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Always On Except When You're Not: Communications Cut in Silicon Valley

att%20tweets.jpgYesterday I visited Ge Wang, the Stanford professor behind Ocarina, a popular iPhone app. We sat in his office, in an old mansion on a hill at the edge of the Stanford campus, and, using Ocarina on his iPhone, listened live to people all over the world playing music. We sampled melodies from Japan, Australia, and just up the road. We listened all the way through to a halting version of â''Amazing Grace,â'' being played by an iPhone user in Vancouver. The world felt small, all-connected; the magic of the internet practically shimmered in the air.

I didnâ''t realize until I turned on the evening news last night that while I was feeling oh-so-connected, much of Silicon Valley yesterday was anything but connected. Vandals had sliced ten fiber optic lines at four locations, taking out communications in parts of three counties. Land lines didnâ''t work, cell phones didnâ''t work, internet service didnâ''t work. You couldnâ''t get money from the bank (some banks were taking deposits); you couldnâ''t use your credit card in most places. You couldnâ''t text, you couldnâ''t facebook, you couldnâ''t twitter. (AT&T was sending out updates on its progress in fixing the fiber lines via twitter, itâ''s not clear how that info was supposed to get to the folks that needed it.) You couldnâ''t call 911. The local news suggested in case of emergency, for example, a house fire, drive to the nearest fire or police station and tell someone. This was not a reassuring suggestion.

The image that sticks in my mind from all the reports on coping with the communications cut is that of a Fedex delivery man, standing in front of a truck full of packages, baffled. He held that cool little gizmo that reads bar codes, accepts signatures, and, apparently, tells the driver where to deliver what. Without phone service, it was useless, and those packages werenâ''t going anywhere.

Photo: AT&T's twitter feed

Silicon Valley Suffers Phone, 'Net Sabotage

A swath of Northern California has lost landline phone service and Internet connectivity today, most likely due to sabotage.

Those in the area to the south of San Jose, including the high-tech Silicon Valley sector, found themselves without telephone service as of this morning, and local police report that they have found evidence of criminal activity, according to an article in the San Jose Mercury News.

A spokesperson for AT&T told the Bay Area newspaper that its personnel found four fiber-optic cables intentionally cut inside an underground vault in South San Jose. The communications carrier said there was an additional report of cables cut in the town of San Carlos.

Coincidentally, AT&T's contract with the Communication Workers of America expired at midnight Saturday. However, the AT&T spokesperson, John Britton, told the Mercury News that "we have a really good relationship with the union" and that negotiations continue between the two parties.

The service outage affects traditional phones, cell phones, and Internet communications for many customers in Santa Clara, San Benito, and Santa Cruz counties. The affected area is home to some of the world's biggest technology firms, such as Apple Computer, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel.

AT&T said it expects to have repaired the severed lines by the end of the day.

R&D Spending Today Could Hold Key to Tomorrow's Recovery

R&D Spending Today Could Hold Key to Tomorrow's Recovery

A terrific piece by the Wall Street Journalâ''s Justin Scheck and Paul Glader shows that the recession hasnâ''t yet led companies to pare their spending on R&D. It hardly dipped in the fourth quarter, compared to a year before, even though revenues fell by 7.7 percent.

The article suggests that companies may have learned, the hard way, that R&D cuts today will doom product lineups tomorrow. Consider how Apple and Motorola reacted to the last dot-com bust:

iPod
Photo: DHDesign

Apple boosted R&D spending 42 percent between 1999 and 2002, even as revenue fell more than 6 percent. Those investments helped spawn the iPod music player, introduced during the last recession in October 2001, and the iTunes music store, which debuted in 2003. Typically, investments in R&D take two to three years to pay off.

Motorola slashed R&D spending 13 percent in 2002. The company scored big with its super-thin RAZR cell phone in 2004, but failed to develop equally successful follow-up products. Spending on R&D has rebounded, but more slowly than revenue, and Motorola's market share and stock price have withered.

The Journal also cites General Electric as vowing not to repeat the mistake it made in the last recession, when it skimped on light-emitting diodes, a technology thatâ''s now competing with its incandescent bulbs. Hereâ''s the money quote, from Mark Little, GE's senior vice president and director of global research: â''It's fair to say our competitors have put more money into the lighting business, and it shows.â''

The article does note that the health of R&D may only be apparent, because the recession began to bite only months ago, whereas research projects last for years. A drug company would have to be sorely strapped to shut down a trial thatâ''s halfway through its two-year run, but it might well decline to start new trials. Thatâ''s why itâ''ll be some time before we know for sure how the recession is affecting R&D spending.

Where that spending goes is another question. As the Journal notes, and as Spectrum reported in latest annual R&D report, ever more research dollars are being funneled to India and China. Such outsourcing canâ''t be a mere reaction to the recession, because itâ''s been going on for years.

One more thing: correlation does not prove causation. Successful companies may dominate R&D not because itâ''s the key to their success but because they are the ones that can best afford it. A study a few years ago by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton found that though the top R&D spenders didnâ''t outperform other firms in their sectors, the bottom spenders did underperform. (Here was our take on that study.)

Glader explores this angle in a follow-on comment in Tuesdayâ''s Journal. He cites William Duggan of the Columbia Business School, who argues that marketing and operations budgets are more closely tied to success than are R&D budgets, citing Russiaâ''s example to prove that massive investment in research neednâ''t bear fruit.

Planning to develop an iPhone app and quit your day job? Stanford will help you for free.

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Fridayâ''s New York Times repeated the oft-toldâ''and in this case trueâ''story of Ethan Nicholas, who developed a killer iphone app, iShoot, made $800,000 in five months, and quit his job at Sun Microsystems to work on iphone apps full time. He followed in the footsteps of Steve Demeter, who reported that he made $250,000 in two months with Trism, a color-matching puzzle.

While the vast majority of iPhone apps will make their developers pocket change at best, not life-changing millions, you have to think that these success stories will inspire more than a few of the tech savvy to head to their basements/garages/home offices/dining room tables and try to be the next Nicholas or Demeter.

And Stanford University has decided to help. The school just started posting videos of its popular 10-week course, iPhone Application Programming, online for free at Stanfordâ''s iTunes U. Videos will go up two days after each live class.

For Best Nanotechnology Video, the Winner Is...

I am afraid thereâ''s not that much suspense. Itâ''s just as I predicted two months ago. The winner of the American Chemical Societyâ''s competition for describing nanotech went to "The Nano Song" (http://tinyurl.com/thenanosong), a warm-hearted, muppet-style video.

Since I already posted the winning video last February, I thought I would post the runner-up: â''Nanotechnology Brings us Delicious New Solar Cellsâ''. Those crazy, wacky kids at Notre Dame. Enjoy. By the way, this is the directorâ''s cut.

Nanomaterials Turning Us into Cyborgs? Whatever Next?

I have to confess one of my favorite past times is reading a mainstream journalist mangling a story on nanotechnology.

But in this example the journalist did a yeomanâ''s job only messing up the requisite definition slightly â''used to develop materials that are 100 nanometers or smallerâ''. Yeah, almost right, I think if you add the idea of materials with features below 100 nanometers it wouldnâ''t have sounded so odd to me.

Who really sounded odd to me was the nanotechnology expert who was visiting the beat reporterâ''s hometown, Akhlesh Lakhtakia.

Lakhatia, a professor with the Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics at Pennsylvania State University, wanted to express measured concern about the adverse affects of nanotechnology and referred to the oft-mentioned idea of a nanoparticle breaching the blood brain barrier.

This idea led him to the rather odd conclusion if this were to happen: â''And I cannot even begin to imagine what kind of cyborgs we will become then."

I guess this constitutes Lakhatia trying to avoid being an alarmist. But then again maybe the reporter misconstrued what he said as we have demonstrated to us recently.

GM's P.U.M.A.: Fleet Captain Pike meets Paul Blart, Mall Cop

P.U.M.A.

IMAGE CREDIT: Segway

In general, it's a bad thing when every blogger has the same first reaction to your new "personal mobility pod."

Captain Pike's Chair

IMAGE CREDIT: TrekMovie.com

Star Trek action figure tableau including Fleet Captain Christopher Pike, whose run-in with fictional delta radiation left him paralyzed, mute, badly scarred, and confined to a wheelchair at Starbase 11.

G.M. and Segway have teamed up to breathe new life into the Segway personal transporter, rescuing it from the mall cop ghetto it now inhabits in the public imagination.

The P.U.M.A., short for Personal Urban Mobility Transport, is "not really being introduced," according to the New York Times Bits blog, "except as a bit of blue-sky thinking about better ways to move around crowded urban areas than driving an automobile." It's being shown this week at the New York International Auto Show.

Commenters at BoingBoing, ever in rare form, immediately noted the unfortunate resemblance to the Star Trek character Capt. Christopher Pike, who was injured in a radiation incident and who consequently suffers from Locked-In Syndrome, and must spend the rest of his days zipping around in a little black box that communicates "yes" and "no" in binary monotones.

pike1new.jpg

IMAGE CREDIT: TrekMovie.com

The P.U.M.A.'s communication system is much upgraded, featuring, according to the New York Times, all the benefits of GM's OnStar system (which I have never used and am therefore unqualified to assess). You can also have direct vehicle to vehicle communication, which I imagine is much like push-to-talk walkie talkie cell phone technology.

The P.U.M.A.'s lithium-ion batteries give it a top speed of 35 mph, and enough juice for a 35-mile range.

I'll get one when, like Pike's chair, they can be operated by brain machine interface.

US Taking a New Direction in Defense?

Many defense analysts I interviewed for my Novermber 2008 Spectrum story, â''Whatâ''s Wrong With Weaponâ''s Acquisitionsâ'' felt that the US Department of Defense had missed a golden opportunity to reform its acquisition processes in the early 1990s after the Cold War had ended and the first Gulf War had been won.

Apparently, the current US fiscal crisis has created another â''opportunity to truly reform the way we do businessâ'' that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is loath to waste.

Yesterday, Sec. Gates announced a new FY 2010 defense budget which he says was â''crafted to reshape the priorities of America's defense establishment. If approved, these recommendations will profoundly reform how this department does business.â''

Gates announced nearly 20 major defense program and policy changes, including among other things the cancellation of the $13 billion Presidential helicopter program and the $26 billion transformational satellite program, the production end of both the F-22 fighter and C-17 transport aircraft, an accelerated procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and an increase in the number of littoral combat ships (LCS) being bought.

You can read the transcript of his press conference yesterday for all the details.

In addition, Sec. Gates, promises to, â''reform how and what we buy; meaning a fundamental overhaul of our approach to procurement, acquisition and contracting.â'' As part of that reform he promises that DoD will now â''stop programs that significantly exceed their budget or which spend limited tax dollars to buy more capability than the nation needs. Our conventional modernization goals should be tied to the actual and prospective capabilities of known future adversaries, not by what might be technologically feasible for a potential adversary given unlimited time and resources.â''

In general, I think these are good decisions. However, whether they will stick is another matter. Already, members of Congress from districts where the cuts are going to be made are criticizing his proposed actions. Gates acknowledges that his decisions are controversial, but hopes â''that the members of Congress will rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole.â''

I wish him luck with that.

Finally, if you really take an objective look at what Sec. Gates has proposed in the FY 2010 budget, it is a fairly modest reallocation of resources. The F-22 and C-17 were scheduled for production termination anyway, the current Presidential helicopter program was canceled but a new helo program will be started in its place, the LCS is still going to cost more per ship than originally advertised, etc., etc. In fact, the vast majority of defense acquisition programs remain untouched.

And as far as acquisition reform is concerned, having to promise to kill programs that significantly exceed their budgets should have been standard policy decades ago. To have to term it a fundamental acquisition reform just goes to show how fouled up defense acquisition has really become.

Tracking the Digital TV Transition

digtv120-thumb.gifSince 17 Februaryâ''s date certain for analog TV shutdown became date uncertain and then 12 June, the digital TV transition has dropped from newspaper headlines. But things have indeed been happening.

For one, some 750 stations around the U.S. have already killed their analog signals; thatâ''s a good chunk of the nationâ''s 1759 broadcast stations. Continuing dual analog and digital broadcasts costs moneyâ''simply powering the additional transmitter costs something like ten thousand dollars a month; thatâ''s a lot for a small station in tough economic times. Most of these are non-network stations in small markets, but not all. In San Diego, for example, the shutdown included the ABC, CBS, and Fox affiliates. Major networks also went dark in Santa Barbara, Calif., Madison, Wisc., and Providence, R.I. The call centers reported that most people having trouble getting digital broadcasts were elderly, some simply didnâ''t know how to work the converter boxes, but some would need to repoint their antennas (wonder how that went on Madisonâ''s icy roofs) and others would need new antennas.

The FCC has released an online tool that will help viewers figure out, based on their zip code, what stations they are likely to be able to receive. This doesnâ''t take into account local obstacles like big trees or tall buildings, but it does look at some terrain factors and can help you figure out if you have a least a chance of getting the new digital signal. If you do, you can then plug your zip code into the tool at antennapoint.com; and select a group of stations you can receive (I had a choice between stations to the north and stations to the south; south is closer, but north has more channels); this tool will tell you how far you are from the transmitters. That's something that's useful to know if you go antenna-shopping; you'll need to weed through selections by range. (I just ordered a new, extra-long-range antenna from Amazon; still pursuing my quest to get more than two digital channels before the shutdown).

In terms of good news from the digital transition, thanks to funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the stimulus bill), the converter coupon program has cleared its waiting list and is continuing to process new applications. It has also changed the rule that if you order two coupons and they expired youâ''re out of luck; you are now allowed to reapply. As of April 1, just over 55 million coupons were requested, over 54 million were mailed, and nearly 27 million were redeemed. There is no word on how many of the people who purchased converter boxes have attempted to hook up those boxes, how many were successful and are happily watching digital televison, or how many former broadcast television viewers simply gave up. Iâ''d like to seem some real independent research conducted on this transition; call center reports donâ''t tell you much.

For more of Spectrum's coverage of the digital transition, see Special Report: The Day Analog TV Dies.

North Korean Satellite Enters "Subaquatic Orbit"

Despite reports from Pyongyang its communications satellite is alive and well in orbit and transmitting â''data and patriotic songs," there's no North Korean satellite in space. (At best, according to Arms Control Wonk, "the highly unique North Korean satellite has entered subaquatic orbit in the Pacific Ocean"). But over at Danger Room, former Jane's Defence Weekly reporter Nathan Hodge interrupts the snorts of derision with a cold dose of reality.

For starters, the Taepodong-2 missile managed to successfully drop its first stage, which landed in the Sea of Japan. That's an improvement over a 2006 test, in which the missile disintegrated less than a minute after launch.

Worse yet:

Kim Tae-woo, an analyst at South Korea's state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, told the Associated Press the launch would also yield strategic dividends for North Korea, because it potentially raises the stakes in stalled nuclear disarmament talks.

Recap: According to the U.S. Northern Command, North Korea launched its Taepo Dong 2 missile at 10:30 p.m. EDT Saturday which passed over the Sea of Japan/East Sea and the nation of Japan.

â''Stage one of the missile fell into the Sea of Japan/East Sea. The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean,â'' Northcom reported. â''No object entered orbit and no debris fell on Japan.â''

Japan, South Korea and the United States had considered Pyongyangâ''s planned launch to be a thinly disguised test of missile that could in theory reach Alaska or Hawaii (upside: more foreign relations experience for Palin). For weeks, the lead-up to the launch had excited rubberneckers wondering whether President Obama would have the intestinal fortitude to shoot down a North Korean rocket. North Korea threatened to attack "major targets" in Japan should Tokyo attempt to shoot down the satellite. No word on what Kim Jong Il threatened to do to the U.S. should there be interference from that corner of the world.

But Hodge says the news isn't all bad:

The launch also seems to have offered the defense industry its last best hope against serious cuts to the Missile Defense Agency's budget. Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Association, told DANGER ROOM the test would have "clear implications" for the Department of Defense fiscal year 2010 budget that will be released later today. While Ellison said the industry was bracing for sweeping, top-line cuts to missile defense programs -- as high as $2 billion -- but this weekend's events may soften the blow.

See? Every silver cloud has a dark lining. Or something.

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