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Report: Sun Micro to Scrap Big Chip Project

Beleaguered Sun Microsystems, the target of a current takeover deal, will scuttle its work on a new processor that had been intended to move the company into a profitable future, according to a report in today's New York Times.
The newspaper is reporting that unnamed insiders familiar with Sun's planning for the future have disclosed that the Santa Clara, Calif., computer maker will pull the plug on its ambitious multicore processor for next-generation servers code-named Rock.

After working on the Rock chip for more than five years, Sun may be ready to walk away from the expensive design process needed to finish the chip just as its executives are readying to turn over the reins of the company to leadership being filled by Oracle Corp., which has bid US $7.4 billion to acquire the ailing firm (please see Bolt from the Blue: Oracle, Not IBM, Captures Sun Micro).

While Sun CEO Jonathan Schwarz boasted two years ago that the Rock project would return his firm to profitability, the reality has been that the processor has been more difficult to perfect than anticipated, leading to a series of delays in its development.

Ironically for us at IEEE Spectrum, we've just published an article on the technical merits of the Rock processor (please see Sun's Rock CPU Could Be a Gem for Oracle). The new chip (which now may never see the light of day) was to have featured 16 processor cores employing a revolutionary technique for moving data around called transactional memory, which enables programs running on the chip to read from and write to memory registers more easily and rapidly.  

How today's news will play into the ongoing takeover discussions is an open question, but it seems clear that Sun would not have taken such a significant step without consulting Oracle's management.

And so it goes for the once-proud Sun, as it gets ready to set into the twilight.

Goodbye analog, I'm going to miss you

This morning I turned on the little TV that sits on top of the file cabinet in my home office. I bought it soon after 9/11, and typically use it for breaking news and major events, like presidential inaugurations. It gets three slightly snowy channels through a $10 rabbit-eared antenna; the antenna cable that drops through the walls and out through the floor in the family room and bedroom doesn’t make it over to this side of the house. That’s been fine for my purposes—breaking news tends to be covered across the networks, so three channels (ABC, NBC, and PBS) have been plenty.

There’s no breaking news today, so ordinarily this TV would be dark. But I plan on leaving it on from now until it’s getting nothing but static (or something called nightlight service that simply tells me my television is analog and needs a converter) as my personal farewell to analog television.

Because sometime between now and midnight tonight, the vast majority of analog broadcasting in the United States will cease.  Only a few low-power stations will remain. And since no converter box is going to be able to pull a digital signal from this particular pair of rabbit ears, the next stop for this little Sharp cathode ray tube television is the recycling center, where I can only hope it’s treated kindly and doesn’t end up hurting recycling workers or the environment.

I’ve got two other TVs in the house already hooked up to converter boxes, and a giant new antenna on the roof that enables those converter boxes to pull in a reasonable number of channels. But to date I mostly leave the converters turned off, since many of my favorite channels are, so far, only receivable on analog. That may change; along with analog shutdown comes the great frequency scramble, meaning channels I don’t get today, I might get tomorrow. Or not.


So tomorrow morning I’ll go over to those two TVs, turn on the converter boxes, and rescan for channels. I’ll have my fingers crossed, because here in the San Francisco Bay Area reception is spotty, and no one can really predict whether or not I’ll be have access to anywhere near the same menu of digital channels that I had in an analog world.

I doubt I’ll be the only one with my fingers crossed. Local broadcasters will be hoping not to lose viewers—and not to frustrate so many that their phone lines will be ringing off the hook come Saturday. The FCC will be hoping that they won’t be inundated by complaints, but they’ll have 4000 operators on call just in case. President Obama will be hoping that the transition goes smoothly, justifying the delay from the original date-certain of February 17th.

And in the next few weeks, we will see, because at this point, we just don’t know. As of last week, according to research firm Smith Geiger LLC, one out of eight folks who get their television over-the-air had yet to attempt hook up a converter box or digital television—Neilson estimates the number as just short of 3 million people. And that doesn’t count folks like me, who hooked it all up but still relies on analog for most of our TV watching.

So we will see if folks are thrilled with their new digital picture, or frustrated by their inability to receive anything at all without paying for cable or satellite. We’ll see what housebound elderly will do without baseball games to watch next week—I’m thinking of my 90-plus year old aunt and an 80-something former neighbor for whom snowy baseball games on ancient TVs provided constant companionship. I do hope it goes smoothly, that I—and every other over-the-air TV watcher in the country—is thrilled with the vast array of crystal clear channels and new wireless services that have been the promise of the digital transition. But we will see.

Semicon Industry Group Sees Hope After 2009

The downturn may be nearing for the semiconductor sector according to the trade group that monitors its health.

The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) announced Friday that the manufacturers it represents should rebound in 2010 after slumping badly through the rest of 2009. The SIA said it is projecting sector sales to reach US $195.6 billion for the current year, a decline of 21.3 percent from sales of $248.6 billion the previous year.

The good news in the brief semi-annual estimate is that the SIA sees sales reaching $208.3 billion next year, a jump of 6.5 percent, followed by another 6.5 percent increase the year after, which would peg the income from microchips and processors climbing to $221.9 billion.

The SIA is the organization that represents the public business interests of members such as IBM, Intel, and Texas Instruments.

Could the Earth Collide with Mars?

In an intriguing paper in the 11 June Nature, Jacques Laskar and Mickael Gastineau of the Paris Observatory report on their large-scale computer simulation, which explored orbital interactions among the nine planets in our solar system. Over timescales of billions of years, the accumulation of slight variations in the orbits very occasionally led to planetary disaster. Of the 2501 scenarios they ran, for instance, Earth collided with Mars 29 times.

So, OK, that would be bad. But look at it this way: it wouldn't happen for at least 3 billion years, and it sure would shorten the travel time to Mars.

You'll need a subscription to view the full paper, but Sid Perkins has a good summary at Science News.

FDA Has It All Figured Out When It Comes to Nanotechnology

Sometimes it's hard to figure out who is more mixed up in the EHS/nanotechnology debate. On the one hand you have government underestimating the problem and then on the other you have NGOs hyping the issue beyond all recognition.

Both sides seem determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The latest example we have in this back and forth is Dr. Annette McCarthy of the FDA proclaiming last week to an assembly of food industry delegates at the IFT International Food Nanoscience Conference in Anaheim,  CA that: “We believe that the regulatory authority is sufficient to address nanotechnology but there are further questions we need to address.”

I helped to organize a conference three years ago on the impact of nanotechnologies in the food industry and there was an FDA spokesperson at that event as well. Their line of argument was almost identical to Dr. McCarthy's and even three years ago this attitude inspired frustrated sighs.

It's not clear what Dr. McCarthy was referring to specifically when she mentioned "further questions we need to address." But it's not clear how the current regulatory authority is sufficient but at the same time there are further questions that need to be addressed.

Have we entirely lost the capability of the diplomatic hedge? Just say, we're looking at the issue or some other vague and non-committal bit to keep at bay those who are just waiting to pounce on this kind bureaucratic arrogance as evidence of the need for a complete moratorium on nanotechnology.

New Element to Join Periodic Table, Seeks Official Name

Scientists in Germany have revealed the discovery of a new superheavy chemical element that they are tentatively calling ununbium, until an official body approves a permanent name.

Physicists at the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research, in Darmstadt, announced yesterday that they had produced an element with the atomic number 112 in experiments going back many years.

Although their research first produced atoms of element 112, by their reckoning, in 1996, it would take years for their results to be confirmed by fellow physicists in Japan and other nations. That confirmation culminated this week in a letter from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) that recognized the discovery of a new element. By right of discovery, the Helmholtz Center team, led by principal investigator Sigurd Hofmann, will have the privilege of naming the new element, which they are calling ununbium for now, after the Latin word for 112. 

According to the GSI Helmholtz Center, Hofmann's team produced atoms of ununbium by shooting zinc ions through a 120-meter-long particle accelerator at a lead target. Smashing the two stable elements together fused some of their nuclei for very brief periods of time, but long enough to form atoms with their combined atomic numbers, or the number of protons in a nucleus, of zinc with 30 and lead with 82. The new element is so radioactively unstable, however, that it disintegrates quickly into charged particles and lighter atoms.

The officially confirmed discovery marks the sixth time over the last 28 years that scientists at the GSI Helmholtz Center have created new elements in their laboratories: element 107 is called bohrium, element 108 hassium, element 109 meitnerium, element 110 darmstadtium, and element 111 roentgenium.

"We are delighted that now the sixth element -- and thus all of the elements discovered at GSI during the past 30 years -- has been officially recognized," Hofmann said yesterday. "During the next few weeks, the scientists of the discovering team will deliberate on a name for the new element."

Dispatches from the Nanotechnology Frontier

Addressing the Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) issues surrounding nanotechnology has become critical for the future development of nanotechnologies across a number of application fields.


But in order to address these issues it is necessary to set standards for nomenclature, experimentation and microscopy, just to name a few.


This week out in Seattle, WA, a meeting of the ISO TC 229 (nanotechnologies) group is on going and its aim is to establish standards in these areas.


This ISO group is nothing new, it's been around a while. So to be honest, I am not sure where this meeting stands in its progress towards developing standards.


But we do have a new insight into the process as Skip Rung, President and Executive Director of the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), is sending back dispatches from the meetings to Nanotech-Now.


Based on his first dispatch I expect that it will be some time before we have anything approaching a comprehensive set of standards for nanotechnologies. But I'll be reading the posts, just in case.

George 'Macaca' Allen Joins Nanotox Board of Directors

George Allen, the former Governor and Senator from Virginia, has had to have committed one of the more egregious examples of foot-in-mouth disease seen on the campaign trail in some time.

By using a derogatory racial epithet for a campaign worker from his opponent's campaign, he helped turn the tide against him in the campaign for Senate.

But huge political blunders don't necessarily disqualify you from being offered all sorts of positions, like serving on a board of directors.

Nanotox based in Austin, TX is not perturbed by Allen's recent history and have appointed the former politician to serve on their board of directors. Nanotox markets itself as offering complete risk assessment exclusively for nanoparticles.

There's little doubt this whole EHS/nanotechnology issue is going to become a huge political issue and some contractors are likely to win lucrative contracts in sorting it all out. It's important to have powerful political allies under those circumstances even if their most recent political role ended under less than ideal circumstances.

Low-Cost Low-Power Screen from Dream Jobber Jepsen

Mary Lou Jepsen, profiled in IEEE Spectrum’s 2007 special report on dream jobs for engineers, designed the screen for the little green XO computer intended to blanket the world as the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. The OLPC effort didn’t quite play out as exactly as planned, though production began recently. (Earlier this year the organization cut half its staff and announced a change in strategy to open source hardware.)

But that wasn’t the fault of Jepsen’s screen. The screen, reviewers agreed, was revolutionary. Oh, sure, it could have been bigger, the resolution in color mode could have been better, but its low power consumption, visibility in bright light, and dual color and black and white modes were standouts.

Jepsen has a for-profit company now, Pixel Qi, a fabless designer of screens that just completed its first round of funding in March. Pixel Qi has announced that its low-cost low-power screen technology will be shipping this fall as part of e-book readers and netbooks, a sort of e-paper capable of video as well as static images. This generation of the technology will be bigger—10-inches, compared with the OLPC’s 7.5-inch screen—and better. Meanwhile, the company says it is working on a version capable of HDTV resolution.

I can’t wait to see it.

Photo: Pixel Qi (left) vs. Kindle
Credit: Pixel Qi


Twitter Gets a Conference All Its Own

Is there any better sign of the times than the fact that Jeff Pulver’s got a Twitter conference next week?

 Pulver is probably best known for his Voice on the Net (VON) conferences. He rode the voice-over-IP wagon long and hard, making a bundle along the way by playing a key role in the early days of Vonage, but he’s had other cool conferences as well, such as one in November 2005 he called “Peripheral Visionaries,” an “IP-Based Communications Summit” that brought together “technologists, innovators, entrepreneurs, analysts, academics and visionaries.”

At the time, Susan Crawford blogged about it under the heading “Very timely Pulver conference.” Crawford herself is a shining star and something of a zeitgeist figure—she’s the University of Michigan law professor who recently became Obama’s Special Assistant to the President for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy. She was an ICANN director for four years, and I notice on Wikipedia that she’s also on the National Economic Council.

Pulver’s “140 Characters Conference,” as he calls it, is right here in Nework City, 16-17 June. I haven’t heard of most of the speakers, but that was true of the early VON conferences as well. One of those resulted in one of my favorite articles, Edholm's Law of Bandwidth, according to which telecommunications data rates are as predictable as Moore's Law.

Anyway, there are plenty of other signs of the Twitter Era. One of the more undercover—or should I say under-the-covers?—indications is the news that Twitter is all the rage in the adult entertainment community. In an article (“Life is Tweet”) that doesn’t seem to be online, Gia Jordan reports in the trade magazine AVN that “the porn industry is twittering—networking and marketing on the popular social networking site,” 

Over 1000 [Twitter users] are porn stars and adult industry professionals. They chat and network up to 50 times a day—not really to fans, but with each other. The popularity of Twitter among the industry has exceeded MySpace and Facebook due to its easy interface and instant gratification. “You have just a few lines. The simplicity lends itself to really seeing who someone is. There’s no time to embellish your identity with page designing, music, and glittery gifs,” explains adult performer/directot Kimberly Kane, who made her first tweet—meaning Twitter post—after her Live In My Secrets premiere party. A few weeks later, she tweeted a second time and discovered that she had gathered 100 followers.

Not surprisingly, the article title “Life Is Tweet” shows up several times on Google, the absent AVN article notwithstanding. The Guardian’s ho-hum take Life is tweet: How the Twitter family infiltrated our cultural world is typical—the lead concerns Twitter marriage proposals (yawn). The subhead is “The hottest microblogging service, Twitter, is changing the way TV, literature and media operate,” yet somehow it missed the way Twitter is changing the way the porn industry operates.

Is Twitter really changing the way anything operates? Maybe a little, but it’s not Napster, Flickr, or Facebook, three social networks that really have changed people’s daily lives. It’s not as significant as social recommendations, a phenomenon of lasting value that we’ve written about twice so far, in the abstract (<a People Who Read This Article Also Read...) and specifically about Netflix’s The Million Dollar Programming Prize).

Don’t get me wrong—microblogging is here to stay, and the ability to microblog on the go is a big deal too. But combining the Web and text messaging seems more kludgy than visionary. As the Internet cloud gets more robust, and phones become ever-more capable, we’ll be able to do this far more straightforwardly. I hope, though, we don’t lose the 140-character limitation along the way. Like many programming and artistic constraints, Twitter has turned an obstacle into a virtue. When it comes to “What are you doing right now?” less is definitely more.


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