging out there.  Simple straight cut on the Y axis (away from the camera toward the accordion-pleat Z-axis screw cover in the distance).  
As I've said before, I'm not a real machinist.  I don't already know how to pick up a print and do all this, I'm just trying to learn to make stuff.  At this point, every piece is a puzzle and I'm learning more doing this than I thought I would.  And every so often I get some cut or finish looking really good and when I think of being able to do this, I channel my inner flounder

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Techy Tuesday - Serendipity and Lithium Ion Batteries

Rechargeable lithium batteries are close to the ideal battery for many applications.  They have excellent charge density in a lightweight battery.  They require more care in charging than the old lead acid batteries that are everywhere, or even nickle metal hydride batteries, but they pay you back with better capacity per unit weight compared to lead acid. 

There are, of course, no ideal solutions, and the companies who make lithium batteries are always trying to improve them.  Monday, EE Times published an article about a discovery out of the University of California at Irvine that offers the possibility of a massive increases in the number of charge cycles you can get out of a battery.  There's even the potential for a rechargeable battery that never wears out - which has never been available.  As an aside, I just replaced the 2 1/2 year old lithium battery in my iPhone 5.  It had been discharge-charge cycled around 700 times and was showing signs of wearing out.  A battery that shows no changes in performance after many thousands of cycles sounds pretty darned cool to me!

Chemists at UCI, research leader Reginald Penner and doctoral candidate Mya Le Thai, published in the American Chemical Society’s Energy Letters.  The discovery centers on charge-storage structures based on nanowires.
[T]he 'wires' in question are deposited structures (wires only the sense they are long, thin conductors). In the work reported, the wires are gold, and they are coated or sheathed in manganese dioxide (MnO2). The device is essentially a capacitor, with the charge-storing capacitance being formed between interleaved arrays of the wires, all suspended in an electrolyte medium.

The use of nanowires is known to offer higher charge storage than films of identical materials. Thousands of times thinner than a human hair, they’re highly conductive and feature a large surface area for the storage and transfer of electrons. The gold wires (laid down on glass) are 240 nm across and 35 nm thick; various shell thicknesses between 143 and 300 nm were evaluated. Prior work has found that these filaments are extremely fragile and don’t hold up well to repeated discharging and recharging, or cycling. In a typical lithium-ion battery, they expand and grow brittle, which leads to cracking.

UCI researchers have solved this problem by coating a gold nanowire in a manganese dioxide shell and encasing the assembly in an electrolyte made of a Plexiglas-like gel: a gel of poly-methyl-methacrylate and LiClO4 (lithium perchlorate, source of the lithium ions to form a lithium ion battery). The combination is reliable and resistant to failure.
According to Dr. Penner, Ms. Le Thai was actually "playing" with various treatments when she tried the new method.  She cycled the test electrode 200,000 times over three months without detecting any loss of capacity or power and without fracturing any nanowires. 
“Mya was playing around, and she coated this whole thing with a very thin gel layer and started to cycle it,” said Penner, chair of UCI’s chemistry department. “She discovered that just by using this gel, she could cycle it hundreds of thousands of times without losing any capacity.”

“That was crazy,” he added, “because these things typically die in dramatic fashion after 5,000 or 6,000 or 7,000 cycles at most.” The structure used by the UCI workers intentionally employed nanowires of high aspect ratio (very long relative to their width) in order to reveal or amplify the effects of any failures: none were seen.
You might say the new treatment extended the life of the wires by as much as 40 times.  It's actually quite a bit more, since she didn't find any failures in her 200,000 cycles, so they don't really know how long the batteries can last.  Since no failures were found, this raises the tantalizing prospect of a rechargeable battery that never wears out.  Let's not say "never"; because never is a long time.  The universe will apparently wear out at some point in the future, and any batteries around at that time will die with it, so let's just say they don't know how long these batteries may last, but it's far longer than any technology tried so far. 

Spacecraft designers, undersea or underground systems designers; literally everyone who works on systems that are extremely difficult to work on are all quietly excited right now.  The batteries are not on the market, yet, but “This research proves that a nanowire-based battery electrode can have a long lifetime and that we can make these kinds of batteries a reality.”
UC-Irvine doctoral candidate Mya Le Thai holds up a nanowire-based technology that allows lithium-ion batteries to be recharged hundreds of thousands of times. Photo: Steve Zylius/UC Irvine

Monday, April 25, 2016

That's Not Good

The velocity of money has crashed to the lowest level in 57 years.
The velocity of money is the rate at which it changes hands.  You can see from the chart that through the tech bubble of the 90s, the velocity was the highest value on this chart (which goes back to 1960).  Around the 9/11 attacks it dropped back toward the previous levels, but the interest rate cuts and other activities of the Federal reserve helped it pick back up, until the real estate bubble they created blew creating the crash of '08.  After '08, despite all the money printing quantitative easing and ZIRP from the Fed, they never were able to get the number back into its historic range.

The velocity of money reduces to a simple algebraic equationVt*M=nT
Vt   is the velocity of money for all transactions.
  is the total amount of money in circulation on average in the economy (see “Money supply” for details).
nT  is the nominal value of aggregate transactions.
The idea here is that if the Fed printed a quadrillion dollars and put them in a safe, they wouldn't be inflationary because their velocity is zero. The problem is that this theoretical boundary case tells us nothing.  I mean, if a bank holding those imaginary dollars really needed them, like to stave off bankruptcy, do you doubt they'd use them?

So what does this collapse mean?  For one, there sure is no sign of an economic recovery going on, nor has there been one.  You've heard, I'm sure, the "great recession" ended in '09?  Not by this chart.  I figure the next "little while" (year? two? we're extrapolating off the end of that curve) is going to look more like the last eight years than a healthy economy.   

Sunday, April 24, 2016

It's Official - America is Out of Problems

Years ago, the insightful Mrs. Graybeard came up with an interesting theory behind the epidemic of gang violence in this country.  Perhaps it was born from talking with a friend's high-school age daughter who had just returned from a year long mission trip to Uganda, and told us of how earnestly and seriously those kids go to school.  How they'll do anything to get an education; compared to her peers in an American high school the previous year who acted like studying was doing their parents or "society" a favor.  Perhaps it was an NPR story, similar in tone, about Indian children who work in factories putting the flammable heads on matches and desperate actions to get them into schools.

The conclusion was that Americans have it too easy.  It led Mrs. Graybeard to theorize that instead of having to "hunt and gather", meals are provided at school or EBT cards are handed out to vast numbers (almost 50 million).  With the time on their hands that might have been spent hunting, they turn to hunting each other, giving their predatory instincts an expression.  Dominance posturing that might have been done with mock fights, like some animals, or by collecting shiny baubles like Bowerbirds, turn into death matches over gang turf.  Same instinct, more malignant in expression. 

I don't know if that's really true or not, and I'm not advocating for a return to child labor.  What's more, I don't even know how to test the idea, but columnist Derek Hall of writes a piece with a similar theme, saying "We're Out of Problems".
It’s 2016, right? I hope so because that’s the year I put on my check when I paid my taxes.

That’s means we’re at around 6,000 years or so of recorded human history, right? Add to that that thousands of years unrecorded before that, and you realize people have been around here for a while. Yet, in the year 2016, we find ourselves in a heated debate over what is or isn’t a man or a woman.
Seriously, he says, we must be out of problems.  That's not to say that individual people don't have problems, but that Western society - especially American society - is out of problems.
Since we are out of problems – we have food, shelter, medicine, etc. – we’ve decided not to celebrate but rather to create problems out of thin air.  
For example, the left rambles incessantly about "income inequality".  Of course incomes aren't equal, that's meaningless.  But no one stole income from someone else.  To think so is laughably juvenile.  The left always seems to believe the economic pie is so limited in size that if one person has a larger slice, it must mean they took pie from someone else.  Conservatives always believe we can make more pies, and we're surrounded with proof of that idea.  Derek Hall talks about Mark Zuckerburg from the "Book of Faces".  While I dislike the company and don't have an account, Hall is 100% right when he says,
Mark Zuckerberg is not worth $35 billion because you aren’t, or because anyone else isn’t. He didn’t take $35 from a billion people. His wealth was created, not taken. Earned – a concept we used to understand and celebrate, but now go out of our way to scorn.
It's worth repeating that the poor in this country have more material wealth than much of the world.  Certainly they have more material possessions than were common even a generation ago.
Many of our nation’s poor are fat, lazy and satisfied. They have flat screen TVs and cable, microwaves and Internet, and all the food they need. Even our homeless have cellphones. Because we don’t have to wake every day to forage for food and hope some simple scrape won’t lead to an infection that kills us, we’re afforded the luxury of feeling cheated by someone having more. 
It's a good piece and worth a read.  Last words to Hall:
Just imagine how bad things would be if we had real problems…
(Indian children working in a match factory - Getty Images)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Google's Crony Relationship With the Obama Administration

According to the site Protect Internet Freedom, and their newsletter "The Intercept", Google has been the most frequent visitor to the White House and there has been a revolving door between Google and the Administration, with nearly 250 people leaving Google to work in the White House or leaving the White House to work at the tech giant.  Between January 2009 and October 2015, Google staffers gathered at the White House on 427 separate occasions.  The White House official visited most often by Google is Todd Park, the U.S. chief technology officer from 2012 to 2014. In that short period, Park met with Google officials at the White House 22 times. Park’s replacement, current Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, was a former Google vice president. She had five White House meetings as a Google representative, then 10 Google meetings as a White House representative.
No other public company approaches this degree of intimacy with government. According to an analysis of White House data, the Google lobbyist with the most White House visits, Johanna Shelton, visited 128 times, far more often than lead representatives of the other top-lobbying companies — and more than twice as often, for instance, as Microsoft’s Fred Humphries or Comcast’s David Cohen. (The accompanying chart reflects 94 Shelton visits; it excludes large gatherings such as state dinners and White House tours.)
Google, of course, claims innocence. In a company blog post, they attacked the WSJ for daring to question them. They were just there to help fix the steaming pile of fail called, and to talk about STEM education, internet censorship, cloud computing, trade and investment, and smart contact lenses. No, it had nothing to do with the several antitrust lawsuits against Google!  How dare you suggest such a thing! 
Google’s dramatic rise as a lobbying force has not gone unnoticed. The company paid almost no attention to the Washington influence game prior to 2007, but ramped up steeply thereafter. It spent $16.7 million in lobbying in 2015, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and has been at or near the top of public companies in lobbying expenses since 2012.

But direct expenditures on lobbying represent only one part of the larger influence-peddling game. Google’s lobbying strategy also includes throwing lavish D.C. parties; making grants to trade groups, advocacy organizations, and think tanks; offering free services and training to campaigns, congressional offices, and journalists; and using academics as validators for the company’s public policy positions. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, was an enthusiastic supporter of both of Obama’s presidential campaigns and has been a major Democratic donor.
Google doesn't just lobby the White House for favors, but collaborates with officials, effectively serving as a sort of corporate extension of government operations in the digital era.
It can perhaps be argued that in an increasingly technical world, that the should hire the best guns from the private sector to help them out.  The question becomes, can the feds be trusted to regulate Google (or Silicon Valley in the larger sense) when they've spent so much time in bed on the sofa together.  This is saying Google is the personal "IT help desk" to the White House staff.  Shouldn't that be up for public bidding, like any other government contract?  I can imagine several companies would like to have that position.  And there is no doubt that Google’s rise in Washington has coincided with public policy that is friendlier to the company.
In 2012, staff at the Federal Trade Commission recommended filing antitrust charges after determining that Google was engaging in anti-competitive tactics and abusing its monopoly. A staff report that was later leaked said Google’s conduct “has resulted — and will result — in real harm to consumers and to innovation in the online search and advertising markets.”

The Wall Street Journal noted that Google’s White House visits increased right around that time. And in 2013, the presidentially appointed commissioners of the FTC overrode their staff, voting unanimously not to file any charges.
I suppose there are probably naive folks who think search engines are impartial things, and return results based on some objective measures of popularity.  Sorry, but that just isn't the case.  Google (and their competitors) go through proprietary algorithms that change fairly quickly.  As a fellow gunnie, I'm sure you recall that they completely blocked out gun and ammo searches back in 2012, a practice that has shown up back as far as 2002.  It's not hard to imagine Google returning only unfavorable search results on White House political enemies, is it?  Can you see them influencing the election process, if only by restricting the information that can be found online?   

The article contains a couple of very information-dense graphics that chart the 427 meetings between WH and Google representatives, and that chart the revolving door between the WH and Google.  The second chart reveals 55 cases of individuals moving from positions at Google into the federal government, and 197 individuals moving from positions inside the government to jobs at Google.  This isn't a new thing; the revolving door between the big banks and brokerages and their regulatory agencies is another example.  But wouldn't it be better all the way around for less corporate cronyism  to be the rule?  Unless you're one of the cronies, then it would suck.  

Friday, April 22, 2016

And It Looks Like This

Rather than prattle on about Earth Day, here's a picture of how that piece turned out.  I found a way to code the circle cutting routine in G-Code that created a semicircle.  I need to program in the start and end points of the arc (doesn't have to be a 180 degree arc), and the radius.  No need to go to the center or anything.  When I cut that, it was a 180 degree arc, and I cut off the longer "bat ears" on the left and right ends with a cutoff saw. 
It's a bit off center, but it seems to do what it's supposed to do. Here it is in place. 
There's a pair of 10-32 screws going through the ballnut (big piece with slanted edges) into the mounting piece in the front.  There's a bit of a question of what goes in those holes in the mount.  The drawings I'm working to say to put a pin in there that's 0.216 diameter.  The hole in ballnut, though, is .208, so that ain't happening.  I suppose I just turn it down to a smaller diameter, but I'm not sure. 

Remember, in honor of earth day, you should go burn some coal (hey, it comes from the earth, right?).  Better yet, burn some artisanal firewood.  Just be sure it's enough to be visible from Alpha Centauri.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Back In the Shop

My recovery from my nasty week has progressed enough that I can walk or stand around without pain, so I spent most of the day trying to figure out just how to hold the stock and make a small part.  It's not done yet. 
For scale, that's a half inch thick piece of aluminum that's 1 3/8" long by a half inch tall.  The raw stock I'm cutting it is taller than that; around 0.9 inches (toward the top in this view).  The part that's slowing me is cutting out that sector of a circle.  I have two small clamps holding this piece down to the table, pretty much at each of those holes.  The circle diameter is 1.11" which puts the center of the circular cutout just barely still on the metal. 

I started out thinking the way to do this is the way I cut the circular cutouts in my previous pieces, but the exact lines of code I used that time would be inefficient here.  That time, I cut circular holes in the solid metal.  This time, I only have a part of a circle to cut. If I used the previous routines, I'd spend about half the time with the cutter in mid-air.  It's true that there are worse ways to spend my time, but I also think it's worthwhile to figure out how to do it the most efficient way possible. 

The next part is going to be a bit harder, too, but in a different way. Pictured here, it's a replacement for an existing end cap on the long (X) axis of the G0704's table. 
This part is roughly 7.1 x 2.2", and most of it is thinned down from a 1" thick piece of plate to 1/2" thick.  I ran this through my CAM program, and it tells me I'm looking at roughly 18 hours of machining time.  I'm not comfortable with thinking that everything can run that long without issues.  The only alternative I can see is to use the big mill, since it's all still fully usable.  It just has to be done manually.  The G0704 can take take off much more per cut than the Sherline/A2ZCNC mill can - which is why I bought it in the first place!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Techy Tuesday - Do Intel's Layoffs Signal the Death of the Desktop?

It's one of the stories being bandied about.  EE Times newsletter is saying that Intel announced the layoff of 12,000 workers today, about 11% of their work force.  What's eerie are details of the layoffs.
Good night to the PC as an icon and driver of the semiconductor industry. Intel Corp., its head cheerleader and advocate officially cut it loose today announcing a cut of 12,000 employees, 11% of its staff amid a sequential decline in quarterly revenues and profits.
Essentially, the layoffs are coming from their PC products division.
In the reorganized company, Intel’s client computing group still makes up 55% of its revenues. Its growth engines include its data center group which now makes up 29% of revenues. Its newly reformed Internet of Things Group combines what has been a thriving embedded division with an emerging IoT business.
As some analysts anticipated, Intel is leading with its strong foot – a data center market its Xeon chips dominate and an embedded market where it is gaining increasing sway.  “We are evolving from a PC company to one that powers the cloud and billions of smart, connected computing devices,” said Krzanich in a press statement announcing the quarterly results.
People have been predicting the death of the desktop for quite a while, although the frequency of those reports goes up and down - like here, for example.  An unintended consequence of Moore's Law is that the constant increase in the density of parts, and increase in level of integration combine to mean that companies can only grow if the market for their parts is expanding, not even staying static.  For the last few years, smartphones and tablets have been the growing markets that fueled semiconductor sales.  Those numbers are tailing off as the number of smartphones approaches "one for everyone on the planet who could use one".  That's one reason for the hype over the Internet of Things: the hype could grow the IoT market and the number of parts the semiconductor makers can produce. 

Think about the single board computers like the Raspberry Pi: these use Smartphone parts and allow a sub-$40 retail computer that can do as much as many people really need.  It raises the question of whether anyone should buy a new desktop.  There's really nothing a modern tablet lacks compared to a desktop; except for the larger screen of the desktop's monitor.  In addition, the trend is for online apps to replace software installed locally into your machine's "Program Files" folder.  It's simply the case that most users don't need or want to work that way anymore.  While I had Microsoft Office '03 until a few years ago, in order to keep growing the program (to keep sales going), they keep adding features.  From what I've seen I'll bet not one user in ten thousand needs all the features that they put in Office.  Today, I use Open Office, but even that is more than most need and a bit anachronistic.  When I work on the Gun Blog Variety Show podcasts, we all use the online Google Docs program.  Nothing lives on my machine; it's all in Google's cloud.  We can all simultaneously edit the same document.  We don't need to be editing the same section that another user is editing, but that's virtually always the case.  It was the case at Major Avionics Corporation, where we used more arcane tools but could edit different sections of the same document stored on a shared drive. 

Part of me says "you ought to grab a last-generation desktop", but there probably won't be such a thing for a while.  Do you need to get one?  If you have a desktop that's under (I'm guessing) four years old, you probably won't buy much by upgrading to a new desktop.  With Intel closing off that division, I have to wonder if Intel based desktops will be available much longer.  Still, unless you're the rare "power user" who puts large demands on a system (and, increasingly, "power user" equals "video gamer")  look at whether or not you could live with a tablet.  A tablet with a keyboard replaces tapping a glass touch screen to type, making it just as easy to use as a laptop, and just as powerful as a desktop. 
(Source with details here)

Monday, April 18, 2016

White Privilege Conference 2016

Last night, I ran a followup to a previous post that got into "income inequality".  There has been a fun discussion.  That makes this a followup to a followup. 

Today, a couple of news stories broke that shed light on how bad the situation in education really is.  Did you know that over the past weekend, there was a White Privilege Conference held in Philadelphia?  The 17th Annual White Privilege Conference?  The Daily Caller got reporters registered and sent to this conference.  If you should ever think, as I have, that the occasional mentions of "check your privilege", or of the whole "white privilege" concept, are just isolated little snits being held by various "aggrieved victim studies" majors, we'd better think again.  They are hell bent on taking over and destroying our educational and other social institutions.  Worse, the enemy is inside the gate.  They are already at work inside those institutions.  The conference is largely attended by teachers, who are largely going on taxpayer money.

Meet Dr. Heather Hackman, of Hackman Consulting Group.  Dr. Hackman's talk topic was how expecting students to show up on time and grade them on performance were forms of white supremacy.
On Friday, Hackman was given a platform at WPC to deliver a workshop with the lengthy title “No Freedom Unless We Call Out the Wizard Behind The Curtain: Critically Addressing the Corrosive Effects of Whiteness in Teacher Education and Professional Development.” The long title masked a simple thesis on Hackman’s part: Modern education is hopelessly tainted by white supremacy and the “white imperial gaze,” and the solution is to train prospective teachers in college to be activists as well as pedagogues.

In fact, Hackman argued teachers shouldn’t even bother teaching if they aren’t committed to promoting social justice in school.

In Hackman’s telling, virtually everything associated with being a good student in modern education is actually just a tool of racist white supremacy.

“The racial narrative of White tends to be like this: Rugged individual, honest, hard-working, disciplined, rigorous, successful,” she said. “And so then, the narrative of U.S. public education: Individual assessments, competition, outcome over process (I care more about your grades than how you’re doing), ‘discipline’ where we care more about your attendance and making sure you’re not tardy than we care about your relationships … proper English must be spoken (which is just assimilation into standard U.S. dialect), hierarchical power structure, and heavy goal orientation.”

While the traits listed may simply be regarded as positive traits for success in the modern world, Hackman described them as specific cultural traits chosen and emphasized to favor whites to the detriment of non-white groups, who are forced to assimilate white traits such as good discipline and goal orientation or else be left behind.  [Emphasis added - SiG]
Got that?  Not only is it not proper to teach students to be on time, do their own work, and try to excel at those things, it is fundamentally racist (and therefore wrong) to ask students to be good at anything.   Funny thing, I never noticed any problems about "heavy goal orientation" among the kids of any race I saw practicing everyday for a shot in professional sports.  I guess "heavy goal orientation" is only a problem if the goal is to be good at math?  Or be at school on time? 

Dr. Hackman has clearly lost, or never had, knowledge of why she's there in the first place.   She's there to help kids learn how to fit into the world around them.  She's there to help them learn to be successful adults.   Instead, she's the most horrible, sadistic kind of person a student could find.  Anyone who adopts her belief structure is going to fail at school, be unable to get any kind of job except the ones they'll need to compete with Bender for.  She's condemning them to be miserable for their entire lives.  How mentally ill do you have to be to do that to children? 

Dr. Hackman shouldn't be let within a hundred yards of a microphone, or within a half mile of a classroom.  Anyone who would ruin the lives of hundreds or thousands of kids, like she wants to, is a monster on a par with the worst mass murderers in history.
She predicted her approach will triumph, and the sinister force she dubbed “Super-Whitey” (and compared to the Eye of Sauron) will eventually be swept aside.

“Your time has come,” Hackman said. “If I was a white faculty member and unwilling to get with the program, I do not have any business in teacher education … We do see you, Super-Whitey. We’re coming for you.”
If I give too much column space to Dr. Hackman, it's the pure evil she preaches.  The conference featured three days full of crap like this.  Another example, reported widely, was Paul Kivel "author and activist" quoted as saying that everything bad in the world comes from Christianity.  His Biblical knowledge seems just as solid as Dr. Hackman's knowledge of what education should be.  He probably was physically close to a Bible at some point in his life, but it's doubtful he ever read it.  He certainly never studied it.   
“In the United States, there’s seven to 10,000 predominantly white, Christian men, who run the major institutions in our society: The corporations, the political parties, the think tanks, the foundations, universities, [and] cultural institution,” he said.
While I think it may be approximately true that "there’s seven to 10,000 people who run the major institutions in our society", I think the rest of that paragraph is unsubstantiated assumptions.  Frankly, after reading the article on his talk he comes across as even less coherent than Dr. Hackman.  

This is the Gramscian march through the institutions in final, full color.  Unabashedly racist, unabashedly communist, too stupid to know they're doing wrong - or too evil to not to do wrong, and you're probably trusting your children to them, all day every day, under the threat of deadly force penalty of law.  

Podcast is Up

This week's Gun Blog Variety Podcast is up, and may be listened to here

Show notes are here.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

It's Complicated

I've often said the only real privilege I get as chief bottle washer blogger in chief around here is to occasionally turn a long comment into a posting. 

With that in mind, I want to draw your attention to the post "Let's Talk About Young Women" from Friday.  Someone whose blog I read all the time - which means someone whose opinions I respect - DiveMedic from Confessions of a Street Pharmacist posted about his experiences with his fiance' and pay inequality.  DM said that he had recently started teaching high school and since he was paid too closely to what she gets paid was thinking maybe there is something to this pay inequality stuff we hear about.  Note he wasn't being paid more than her, just that in his opinion, he wasn't getting paid far enough less than her. 

Let me summarize here.  She has a Masters Degree, he doesn't.  Instead, he has three Bachelor's Degrees.  Because of the Masters, she can teach dual enrollment (high school/junior college) classes he can't.  On the other hand, he's a science teacher and STEM teachers are in demand.  (A search for "STEM Teachers in Demand" returns over 50 million hits).  Given all that, his concern is that she only makes about $2000 more than he does. 

To begin with, I'm almost 100% void of any real knowledge here.  I've never taught college or high school.  I worked my entire life in the electronics manufacturing industry, since my first full time job as an electronics technician.  Over the years, I did have to interview and hire many folks.  For a brief period, I hired technicians and quality control inspectors (both hourly, non-union jobs) then moved on to hiring engineers (salaried jobs).  I have no idea what DM or his fiance' make in dollars.  On the other hand, teachers' pay ranges are public information and I searched for the pay ranges in my county (pdf warning) and I'm going play with numbers a bit here to see what they tell me.  (Always bearing in mind that "if you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything").  I'm specifically using my county because I'm all but certain DM doesn't live or work here, and I have no desire to impose on anyone's privacy. 

An entry level teacher in my county, baseline '08, made $36,000.  A Master's Degree added $2625 to that base salary.  It appears that for a teacher with any number of years experience at the Bachelor's level, if you add a Master's degree, you add that incentive ($2625) to your pay.   There is a thing called a Specialist Degree which adds a larger incentive than the Master's degree, but not as much as a Ph.D.  In my county, that's $3900. 

Briefly, when you compare a Master's level teacher with eight years experience to a newbie Bachelor's level teacher, the experienced teacher should be making $5491 more.  So why would the difference be the lower amount DM quotes ($2000)?  The obvious place to look is qualifications.  I don't have anything to offer guidance for applicants with multiple bachelor's degrees, but they're apparently being used for something here.  If they were construed by the hiring managers to be equivalent to the "specialist degree", the expected difference drops down to $1591. 

If I try to look for an analogy to places I've worked, I think of needing an engineer for a specialized arena; RF design (Radio Frequency) - my specialty.  Because it's an advanced field, I start out saying I'm looking for an MSEE.  Now let's say I get an applicant with a BSEE degree, and BS in Physics.  In other aspects of the interview, they impress me that their physics experience adds something worthwhile to their profile.  What would I do?  I would probably recognize the second BS by more pay than an average BSEE, but not as much as a full MS.  What if this applicant had a BSEE, a BS in Physics and a BS in Math, or perhaps Mechanical Engineering?  Probably more along the same lines. 

In the case of DM and his three BS degrees vs his fiance with an MS, it could be the difference seems a little out of line, but by looking at numbers (which are seven years old) I can't say, "no, he should be making $2500 less than her", or any other number.  He does seem to be getting lots of credit for the three BS degrees.  On the other hand, I could certainly accept that the difference is a hiring manager's decision.  Not everything in life gets put into handy little boxes on forms, and while that's forever the dream of the cry-bullies and petty tyrants, it just doesn't always work out that way.

In general, when you hear the term "income inequality", it's referring to some ill-defined notion that jobs "women typically do" and jobs "men typically do" pay differently just because they're men and women.  Because of that equivalent jobs should get equal pay and they try to enforce that notion.  It's not men or women in the same job in the same industry, like this is.  In reality, the term income inequality is absurd on its face; of course some jobs are harder than others and demand more pay.  What they're trying to create is a world where job pay rates aren't set by market forces, but by a tyranny that decides what everyone will earn. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

It Has Been A Rough Week

This week has been one of the most painful weeks I can recall.  Physical pain, not emotional.  It started out a week ago this morning at 5 AM.  Well, it actually started out a bit before that.  I have arthritis in a few joints, and this is one that bothers me now and then: my left big toe at the ball of my foot (first metatarsal).  While my right foot has almost full range of motion, and I can kneel on my right knee with my toe at about 90 degrees, my left toe only bends up about 10 to 20 degrees.   It had started bothering me last week, and since I've been through this for years and even have different sandals to wear depending on how painful the day is being, I just switched shoes and limped a bit.

Last Friday night, I was telling Mrs. Graybeard about it and she asked what kind of range of motion I had.  Naturally, I demonstrated the small range of motion.  Equally naturally, this hurt a bit, but I mean everyone rubs a sore joint from time to time, right?  Thought nothing of it.  Saturday morning at 5 it woke me up with a level of pain I'd never had.  Literally the sheet touching it was excruciating.  (Right now, some of you are nodding in recognition and saying a certain word to yourself). 

It took me gobbling ibuprofen and watching that have no effect until Tuesday when I said, "uncle" and called my GP to make sure I could get in.  He took one look at my left foot and said one word, gout.  Well, actually, he said, "gouch", which is as apt a word as any.  It's a remarkably painful condition.

Doc is nothing if not empathic, and started me on some potent prescriptions to get it under control: prescription steroids to reduce the swelling in the foot (which had gotten so bad I didn't have any sandals or slippers or anything that fit), and Tylenol 3 for the pain.  He also sent me for a blood test to see what my uric acid level was like, and gave me two expected prescriptions for managing this into the future. 

Some of you have been through this and have a pretty good idea what the last week has been like.  For the rest, gout attacks like this are caused by uric acid crystals that precipitate in the joint.  While it used to be thought that gout came from "rich foods", it actually comes from a defect in what's called purine metabolism.   Since purines are a component of all DNA and RNA, it means any tissue, plant or animal, is a source.  That's right, lettuce is as much a threat as bacon.  There's not much you can do for it from a dietary or self-help standpoint.  One website said something semi-witty like, "we say to keep off it and keep the foot up, but we find that people aren't very anxious to do anything but that".

Probably, I broke some of the acid crystals while moving my toe in the demo Friday night, and ended up with what feels like ground glass in the joint.  It has been essentially impossible to get around the house, which is doubly bad because due to the effects of the Tylenol III, I've needed to run to the bathroom approximately every 27 milliseconds All Day Long.  Which tells you how much uninterrupted sleep I've had since Tuesday. 

It has been a thoroughly unpleasant week. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Let's Talk About Young Women

Not that way.  Get your mind out of the gutter. 

Seriously, Reason magazine reports on a poll of millennial women, ages 18 to 36+.  The poll was taken in March by ABC (pdf warning).  While the top line results may look like it's a good group for the Evil Party, looking deeper than even a surface scratch speaks of a different picture.  To begin with, when they're at the young end of that age spectrum, they are fairly liberal, but the older they get the more conservative they get.  They completely flip percentages in 18 years.
This is probably the most well-known demographic trend there is, so it's hard to be alarmed by this.  To just add a letter to the quote, "she who is 20 and not liberal has no heart; she who is 40 and not conservative has no brain".  (Attributed to various authors, notably Winston Churchill).

The one that was noted by Reason, but fits in with other things we've heard is this.  When asked about their important issues, the same percentage or women thought gun rights were their most important issue as that thought abortion access was most important.
Asked to say which of seven issues they found most important, millennial women were most likely to be concerned about "economic inequality" and student loan debt. The next biggest issues, with 11 percent each, were "protecting gun rights," "equal pay for women," and "preserving access to abortion." Eight percent listed "lowering taxes" as their top concern and 4 percent chose "strengthening the military." [Note: Emphasis Added - SiG]

Conservative women were almost as likely as liberals, and more likely than those who described themselves as moderate, to see economic inequality as a top concern. They were less concerned about student loans (12 percent, versus 23 percent of liberals and 25 percent of moderates) but more concerned about gun rights (19 percent, versus nine percent of moderates and five percent of liberals).
The myth of women earning about 25% less than men on the average sure is pernicious though.  No matter how many studies come out showing that it isn't true, or that the supporting studies don't compare the same jobs, or any of the other reasons, it just hangs on there.  Sure helps to have that 24/7 left wing media pushing those ideas for them, doesn't it?
The only thing that's remarkable in this study, to these old eyes, is that gun rights have come seemingly out of nowhere to be a strong concern.  The exact numbers they presented aren't terribly important, but they reported two issues that are solidly "most important" issues: student debt and income inequality.  There's your Bernie Sanders voters, right there, "gimme, gimme, gimme", or in this case, "pay off my student loans and make sure I make lots of money".  On the other hand, it sounds like the Evil Party is not appealing to these young women with their endless ranting on restricting gun rights. 

As I've said many times, I hate day-to-day politics.  It's like cleaning out the cat box: a disgusting, nasty job that only gets more disgusting and nasty if you don't do it.  But I sure see ways to spread the liberty message to these ladies.  If they'd talk to an old dude who looks a bit more like Aqualung every day!  

Thursday, April 14, 2016

$15/hr Minimum Wage - Still Quite Possibly The Best Way to Collapse the Economy

Last August, I wrote a piece about the push for the $15 minimum wage called "The Single Best Way to Rip the Economy Apart".  In the intervening eight months, the push for the (more than) doubled minimum wage has increased, if anything.
Try this simple thought experiment: current federal minimum wage (which was never intended to be a "living wage" or pay "to raise a family on") is $7.25/hr.  $15/hr is more than doubling that, and there is a wide spectrum of jobs that make between $7.25 and $15.  By law, everyone in that gap will be given a raise to $15, and everyone who worked hard, sweated hard, and got specialized training will suddenly have all of the effort negated (and, I believe, get demotivated). They will suddenly see that couple of dollars that distinguished them from the newbies/new hires vanish and they'll be lumped together.  But, at least, they'll get something for it!  Think of the people making $15.25 or $15.35.  They will suddenly be just on the verge of being minimum wage workers.  I'd say "again" but it's possible they never worked even close to minimum wage.
When you think about how obvious it is that doubling min.wage is such a bad idea, it's amazing that people argue for it.  In that August '15 piece, I talked about an online payments processor called Gravity Payments, and their CEO who decided that he would increase the minimum wage at his company to far beyond a mere $15/hour. 
Back in April, CEO Dan Price announced a three year plan that would raise everyone's pay in the company to $70,000/year, even volunteering to cut his own pay to do so.  This made minimum wage in that company about $35.65 an hour.  Social Justice Warriors must have been beside themselves in orgasmic fits.  Today, just 3 months later:  not so much.  Now some of his best employees are leaving, the group isn't happy and the CEO has leased out his house, living in the garage to make ends meet.  Business Insider has the story:
“Everyone start[ed] screaming and cheering and just going crazy,” Price told Business Insider shortly after he broke the news in April.

But in the weeks since then, it’s become clear that not everyone is equally pleased. Among the critics? Some of Price’s own employees. 

The New York Times reports that two of Gravity Payments' "most valued" members have left the company, "spurred in part by their view that it was unfair to double the pay of some new hires while the longest-serving staff members got small or no raises."
Hmm: I went by their website and the company is still in business, and they're still talking up this plan.  Since it's a private company trying to work out how to attract and keep the best talent, I'm all for it.  At least it's not like what they did in Seattle.  But read that again:  "it was unfair to double the pay of some new hires while the longest-serving staff got small or no raises"?   That sounds to me just like the problem of wage-compressing all of the people making between $7.25 and $15, or those folks making just over the $15 line now.   How do you explain what's going to happen to the kids who think "the companies have that money; they'll just pay us moar!"  As I said another time and place,
If I could talk with the protesters, really talk instead of just sitting while they shout slogans, I'd say let's play make believe for a minute.  Let's pretend it would be legal to do everything I'm about to propose.  We just have to follow the consequences to logical conclusions.  Since we're talking about more than doubling minimum wage, here's the experiment.  Take every bill out of your wallet, pocket or money clip and double the denomination.  I mean, if you have $1 bills, mark them $2.  Take $5 bills and mark them $10, $10 bills and mark them $20, $20 and mark them $40 (yeah, I know there's no such thing; work with me here).   I'm going to assume if you're worried about minimum wage, you don't have any $50 or $100 bills, but do the same with them if you have any.  Congratulations, you now have twice the money you had a few minutes ago.

The kicker is that everyone else in America gets to do the same thing.  Are you further ahead in life because we've doubled the numbers on the money you have?  Or is the guy that you worry about all the time, the guy who used to make twice what you make still making twice what you make?  What if the price of everything doubled, too?  Wouldn't you be exactly where you started from? 
For a few weeks; even months, the allure of the bigger number of dollars will make everyone feel better.  The inevitable increases in the prices of everything will start to show up and the folks now making $15/hour will start to realize they're not really farther ahead.  They'll still have month left at the end of the money.  The thing is, it won't be completely obvious.  Everything will go up in cost, but proportional to the percentage of labor cost which we don't know.  Donald Sensing at Sense of Events has run a couple of pieces on this lately, and in one, he quotes a vice president at White Castle burgers
“We’re disappointed. What this means for White Castle is we really have to evaluate how we manage our business,” [White Castle vice president Jamie] Richardson tells me. “About 30 percent of every sales dollar covers the pay of our hourly workers, and that doesn’t include management.”

“It’s our biggest investment, our biggest cost. And it’s one that if we see increase dramatically through fiat, and we don’t do anything — it’s unsustainable,” Richardson says. “We are in uncharted waters.”
Since I haven't been inside a White Castle since dinosaurs roamed the Earth (there are none in town), I went to their website and looked up the price on a combo meal.  It was $8.06.  If I extract the cost of labor in that meal and double it, the new version of that meal is $10.64, a 32% increase.  The results for an overall cost of living is going to depend on how much labor goes into the costs, but it's simply not possible that the cost of everything doesn't go up.   Unless the jobs get replaced by robotics, which is completely possible and even worse, because then the minimum wage becomes $0.00 and even though prices stay the same, the former workers have no income. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Focus on Japan - How The Semiconductor Industry Collapsed

I mention Japan here fairly often, virtually always in the context of the economic mess the country is in; just last Friday, for instance.  If you were over 10 in 1980, you probably remember when everyone thought that Japan was going to take over the world.  When Sony bought Columbia Pictures and the Rockefeller Center in New York City, it was just taken as more evidence that they were going to roll over the US.  The economic juggernaut was extremely strong, and American businesses adopted such fads as Japanese Management, Quality Circles, and (more recently), Lean Manufacturing.

One of the beliefs at the time was how Japanese electronic manufacturing companies like Panasonic and Sony were going to bury the rest of the industry, so it's a big indicator of just how bad it has gotten in Japan that the semiconductor industry has shrunk to a tiny portion of what it was.  EE Times goes into the story in “Sayonara Japan Semiconductor, Inc”.  They sum it up nicely in this one graphic showing the top 10 semiconductor manufacturing companies in the world by sales.  The ones with a blue background are Japanese companies.  In 1990, six of the ten (!) were Japanese, gathering 38% of worldwide semiconductor sales.  Last year, only one Japanese company remained and it was in 9th place, accounting for only 2.7% of worldwide semiconductor sales.    
The article, while a bit heavy in industry acronyms, is more a business article than a techy piece, and the focus is on a postmortem “whut happened?”.  The generally crappy economic picture in Japan enters into the discussion, but fairly far down the list.  They attribute most of the problems to the celebrated Japanese Management being somewhat less than “genius bar” level.

First, Japanese companies tend to have a cultural obsession with producing excellent products, believing the excellent product will always win the marketplace.  It's hard to argue that's a bad position!  The problem is that the consumer electronics business is incredibly fast-moving and missing a market window while the company tried to make a good product into an excellent one is a mistake that can't be made often.  The company may only get one mistake.  Currently, for example, Sony's CMOS image sensors are used in many digital cameras but aren't necessarily cost effective.  If Sony isn’t doesn't watch that vigilantly, Omnivision, acquired by China’s Hua Capital Management earlier this year, and Galaxycore, an up-and-coming Chinese CMOS image sensor vendor, could mean pain coming for Sony.

Similarly, Toshiba and their Flash memory.  Right now, Toshiba is a major player in the Flash memory market.  Change is coming to that world: we mentioned the trend for Flash memories to start going vertical here in January, and Toshiba needs to put in the massive capital equipment investments needed to go vertical if they're going to keep up.  Read that as a question of whether management can accomplish the investment.
Akira Minamikawa, director, semiconductor value chain at IHS Technology, remains similarly cautious of Toshiba’s NAND future. The IHS analyst sees “at least a one-year time lag” in Toshiba’s 3D NAND flash memory, compared to Samsung. “Sure, Toshiba says its 3D NAND is sampling now. But there are usually many more steps between sampling and volume production.”
But without a doubt, the consultants interviewed for the piece all said the main culprit was management.
IC Insight’s Matas said, “Japanese business leadership that takes the long-term view couldn’t deal successfully with rapidly changing global market needs and dynamics. The ‘hot’ item in today's consumer market is tomorrow's old news. It’s partly culture-based, but Japanese semiconductor companies have been too slow to adjust.”

IHS analyst Minamikawa said, “The top executives at Japanese firms stuck to the idea that as long as their companies have superior technologies, they wouldn’t lose.” They turned a blind eye to factors — other than technologies — that would make the chip business successful.
A big sign of the problems with management was R&D investment that never resulted in marketable products
Yunogami observed that every national project and consortium built around the development of semiconductors in Japan over the last two decades has failed. Instead of helping, they made Japanese chip companies “gravely ill,” he said. “In some cases they literally killed a few Japanese chip vendors.”

Japan has never stopped investing in R&D. “Japan loves R&D,” he said. But, as things have turned out, every prescription developed by the Japanese government was either dead wrong, or out of step with the global market reality. Making matters worse, Japan’s top managers failed to lay out the steps it must take to restore their companies’ profitability, Yunogami added.
The failure of management includes the failure to work effectively with major companies, in particular System on a Chip (SoC) buyers.
There is a fundamental structural issue in the Japanese semiconductor industry. Chip vendors in Japan took great pride in designing SoCs, but those designers have been often too dependent on customers (or the system division of their parent companies) to design a system, and develop architecture for SoCs, Yunogami explained. In fact, [Chipmaker] Renesas relies on Toyota and Denso to develop much of the value-added portions of its SoC designs. Renesas is just their chip supplier.  [Note: clarification added - SiG]

Too many Japanese SoC designers are accustomed to twiddling their thumbs until their customers bring in designs, Yunogami concluded. “Japan lacks initiative.”
Japan's strength was once thought to be their "vertical integration"; how producing both the low level parts for their own top level box (be it a Sony Walkman or a Panasonic Toughbook) gave them advantages over American (and other) designers buying generic parts and trying to develop innovative parts with ordinary parts.  No one says this anymore. 
“Japan's once strong, vertically integrated business model fell apart and  missed out on smartphone growth — perhaps the greatest opportunity since the PC market.”
The relentless push to put smaller and smaller features onto a silicon wafer to put more and more parts in the same area makes capital investment imperative for the semiconductor manufacturers.  These are extremely expensive machines.  For perspective, the current 20 nanometer scale parts equates to about 180 silicon atoms in a row and the photolithography equipment they use needs to hold that faithfully.  The step to 10 nm parts will occur in "months, not years".

Without a doubt, the consumer electronics business has to be among the most difficult to manage.  In a quick turn industry, the first chip maker to develop a way to accomplish something will charge high prices.  The next company undercuts their price, so the first chip maker must respond.  As additional players come into the market, prices fall to a floor all the chip makers can meet, and the end customer's product gets very price sensitive.  Getting into the top 10 companies in the world is rough.  Getting knocked out of the top 10 can be a single mistake, or a few minutes of inattention. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Techy Tuesday - Light Field Camera Hits the Movie Biz

Back in 2011, a company called Lytro stunned the photography world by releasing the fist Light Field Camera.  The most amazing feature of this new camera was that the user could re-focus the image after the picture was taken.  I was fairly sure I'd written a piece on this camera, but can only find mention of it in passing, in a piece from 2012Yesterday, they introduced a 775 Megapixel cinematic version for the movie industry, and it's pretty fantastic.
The company’s light field solution is a truly beautiful technology that may eventually be in every camera we snap a shot or video with. The tech essentially uses data on all of the available light in a photo to separate objects by depth and store them in a three-dimensional grid. In the future this technology will allow the simple creation of VR-ready navigable 3D spaces, but right now it’s enabling filmmakers the ability to achieve a level of detail and flexibility in gathering shots and making post-production edits that wasn’t previously possible.
"Wait, did you say 775 Megapixel?"  Yes, I sure did.  The camera processes a mind-boggling amount of data: the 755 RAW megapixel 40K resolution (not compressed; not jpeg or MPEG), 300 FPS camera takes in as much as 400 Gigabytes per second of data, 24 Terabytes per minute.  Thank God for multi-Terabyte drives, right?  Even with that, I'm not sure what sort of hardware you get with a throughput of 400 gigabytes per second.  I designed a receiver about 13 year ago that was pumping out a mere 1.2 GB/s and that was hard to record with what we could find.  What this overwhelming amount of data allows, though, is even more mind-blowing.
What that chunk of visual knowledge gives filmmakers is the freedom to make a number of creative decisions in post-production that would otherwise be impossible after they had pressed “record.”

Things like changing the depth of field, focus position, shutter speed or dynamic range can now take place after the fact thanks to the truly [enormous] dynamic data being captured. Lytro believes that this tech is going to make the merger of CGI images and real-world footage even more seamless, and I believe it too.  [Note added the word in square brackets  - SiG]
Check out this video from their release announcement:

Lytro Cinema from Lytro on Vimeo.

My skeptical streak (a mile wide) says this is a product announcement and that means the product probably doesn't exist in its final form; it may not exist in any form.  The video didn't seem exceptional quality, so it's quite possibly from a much simpler system and edited with today's more conventional tools to get across what the system is capable of.  The system is probably ferociously expensive (they quote rental packages starting at $125k for utilizing the Cinema hardware/software suite), but so is getting the entire cast and filming crew of a major CGI film on set (think Star Wars or the Avengers).  If something doesn't work as intended during filming, the Lytro field camera allows the director or special effects wizards, to change the focus, depth of field, apparent shutter speed and other things.  The director might see something he didn't envision the first time and improve the movie during processing. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Ted Cruz Calling for Return to Gold Standard

I'm sure this isn't news to his true fans, but might be to some folks.  Way back last October, Ted talked about a return to the gold standard during one of the debates open panel discussions among candidates.  Cruz joins Rand Paul and his father Ron as modern conservatives advocating for a return to the gold standard.  I wrote a long piece on this, "Could the US Return to a Gold Standard?", back in 2011, and re-reading it for the first time in years, I think it holds up fairly well.

Predictably, the technocrats who favor an Ivy League uber class directing everyone's lives are opposed to it.  Martin Wolf of London’s Financial Times was so angry he could barely spit out the words (I don't link to FT since they require you to subscribe to read anything).  CNN blasted Cruz, saying that unemployment was higher when we had the gold standard, implying it would be again (without justification or even a look at if it's reported the same way), and saying that "while the Fed's actions during the current crisis have many critics, almost everyone agrees America would be much worse off if the Fed had not acted at all"; apparently not seeing anything at all illogical in that comparison.  Having the Fed acting or not acting is a completely different question than a gold standard; since having a Federal Reserve Bank existing at all isn't guaranteed with a gold standard, and it's entirely possible the conditions that caused the '08 collapse couldn't have existed with a gold standard.  CNN then laughingly said "Europe and Japan are actually following America's lead in an effort to revive their economies", getting it exactly backwards because Japan has been doing just what the Fed has been doing since 1990, leading them by 18 years, without reviving their economy.  The Washington Post pours on tons of more criticism, but doesn't seem to understand what a gold standard means. For example, they present a plot that claims to show how much prices would go up if we had stayed on a gold standard since the 1930s, but they're using the rise and fall in gold prices to derive that.  If gold was the reference, those last 80 years would have been quite different.

Just as predictably, libertarians, gold bugs, and other opponents of Keynesian ideas offered the other side. 
Cruz is on strong ground — economically, historically, and politically — in his advocacy of the gold standard. The claim “The worst idea in the presidential debate: a return to the gold standard” is, simply, unsupported by the facts. While the gold standard is not, nor is it claimed to be, perfect — no system is perfect — it has an impressive track record. Readers deserve to have the evidence objectively reviewed rather than the topic ridiculed. [Emphasis added - SiG]

The gold standard correlates with the American Dream of achieving decent middle class affluence through hard work far better than middle class affluence correlates with the Federal Reserve Note standard. Sen. Cruz’s advocacy of the gold standard is impeccably respectable.The gold standard is the best idea in the 2016 presidential debate.
In 1971, when Nixon closed the gold exchange window, it was a fundamental transformation of the economy.  Instead of being based on a unit of gold that could, at least theoretically, be looked at, touched, and redeemed for, a dollar became an instrument of debt.  In fewer words, a dollar went from being an asset to being someone's debt.  Before this change, before a dollar could be lent out, it had to be earned by someone by creating something of value, and then saving it.  When that dollar was put in the bank, and then lent out, its ownership changed hands, and the same thing happened when it got paid back to the bank.  Now, a bank simply creates a dollar to loan out of thin air.  It comes into existence when it's loaned out and winks out of existence when it's paid back to the bank.

While it's true that being on a gold standard doesn't require a balanced budget, having a fixed amount of money available to lend (instead of infinitely creating new money) would make lenders more careful with their lending.  Perhaps they'd loan money for things that really built material assets and not just flood it into Wall Street to pump up stock prices?  In a perfect world, the Federal Reserve would be given termination notices and told to find honest work, or at least go work on Wall Street.  With no central bank to set interest rates, and a finite money supply, rates would certainly be different than the current Zero Interest policies and the free market would need to discover what rates need to be.  Unfortunately, with no endless free money, the market would certainly reset, and the drop to Dow 6000 I've been seeing for years (example) would probably happen.  The dreaded "Creative Destruction" phase of the economic cycles that the Central Bankers have spent trillions of dollars in attempts to hold off, would happen. 

The fact that there's uncertainty and possible pain down this path means a return to a gold standard is highly unlikely, no matter who advocates for it.  In addition, all of the cronies who are running everything together with their DC peg boys, including the Federal Reserve itself, what many call the "Deep State", would fight it to the death because it would be the end of their power.  In particular, they might well fight it to the death of whomever advocates the gold standard.  And that might well work.  For now.  After the collapse when the new rulers are trying to establish a new society, they will probably have a dimmer view of central banks, and be more inclined to consider a gold (or commodity) standard.