Saturday, November 18, 2006

Fusion energy; from probability to possibility



from slashdot: "One of the founders of the US Tokamak fusion program, Dr. Robert W. Bussard, gave a lecture at Google recently now appearing as a Google video titled 'Should Google Go Nuclear?'. In it, he presents his recent breakthrough electrostatic confinement fusion device which, he claims, produced several orders of magnitude higher fusion power than earlier electrostatic confinement devices. According to Bussard, it did so repeatably during several runs until it blew up due to mechanical stress degradation. He's looking for $200M funding, the first million or so of which goes to rebuilding a more robust demonstrator within the first year. He claims the scaling laws are so favorable that the initial full scale reactor would burn boron-11 — the cleanest fusion reaction otherwise unattainable. He has some fairly disturbing things to say in this video, as well as elsewhere, about the US fusion program which he co-founded."

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Japan as a nuclear power



The Houston Chronicle has an excellent article discussing the merits of Japan becoming a nuclear power. The author writes:
As the only country ever to suffer nuclear attack, Japan obviously has its own reasons to resist the very thought. But now that the lunatic regime next door, which has already overflown Japan with its missiles, has officially gone nuclear, some rethinking is warranted.

Japan is a true anomaly. All the other Great Powers went nuclear decades ago — even the once-and-no-longer great, like France; the wannabe great, like India; and the never-will-be great, like North Korea. There are nukes in the hands of Pakistan, which overnight could turn into an al-Qaida state, and North Korea, a country so cosmically deranged that it reports that the "Dear Leader" shot five holes-in-one in his first time playing golf and also wrote six operas. Yet we are plagued by doubts about Japan joining this club.
I believe the author is right in that, if anyone could be a responsible possessor of nuclear weapons it would be Japan.

There is another paradigm which he has not entertained - that no one is a responsible potential wielder of nuclear weapons. Maybe today's government will be level-headed in a crisis but what about the next. And the next. Human beings have proven themselves unreliable as far as rationality, even sanity is concerned. That's how the world wars began. I am certain another world war is possible. I am certain the use of nuclear weapons is possible. The only solution is de-nuclearization. What does this mean for North Korea? For once I think the US Foreign Policy analysts have got it right. The threat of retaliation from the US will be enough for now while the world continues to pursue a diplomatic, and not a military, solution.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Courage, Loyalty, Humanity, Ruin



Those four words are my distillation of "The Deer Hunter", one of my favorite movies.

If you haven't seen it, it's about three men, best friends - blue-collar workers in a steel town/smalltown-America in the early 70s who enlist to go to Vietnam. Before they go, one of them gets married and all of them (with other friends) go hunting deer in the mountains. This is significant as De Niro's and Walken's characters are defined by this and a later hunt - I'll skip it though. The story is about the heroism of 'ordinary' guys. Heroism at home (one of them marries a woman who is pregnant by another man - he's never slept with her) and heroism in war. Another is sensitive and romantic and yet manages to fit in with the 'rougher' crowd of the town - you can see what they like about him. He's the most human of them all. This is unfortunately his downfall in Vietnam. The other is the one who is always tough, principled, and 'just' - but not always human.

The movie is long (over three hours) so you have to really be in the mood. It also has some very brutal scenes - but they are brief and exist to bring home what they suffered. No gratuitous violence. There's a lot more I don't want to say or, having already given away much, I'll have given away too much and will spoil the movie.

It does have flaws and is not a perfect movie but it remains one of the best I have ever seen.

"Her Story"



In quotes because I stole it (the title) from the Economist.

Is there any point in writing this post...whatever.

The Economist has a review on Carly Fiorina's account of her years at the helm of Hewlett Packard and the betrayal of her ouster by the board. So why the questioning on the value of this post? I'm writing about a review of a book I haven't read. That's almost...literary incest. I actually followed Carly through her years as CEO with great interest. I'm very strong on equality although not on any form or philosophy based on affirmative action. You may have noticed from my name that I am part of a visible minority. I know and understand exclusion, injustice, unfairness. My view on these issues in a first-world country are - Tough! Get over it. Yes, I've had many problems linked to my race but I can focus on them and become a victim or on what lies within my 'sphere of influence' (thanks Stephen) and do something to overcome them. That is what interested me most about Carly and the challenges of similar women in business. They have got to where they are not just because of talent but largely because of a determination to overcome stereotypes and discrimination. I was not, however, too impressed during the years of her leadership of HP by her bravado and posturing. She too often went over the edge in compensating - but was it compensation or the headiness of power?

It comes out in this book as well (according to The Economist):
Ms Fiorina is at her best when recounting the travails of a woman in a male-dominated business culture...For another meeting, she padded her crotch with her husband's socks, the better to deliver the line “Our balls are as big as anyone's,” to hoots of approval.

Ms Fiorina is also good in her psychological descriptions of the constant betrayals that occur in corporate bureaucracies. The woman that emerges from these pages is cultured, sensitive and vulnerable, even as she acts tough. “To this day I underestimate people's capacity to abuse my trust and the insecurity that sometimes drives them.”

Her bigger theme is leadership, and this is where Ms Fiorina fails. Again and again, she interrupts a good narrative with vain and verbose harangues about corporate strategy. From one paragraph to the next, her language becomes wooden and clichéd as she descends into meaningless jargon.
I am not against her desire to be remembered as a management great - she was good. But the "vain and verbose" reminds me a lot of what I didn't like about her public side. I respect her for what she accomplished while she was CEO and the guts (not balls) she demonstrated when she so often went against popular opinion and carved out her strategy for HP.

"Her Story" should be an interesting read but I think I'll order the book from our public library rather then buying it.

Here's the link for the review. Unfortunately you need to be paid subscriber.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Amazon.com, "long tail" economy, time travel and aliens from Alpha Centauri



In an article posted on the Financial Times site, author James Boyle delivers a humorous commentary on the realities of the "long tail" economy. First, a brief explanation of the term:
"The academic in me has been very interested by the much hyped arrival of the “long tail” economy – the idea that the future lies in using the efficiency of the internet to sell smaller quantities of more goods (think of the astounding range of books on Amazon.com). One optimistic image is that thousands of small producers and entrepreneurs worldwide will be able to bypass the need for large chunks of capital and complex distribution schemes."
He then goes on to describe his experence as a book seller on Amazon.com:
I sometimes imagined the Amazon customer service folk borrowing the Tardis to deliver apologies for their incredibly rare mistakes before they even happened. But that was as a purchaser. As a vendor I entered into a shadowy different universe...

The problem with their representatives is not that their native language is not English, it is that their native planet is not Earth. Only that could explain the strange delays of weeks in replying to emails, the apparent time distortions that will suddenly lead them to re-enter a months-long dispute in the middle, and the curiously non-terrestrial logic of their replies...

Ezra W. and Mansoor, the earth names that our customer service reps use, just ceased replying at all at that point – being replaced by an automated response. That happens a lot. And as for the “search inside the book” people, it’s a tragedy. They have disappeared altogether. Perhaps a star portal went out.
If you're interested in the network economy, the long tail economy or The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything you'll enjoy this article.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Iraq war drives world instability, tensions, creates Jihadists etc.



Holy cow! The elephant in the room has been exposed, and exposed, and exposed. What particularly rankles is that it had to come from the US intelligence community. Why haven't mainline world media been more scathing of the Bush administrations bungling? While it's true that many international newspapers' commentaries on Bush jave been vituperative, journals such as The Economist have been markedly silent in their analyses. Political correctness has won over honesty to the point of stupidity.

Clearly the US war in Iraq was bound to create sympathy among extremists and generate more canon-fodder for the terrorist machines in Iraq and elsewhere. Certainly, Bush's criminal lying about his justification for the war in Iraq are condemnable and deserve the most forceful censure. Most definitely his devestation of an already-devastated country like Afghanistan deserve rebuke. I am personally thrilled to see it come out into the open.

I am in admiration of our neighbors to the south, the Americans, for exposing foolish acts committed by their own president and his administration. It gives me hope for what this world will be when my children are adults in it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

SpaceX press release on NASA contract award



SpaceX, about whom I wrote here finally sent out a press release,
"SpaceX was one of two winners of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition. The SpaceX portion of the award is $278 million for three flight demonstrations of Falcon 9 carrying our Dragon spaceship, which are scheduled to occur in late 2008 and 2009. The final flight will culminate in the transfer of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and return of cargo safely to Earth."
I really, really hope they make it.

The entire press release can be found here. Unfortunately there's no direct link to the story (dynamic page) but check out the images of their launch and transport vehicles. Very cool.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Vengeance, The Kennedy Curse, The Dark Side of Camelot

Vengeance, George Jonas, ISBN 0743291646

I read Vengeance a few months before I saw Munich, the movie on the same subject by Steven Spielberg. The book is better but the movie's not bad. Vengeance has some rough edges unlike Spielberg's creation. Terrorism has rough edges. Vengeance is not a pretty thing. Jonas, in his interview of the leader of the Israeli team of Mossad agents, leads us through the same journey this man, Avner, took as he progresses(was it progress?) from a Mossad agent performing menial duties in what was essentially peacetime to the leader of a team of state-sponsored assassins. Avner tries to convince us, and mostly himself, that what he did was right and that he would do it again. But he does not entirely believe this himself. He is riddled with the guilt of murder and the guilt of having led some of his friends to their deaths. He is a hurting man. One who is a shadow of who he would have been. A man stripped of innocence and of the ability to justify what he did in the way a soldier may justify killing to defend either himself, his friends, or his country. What they did was not noble and not defensible. Do we become monsters in fighting the monsters of this world? This is an important question for us to answer in these morally grey, difficult to understand times.

The Kennedy Curse, Edward Klien, ISBN 031231292X

Although the premise of this book, that the number of Kennedys who died tragically is somehow linked to a curse is just hokey, the research done by Klein seems solid. After years of hearing a lot about John F. Kennedy I wanted to get a better insight into who he really was. In order to understand John you have to understand Honey Fitzgerald, his favourite grandfather, and John's father Joseph Kennedy and the role he played in shaping his family. It was not any curse that led to the tragedies within the Kennedy clan, just bad corrupt leadership.

The Dark Side of Camelot

This one is more specifically about John F. Kennedy but still covers much of his family. The facts are similar to the previous book but the presentation is different with more of a focus on Jack. It is less distracting then 'The Curse', allowing us to concentrate more on the facts. What he presents is not pretty either. I've only begun reading and so will have to see where it leads. I wanted a second perspective so I could check the 'facts' presented in The Curse. So far they are supported.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Pluto no longer a planet!



In a previous post I discussed the possibility that Pluto's status as planet might be rescinded due to the recent discovery of a larger celestial body.

The Economist writes:
On Thursday August 24th a general assembly of the International Astronomical Union, the body with the authority to decide such matters, voted to remove Pluto from the list of planets. Predictably some astronomers are angry and have criticised the system for making such choices. There were certainly problems with the voting. Nevertheless the decision was right.
I totally agree. It does not matter what has been historically taught. Sometimes you need to ask fundamental questions based on new information and alter long-held views.

Changing our views is what learning is all about.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

More Commercial Space News



A while back I wrote about the disappointing news of SpaceX commercial rocket's failed maiden flight. NASA hasn't taken this too seriously having awarded $500 million to 2010 to both SpaceX and another private company for the delivery of payloads to the International Space Station.

Another feather in the cap for commercial spaceflight!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Brand "Canada"



The Globe and Mail has an article today about how Canada is perceived internationally. Aparantly Canada
... was named the world's second most popular national brand by a global pollster. The Anholt Nation Brands Index for the second quarter of 2006 saw Canada jump ahead of Germany and Switzerland to claim the number two spot on the list of 35 countries. Canada's rosy image now only pales beside that of the United Kingdom's (and the EU's, which was featured as a 'guest country' on the survey).

But Simon Anholt, an international branding adviser who commissions the quarterly poll through Global Market Insite, Inc., contends Canada is failing to capitalize on its positive international image — and points as proof to the gulf between those polled who say they would like to travel, invest and study in Canada to those who actually do."
Great but isn't this kind of normal. Sort of like
Gee I sure would like to go skydiving...haven't got around to it yet. Gee I sure would like to read War & Peace...haven't got around to it yet...or, Gee I sure would like to marry you...haven't got around to it yet.
If there's nothing pushing us to go somewhere or do something we rarely will...human nature. And we are halfway across the world for most of its population. By the way, I did marry her.

It's nice to know Canada is viewed so positively...but I suppose that's a pretty Canadian thing to say. Read the article.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Pluto may no longer be a planet...



The Boston Globe has an article on Pluto's status as a planet.
Some 3,000 astronomers and scientists from around the world will meet in Prague this week to decide whether Pluto, discovered in 1930, measures up to the definition of a planet.

The question arises from the fact that there are a number of celestial bodies of Pluto's size in our solar system that have been found since its discovery. This is expected given the improved instruments that give us a greater ability to study the Solar System. In 2003 astronomers at the California Institute of Technology discovered Xena, a ? (not planet) a little large than Pluto in diameter.

Some have expressed concern that if we downgrade Pluto from planet to asteroid? "it would disappoint children and throw our understanding of the universe into chaos". Oh my gosh - maybe my children will suddenly develop anxiety attacks, have nightmares and start wetting their beds. Or maybe they'll wonder if they too will be downgraded from human to chimp and suffer from resulting self-esteem issues. How incredibly fearful and small-minded! Call a spade and spade, I say - if that shakes things up than so be it. Publishers are waiting with bated breath to find out if schools will be ordering reprints of science textbooks$$$ so we know someone will benefit – hey, I wonder who organized this thing, anyway? Although I have to admit to liking a shake-up of the status quo...

Friday, July 14, 2006

Cosmic Log : Bigelow's orbital 'baby'

I'm not sure how seriously to take Bigelow Aerospace or their Genesis spacecraft but it is one more example of how the private sector has gained unprecedented access to space (even if it is low earth orbit). This will lead to greater innovation in low-cost spaceflight and may result in commercial enterprise making the moon, asteroids, and Mars viable investments before any government does.

Read more at cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

» Smart displays and user productivity | Paul Murphy | ZDNet.com

Smart displays do work and with companies like IBM, SAP, and Oracle driving more and more of their product development dollars into the Linux platform, the day is coming when you will find them in Fortune 1000 companies.

Open Source applications like OpenOffice.org add incentive for organizations to consider migrating some desktops from Windows to thin client. It reduces administration cost, is more secure "out of the box", and costs less from a desktop application standpoint.

There is a caveat, however. They require a certain level of expertise (UNIX) to set up and administer - the kind usually found in engineering companies, which explains why that is primarily where they are found. Every time I read about it I get the urge to call Sun and ask for a demo unit for my company's IT department.

Maybe this time I'll take the plunge...

Read more atblogs.zdnet.com/Murphy/...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

NASA engineer fired for opposing Shuttle launch

The New York Daily News reports
"Charlie Camarda has been bumped from his top NASA engineering post for backing colleagues who questioned the safety of Saturday's planned space shuttle launch, NASA officials said yesterday. Camarda's removal heightened the turmoil over NASA Administrator Michael Griffin's decision to take the "acceptable risk" of launching the Discovery orbiter despite warnings of potentially fatal blastoff debris."
The Challenger Disaster was a case study in my engineering ethics course in the late 80s. It was attributed to NASA's command-control political environment that ignored warnings from engineers about the o-ring's susceptibility to failure in cold weather conditions. In the Rogers Commission, Richard Feynman (a prominent physicist) pointed out "the discrepancy between management claiming a 1 in 100,000 chance of serious failure and the engineers claiming 1 in only 100".

I am sorry to hear that Camarda was removed from the mission but glad to see someone at NASA stand up for the safety of his fellow astronauts.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Formula 1 Weekend

Formula 1 weekend in Montréal is not about watching a bunch of cars going round a track 71 times.

This is my second F1 and certainly not my last. Daniel, one of my sons, and I started the weekend together on Friday. Here's a shot from ourseatingg at the Senna curve, Grandstand 10.

The day started of with the Civic challenge. It may not seem like much but it's a lot of fun watching the civics take the turns and see their tires lift into the air. As well as seeing some F1 practice sessions, a number of Ferrari F430 owners brought out their cars. These cars are built specifically for racing on a special line at the Ferrari plant. The purring of the engines sends shivers down your spine. It was quite a competitive race with a few spin-outs at our curve and some accidents but no injuries.

Sunday's Formula 1 race was fantastic! Alonso started in pole with his team mate right behind, Raikkonen in third and Schumacher in Fifth.Alonsoa ran a near-perfect race with just one miss when Raikkonen almost had the opportunity to pass. Almost. From then on he dominated first place.

Raikkonen's team-mate, Montoya, lost it after he touched Rosberg, his race deteriorating and ending with his exit from the car at the Senna curve.

Schumacher quickly moved up to third place and with just 1.5 laps to go moved past Raikkonen to take second.



After the race, rather than wait 45 minutes in line for the metro from Parc Jean-Drapeau to Montréal, I took Pont de la Concorde - a 45 minute brisk walk to downtown. This picture was taken from the bridge, facing the skyline.

Being there is what it's all about. I can understand what would possess someone with the means to travel to each and every Grand Prix race around the world throughout a season. The smell of burning brakes and rubber, the deep rumble of the engines as they rev, their high-pitched scream as they fly by, down-shifting. The emotion of disappointment and victory. You just don't feel this when watching a televised broadcast. You've got to be there!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Technology News: Cutting Edge : Microsoft Developing Robotics Software

Great. Now we can look forward to real crashes as our robotic vacuum cleaners experience blue screens of death and terrorize our pets and small children while in a robotic psychosis.

Or what about when my robotic lawn mower is infected by a worm from my jealous neighbour who then takes control and mows over my wifes flower bed?

We will no longer have only zombie PCs to contend with but will be facing a world of zombie robots, doing the bidding of their evil hacker masters while we sleep.

I shudder to think of the chaos and mayhem Microsoft is about to unleash on the world.

Read more at www.technewsworld.com/s...

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Another Internet Explorer flaw allowing evil hoards to hijack your PC!


The blog entry title is tongue-in-cheek as there really is another flaw in Internet Explorer 6 that allows a remote attacker (aka bad guy) to take over your PC. What can they do once they've done this? Oh, how about installing a keylogger that logs each and every keyboard stroke you make as you, say enter you bank account number and password for your on-line banking site. Then it sends the accumulated data to the bad guy. Sounds bad? It is. What's worse is that Microsoft typically knows about these bugs for weeks before issuing a patch.

Stop using IE and start using Firefox. They also have vulnerabilities from time to time but patch critical ones with 24 hours. Compare for yourself:

"Microsoft

Firefox 1.x bug/solution status

Read more at secunia.com/advisories/...

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Google Junky



I am a confessed Google junky. It's true.

I have been using Google Search since I don't know when - a long time (in Internet Time). I got my Gmail account about one year ago and am now a sworn Gmailer, having rid myself of all my other personal addresses. Since then I have created this Blog (older entries migrated from Movable Type), installed Google Desktop Search on my laptop, and use Picasa 2. Of course I use Google Local / Google Maps as well.

Why! Why? you shout and ask (as is clear from all of your comments on my Blog). Google's applications work and they work well. They are also free. Can you beat that?

Of course there is nothing stopping Google from letting the POWER go to their heads and developing a form of Evil Empire Syndrome (the virus mutates and once you're infected the only cure is to divide the empire [sometimes even this doesn't work]).

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Books, books, books



I'm reading a couple of books I'd like to briefly review.

Fortunes of War, Stephen Coonts, ISBN 0312969414

If you're looking for the answer to the meaning of life don't look here...anyway we all know it's 42.

I really enjoyed this book. His description of what it would feel like as fighter jet pilot in a dogfight with cutting-edge technology aircraft is cool. The plot hangs together fairly well and is somewhat believable although consisting of a 'perfect storm' of events including a Russo-Asiatic conventional war on the brink of conversion to nuclear war. Character development is lacking but that is clearly not the focus. This is simply a thriller to be read quickly. Take it on an airplane or business trip - it will really eat up the hours. Do not, as I did, read it in bed. I am still recovering from sleep-depravation.

Future: Tense, Gwynne Dyer, ISBN 0771029780

Gwynne Dyer is one of my favourite war historians. If you saw his public television series entitled "War" you will appreciate the effort he takes to provide historical context for today's events and in predicting tomorrow's. In this book, Dyer discusses the rise and fall of Islamic civilization in the first century and why there are deep-seated resentments today. This society is a shadow of what it once was.
"Between about A.D. 630 and 730 Arab invaders...conquered almost half the territory of the former Roman Empire. The Muslim invasions were quite unlike the Germanic invasions that had already overrun Western Europe. The people who conquered [Europe]...were mostly illiterate barbarians who brought a Dark Age in their train. The Arab conquerors ...had lots of fanatical desert horsemen in their armies but the leaders were literate townspeople from the cities of Arabia...There was no Dark Age in the lands conquered by the Muslims; instead the conquerors preserved many of the best elements of classic civilization and married them to the egalitarian spirit of Islam."
The Muslim empire endured peacefully, an exception being war with Crusader kingdoms, for a thousand years. The ruin of Muslim kingdoms began in the 1600s until:
"By 1918 all the wealth and power of the Muslim world were gone and 95% of Muslims were living as the subjects of one Christian Empire or another. It was the greatest shock and deepest humiliation that Muslims have ever experienced, and its echos still influence behaviours and attitudes in the Muslim world today."
He goes on to say that the majority of Muslims have no detailed knowledge of their history and don't wander around muttering about the injustice of it. They do however know that something has gone wrong and that the West is responsible. Clearly this is just a question of who's on top at any given moment. At one point many Christians were subjects of the Muslim world and would have felt the same way. Dyer's point is not to excuse or justify resentments, certainly not terrorism, but to illuminate. Anyone in a marriage knows the importance of knowing your spouse and what's going on in his/her mind and emotional life. When she had a fight with her boss, later that evening was short-tempered with you for no reason and you confronted her on her attitude, the rest of the evening (at best) did not go well. The fact that you were right makes little difference. We are in a global village. Understanding our neighbours will at least give us the hope of successful relationships. Dyer continues to describe the neo-conservative right that is currently in power in the 'States and what their agenda really is. Certainly not Weapons of Mass Destruction - we all knew that from day one. It is not oil and the protection of America's energy interests either. Want to know more? Read the book - I highly recommend it.

Brave New World, Aldus Huxley, 0060929871

Excellent book. Aldus Huxley's version of a future, written in the 1930's, is too close for comfort. He writes about a time, hundreds of years in the future, when man is no longer born but manufactured. Test-tube babies are genetically altered to fit into casts. Upper casts do the thinking while lower, less intelligent, less physically attractive casts become labourers. The purpose of this genetic cast system is to keep the population happy. After all, that is the best that humans can ever achieve, happiness. This world is socialist in that no one wants of anything although higher casts have special privileges. Sex is all about happiness. Partnering with one person for even a few months is discouraged as this can form bonds that inevitably bring about pain and sorrow. As many partners as possible limits this risk. John, a 'savage', is discovered and brought into the New World. His elation at being part of this futuristic (to him) society turns to horror as he discovers what it really consists of. This is where the book gets interesting, about a third of the way through, and we see the impact John has on three individuals who come to know him.

Velocity, Dean Koontz, ISBN 0-7393-1556-0

Creepy describes a lot of Koontz' books. I am listening to this audio book of 9 1/2 hours on CD as I drive to and from work every day. I listened to another of his books, Taken, a few months back and liked it so much that I borrowed this one from our library. If you are squeemish don't read this. If you get easily frightened, don't read Taken. Koontz spends a lot of time on details. Here's a typical paragraph:
"Are you prepared for your first wound?" As though an Einsteinian switch had thrown time into slow-mo, the note slipped out of his fingers and seemed to float like a feather into his lap. The light went out. In a trance of terror, reaching with his right hand for the revolver on the passenger seat, Billy turned slowly to the right as well, intending to look over his shoulder and into the dark back seat [...] and the window in the driver's door imploded. As safety glass collapsed in a prickly mass across his chest and thighs, the revolver slipped out of his grasping fingers and tumbled onto the floor.

Friday, March 24, 2006

What a thrill! How disappointing!



This afternoon at 2:30 PM Pacific Time the Falcon 1 rocket successfully lifted off from it's launch pad at SpaceX's Kwajalein launch site on Omelek Island. This is the first commercial / private venture to get payloads into LEO (low earth orbit) this year and higher over the coming years. I opened my browser at 5:00 PM to monitor the webcast and tried to concentrate on work while I listened to the microphone chatter from 'mission control' in the background. I didn't want to miss the 5:30 PM launch. I was nervous. As they counted down the last few seconds my heart-beat increased making me wonder what this lucky bunch of entrepreneurs must be feeling. Lift-off was right on time! The webcast cut from a ground-based camera to one mounted inside the vehicle looking down through a glass portal. When the webcast failed seconds into the launch it seemed as if all was going well. I later learned that the launch vehicle and payload were lost. What a disappointment. Rocket science is not easy. My excitement stemmed, not form the launch itself but from the fact that a private individual, the founder of PayPal, who started a company to put civilians in the space business was launching his first rocket. Of course it takes a team to make this happen but nothing would have happened without his vision and a cool $100 million of his fortune. In the end I remain elated. Way-to-go Elon!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Tribute to Einstein



I'd like to comment on some of Einstein's quotes over the following weeks. Why? He was a thoughtful man.
"I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves -— this critical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty. The ideals that have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth."

If you subscribe to pleasure as an end in and of itself, although somewhat opposed to Einstein's thinking you remain in famous company. You feel much as the Marquis de Sade.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Cell Processor and Octopiler



I am going to talk about an area in which I consider myself pretty much an idiot - computer programming (my wife says I shouldn't call myself an idiot and she's really smart so maybe there's something to it). I have written C (anyone remember Borland Turbo C?), 68000 assembler, and Clipper programs but that's the extent of it (and clearly also a long time ago) so don't exepect great depth and insight.

I'll tell you why the Cell is significant after I first tell you what it is. The Cell processor is made up of one 64-bit Power Architecture core and 8 additional CPU cores called Synergistic Processor Units or SPUs. The SPUs are built to handle computationally intensive applications like video or signal processing, and cryptography among others. Here's what the chip looks like:



IBM designed it in partnership with Sony and Toshiba. The Cell's first application will be to power the heart of Sony's new gaming console, the PS3, which is due out sometime later this year (consensus says autumn for the US and a little earlier for Japan). This is a totally unique design. Among the major CPU manufacturers, including SUN, makers of the SPARC-series processors, Intel makers of the Pentium-series CPUs, and AMD, most recently makers of the Opteron processor, IBM was the first to deliver a dual-core chip in the Power series. Now they have delivered the first 9-core processor with the Cell. It is initially positioned to drive multi-media products like HDTVs, the upcoming consumer media hubs which will stream everything, and of course the PS3. It is totally unique - did I mention that? The chip clocks in at 4GHz - whoops, that's faster than Intel has been able to deliver - and 256 Gigaflops, a ten-times speed improvement over today's PC.

So what exactly does all this horsepower translate into? In an interview with lead PS3 game developer Lyndon Homewood of Volatile Games who is already working with the PS3 developer's kit, he describes their experiences and how the Cell will practically deliver on its promises:

"The graphics capabilities of PS3 will, I think, be slightly above the absolutely top-end graphics cards on the PC, but you've got much more processing power in the box so you're going to see a lot more physics, a lot more generated geometry. With water ripples, for example - they're pretty much algorithms, you have a flat plane of triangles and you run some sort of mathematical algorithm over it to generate a surface rippling effect - well, you will have the processing power to do these sorts of generated geometry effects On PS3. You could actually put one chip aside just to do that..."

As an article in ArsTechnica explains, the Octopiler is a compiler that is slated to "take in a sequential program that's written to a unified memory model, and output binaries that make efficient use of the massive, heterogeneous system-on-a-chip that is the Cell Broadband Engine". Sounds complicated. It is. It is difficult to write programs that take advantage of multi-processor computers. It is still more difficult to write a program that uses such a processor efficiently without leaving chunks of it either idle or underutilized. There are only two ways to produce such code. The first is to get your hands on a really talented programmer but these are in extremely limited supply and so is not very practical. The second is to write a compiler that will optimize the code for you. The better the compiler, in theory, the less talented the developer required to code for the CPU. In practice this is something that remains to be seen. In the months following the PS3's launch we can expect to see a raft of articles examining how developers have used the Cell and if it is living up to its promise. I am certain the first Cell applications will fall short, which definitely includes games and potentially includes the PS3 itself. I do think, however, that with time the Cell will deliver. There is so little innovation in personal computer components today. IBM, Sony, and Toshiba took a huge risk in delivering such a novel design for a CPU. I admire them for it and hope sincerely they are as successful as they deserve to be.

More High-Tech Investments Move Overseas



The US continues to farm out jobs overseas as Intel announces plans to invest $300MM in Vietnam:

Intel Corp., the world's largest chip maker, said it would invest $300 million to build a factory in Vietnam to package and test microchips that power personal computers and mobile phones.

It marks the biggest investment in Vietnam by a U.S. company, and Intel has an option to double its investment in the country.

Jobs are moving overseas but mostly those at the bottom of the food chain. Research is still primarily done in US companies and universities. Offshore research has the same challenges as offshore coding - communication and cultural challenges result in only non-core work being pushed out of North America. Better get on top of the food chain if you aren't already. The shift of jobs is not likely to stop anytime soon.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Global Economic Imbalances



In today's Globe and Mail, an article entitled "Dodge warns of global imbalances" discusses comments by Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge where he states:
...global imbalances, such as the record U.S. current account deficit and the ballooning surpluses in some Asian countries, are persisting and if not corrected could result in "periods of outright recession."

...An increase in domestic savings in the U.S. could slow the global economy "sharply" unless there's corresponding growth in demand outside the U.S., he told Caribbean central bankers in Bridgetown, Barbados.

"Such a slowdown in growth, in turn, raises the risk that policy-makers might resort to protectionism," he said. "In that event, a period of very slow growth could, perhaps, be punctuated by periods of outright recession."

...a sudden disruption in the economy will be especially hard on those countries with very open economies, Mr. Dodge said — including Canada.

I wonder what Stephen Harper's government will bring to Canada vis-à-vis North American protectionism versus openness? What Canada needs, as I've stated in previous posts here and here, is stronger relationships with the EU and emerging economies like China and India while maintaining a strong relationship with the US. This may not be in the best interests of the States, especially given President Bush's comments on the need to minimize dependency on foreign energy sources (I bet he's not thinking of Canada as foreign). Given the extent of our cross-border trade and America's interest in keeping its negotiating power through the preservation of 'trade-share', it will require true statesmanship to win acceptance from our neighbor.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Space Travel Goes Mainstream



Last year, The Ansari X-Prize $10,000,000 purse was awarded to the SpaceShipOne team for being the first commercial enterprise to put a man in space and bring him back to earth safely, twice in quick succession.

Since then, a new enterprise has been born, the Rocket Racing League. From Wired.com's article:
Launched last October by Whitelaw and Peter Diamandis, whose Ansari X Prize awarded $10 million for the first privately built manned spaceship in 2004, the Rocket Racing League, or RRL, has already flown a prototype rocket plane and is now building the first of 10 planned X-Racers. Three-time space shuttle astronaut and former Air Force test pilot Rick Searfoss, who serves as RRL's chief test pilot, called the rocket racers "a real kick in the pants" after a test flight in October. Searfoss compared their performance characteristics to those of fighter planes because of their high thrust-to-weight ratio.

The promise of that kind of flying excitement is what attracted Don "Dagger" Grantham and Robert "Bobaloo" Rickard to sign on as members of the RRL's first team, called Leading Edge Rocket Racing. Both men are F-16 fighter pilots as well as entrepreneurs, and they see rocket racing as the next great flying experience.

"We started talking about 10 or 15 or 20 years from now," said Rickard, "when there are no more airplanes for fighter pilots to fly and everything's done remotely with unmanned vehicles. What's going to happen to guys like us that want to fly fighters and pull 9 Gs and do all the things that we get to do now?" To Rickard and Grantham, the answer was obvious: They'll fly rocket racers.

The world is truly becoming a different, intriguing, and exciting place. Imagine where our kids might get to go...

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"Kodak Digital Sales Outpace Film for First Time"



The Globe and Mail is reporting today that Kodak's digital sales were greater than film product sales for the first time in 2005.
Digital sales accounted for 54 per cent of total revenue for the year, marking the first time in the company's 125-year history that digital exceeded traditional sales.

For those of us old enough to remember, Kodak's name has been synonymous with film and photography throughout our lives. Today, many of us will not attach the Eastman Kodak brand with imaging at all which speaks to how rapidly digital photography has taken over from film-based, even though it's only been available to the consumer since about 1994!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Old Style Managers On The Way Out?



These two comics are in February's issue of The Harvard Business Review and demonstrate the thinking of some that old style managers are on the way out.





Are they? There is more talk these days of extending mandatory retirement ages than of ousting experienced managers. Time will tell but...well, the first guy's just a bit of an exageration isn't he...although come to think of it, I used to know a guy just like him...:-)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

North America's Impending Loss of Economic Control



The writing is on the wall.

While Americans and Canadians worry about offshoring and the resulting loss of jobs, there is another and far greater threat: the loss of control over the economy. In an earlier post I discussed China's rising prominence in the computer and electronics manufacturing sectors. American companies are also losing marketshare on other fronts. Ford has just announced a plan to cut 30,000 jobs by 2012 in order to reduce its financial hemorrhaging. In an article entitled "Ford's latest Rebuild" (subscription required), the Economist reports:
"Bill Ford, chairman and a scion of the founder’s family, is particularly concerned that Ford is losing out in its biggest and most important market, America. This week he revealed a plan imaginatively dubbed the “Way Forward” that is supposed to cut losses and win back favour from American drivers. He pledged “sacrifice at all levels” to ensure “sustainable, profitable change”. The firm will pare capacity and could lose as many as 30,000 jobs by 2012, around a quarter of its total North American workforce. Some 14 factories will be closed as Ford's car division attempts to return to profitability by 2008.

The firm’s failings are as apparent as rust on a 1970s Ford Maverick. In 2005 Ford’s vital North American carmaking operations produced a pre-tax loss of $1.6 billion; worldwide it lost $1 billion."

The problems are partly related to legacy costs the big three are saddeled with including the costs of unionized workers and rich employee benefits. Again from the same article:
"Japanese carmakers are nimbler not because they produce cars abroad: much of their output is from American factories. But the Japanese firms are not encumbered by the legacy costs of their American rivals. Nor are unions so dominant in the Japanese-run factories."

While the lower operating costs of Japanese fimrs should be a concern as it directly affects US automakers' ability to compete with them profitably, it is the loss of market share that is most worrying:
"Although overall car sales are down a little in America since a peak in 2000 the market is still buoyant. Nearly 17m cars were sold in 2005 and customers are expected to drive a similar number off the country’s forecourts this year. But America’s car giants are losing out to Japanese firms. Toyota is threatening to overtake GM as the world’s biggest car producer this year. Nissan and Honda have made impressive inroads in America. In 2005 the three Japanese firms, combined, grabbed over 28% of America’s market share. Mr Fields acknowledges that the industry’s “big three” is becoming the “big six”."

What we North Americans are in danger of, more than job losses, is the loss of control over our economy. My questions are: what happens once most of the products we purchase are feeding the coffers of foreign controlled companies? What are the root causes of this problem? What are we gong to do about it?

Monday, January 23, 2006

First They Killed My Father



This is an excellent book about a five year-old girl's recollections of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Loung Ung, the author and woman who was the girl, describes her family's flight from Phnom Penh to the countryside where they hid their identities for years. Were the Kmehr Rouge to discover of her father's position in the military as a police captain for the incumbent government it would have resulted in his and his family's death or imprisonment. As they move from village to village and their family is divided they cling more and more tightly to each other. Her world constricts to the immediacy of mother, father, brothers, and sisters. You feel her pain and anguish as she works through her memories of the hardships and horrors of her early childhood years. The narration is factual and almost unemotional at times as she describes the brutality she and her loved ones endured. Her memories are, I believe, coloured by the vision of a five year-old who does not have the range of emotions to accurately describe what she is feeling. And yet, even through the tough child she became in order to survive an intolerable situation, we see her innocence and the injustice of what no young child should ever experience. All of us need to read of these events, understand how and why they came about, and make sure they do not repeat in our lifetimes - either in our country or in another. It is still hard for me to believe it all happened between the years when I was 7 and 11 years old. I had no idea what was going on half way around the world at the time. I wish I had known.

Monday, January 16, 2006

When Will Microsoft Release Office for Linux?



When will Microsoft release Office for Linux?

We are seeing some sporadic reaction from governments around the world to Microsoft's practical monopoly on both personal computer desktop operating systems (Microsoft Windows) and desktop productivity software (Microsoft Office). The government of Peru put forward a bill in 2002 that was passed into law in late 2005 encouraging government institutions to use Open Source Software:
"...Basically, we can say that the fundamental principles that drive the present Bill are tightly related to the basic guarantees of a democratic State and we can sum them up in the following:
  • Free Access of the citizens to public information
  • Perenniality of public data
  • Security of the State and of the citizens

To guarantee the citizens' free access to information, it is indispensable that the coding of the data not be tied to a sole provider. The use of standard and open formats guarantees this free access, making possible the creation of compatible software."

The city of Munich decided in 2003 to change 14,000 PCs running the Windows operating system to the Linux operating system and from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice.org, an equivalent but free software. South Korea, China, and Taiwan are further examples. Most recently The Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to make the Opendocument file format, supported by OpenOffice.org, the exclusive format for all electronic documents generated by the Executive Department.

Why has this move from Microsoft's proprietary systems to open systems started only in the last few years? There are a few reasons:
  1. Competing and relatively mature equivalent software and operating systems are only now available and they are either free or obtainable at low cost.
  2. The importance of being able to recover electronic documents has become more and more apparent over time. Remember the IBM PC was introduced in 1981, only 25 years ago. Since laws like Sarbanes-Oxley have been passed the importance of recovering documents that are 10 or more years old has increased. Since the way Microsoft stores files, in MS Word for example, has remained a proprietary secret there has been no reliable way to fully recover older documents when new versions no longer support the format the originals were saved in.
  3. Microsoft's Office has become more expensive over its life and has since remained that way. In the early days the price charged for the product could be argued due to having to develop a brand new application but after so many versions of the product it is hard for users to accept being gouged. Just take a look at how much cash MS has on hand and it will become obvious.
Although enough organizations have decided to make the move to free software to worry Microsoft none has as yet completed the move. How successfully and cost-effectively it can be done therefore remains an unanswered question. I am sure Mr. Gates and Mr. Ballmer are not losing sleep over lost revenues. The same article that discusses Peru's move to encourage competing software in government also calls Peru a "hotbed of piracy". Microsoft has been losing money in this and in other developing economies to software theft for years. It is the current exposure (bad press) and the future lost revenues that worry them. Linux and OpenOffice.org still need a little work before they are adopted by mainstream users but are getting closer with each new version released. If Microsoft were to release Office for Linux today they would hasten a move to their arch-rival operating system, something they certainly have no interest in doing. I expect that once Linux adoption hits an as-yet undefined 'tipping point' (I predict within 5 years) they will sell versions of Office that either run on Linux or within a Web browser or other thin client that will run within the Linux OS. IBM has released a new collaboration software called IBM Workplace that allows you to, among other things, create MS Word compatible documents through a browser (yes, it works with Firefox) without having Word on your computer. It uses OpenOffice.org to do this. I also suspect that the effective price of Office will drop significantly over the following years to allow Microsoft to keep its hold on businesses and consumers by maintaining their share of the market. By then they will have other applications using Office and its services and for which we will again be paying. Gates' and Ballmer's hands are in many pies these days, not only in order to grow their revenues, but also to protect them against future erosion. The days when MS could make, as in mint, money selling Office suites and Operating Systems are nearing an end. This article written by an ex-Microsoftie discusses Microsoft's reliance on Windows and Office revenues.

Even so, I expect Redmond has one or two cards up its sleeves and will have little trouble continuing to be profitable for decades to come. I wish them well and am glad to see the gradual shift in their business practices to a more collaborative approach. That's what real competition does to a monopoly that wants to survive. So my hats off to all the people and companies that have helped make Linux a reality. To SUN for open sourcing OpenOffice.org after purchasing it from its creator, to all the other companies and communities that have made open source software a reality (the Mozilla Foundation, the makers of GIMP, Novell, the Apache Foundation and many, many more), and to Microsoft who are proving that you can learn how to play nice well after Kindergarten.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Dumbing Down of America



While the citizens of rising economies like India and China are getting more and more educated, North America is dumbing down.

According to an article in the Economist, high tuition levels prevent 40% of qualified high-school graduates from attending 4-year programs and 22% from attending college at all. This while India has doubled its university student population since the early 90s and China's PhD recipients have jumped from 14,500 in 1998 to 48,700 in 2003 (see article)!

Technology companies like Intel, Microsoft, AMD, and Cisco are investing billions in the Indian economy. Not only is labour cheaper than in America but it is also a highly educated labour force. Instead of whining about the loss of jobs, North Americans need to take education seriously. It starts with the government and translates into, among other things, more investment in universities and student support programs with lower tuition fees and favourable lending policies. Traditionally, many immigrants in North America have been underemployed. This is changing. As their home countries become more competitive and economies take off, many of these people will be returning home or not immigrating to North America in the first place.

The education of the masses is a good thing. It indirectly reduces poverty and the spread of diseases like AIDS. The first world should want rising economies around the world to flourish. From an economic perspective, these economies will be purchasing many of the goods manufactured by first world corporations. Our concern, as the world gets more educated, should be centered on what place our children will occupy in the resulting food chain.