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FPGA David throws another rock at Goliaths

First it was the fight between ASICs and FPGAS. The current market for FPGAs showcases who won that war. These days, as Actel CEO John East told me, it's FPGA vs FPGA. The market for high-end FPGAs (of the sort produced by the industry's traditional goliaths) has suffered, much the same way it made the ASIC market suffer in the late 1990s. Low-cost, feature-rich FPGAs of the sort made by Actel are chipping away at the market and tightening what the big companies can charge for a certain type of FPGA.

In this case, it's the low-cost, feature-rich chips Actel offers that are upsetting the apple cart. Today Actel, an industry David among Goliaths Xilinx and Altera, announced another generation (PDF) of its popular IGLOO and ProASIC3 FPGA families. Both cost 99 cents.

But East says he's not looking at market domination in the low-cost market; he's going after low-power.

Why is that important? East said once in an interview that you have to be able to see around corners, and already be there when history catches up. Right now that corner involves global climate change and the increasing volatility of the energy supply most people still rely on.

The solution starts with the architecture itself. The reason Actel's IGLOO AGL015 drains about 200x less power from a device when it is off, is that they are flash-based instead of SRAM-based. SRAM-based chip designs are prone to subject leakage current issues, so the new flash-based chips explicitly conserve static current leakage.

In Actel's power-saving mode, the chip conserves power while maintaining FPGA content. Why would you care? Say you're fedex and you put a tracking device on your shipping containers that has to self- power up and power down every so often to beam its location to a satellite. There's no one to turn it on and off, but also no extra battery so it can't just be on all the time. Actel's chips are in the mars rovers for the same reason.

Also, powering such a chip could theoretically be done with renewable energy. If a chip gets low enough in power consumption (like Actel's 5 microwatt chip) , it might be powered to run your chips on solar power. The most obvious and immediate beneficiaries of such chips are portable emergency devices like defibrillators, which have to be reliable all the time.

Crusher smash Delta Airlines, pls

Yesterday I attended Crusher's "graduation" from DARPA. It's going to be leaving its creators at Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Engineering Center, and going into the army: specifically, to the Army's Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center. The ceremonies took place at Fort Bliss, a base outside El Paso, TX, that is essentially 1.12 million acres of desert.

 

But feast your eyes on some video of the "urban" part of the field trials.

 

 

 

I'm sitting on one of those corrugated steel containers you see in the background, and hoping the thing's batting eyelashes--lidar, in layman's terms-- understand the container and me as an obstacle.

 

I will write much more eloquently on the topic later, but I was and continued to be sleep deprived, thanks to a sequence of events in which Delta unplugged the airplane that was supposed to get me to my connecting flight in Atlanta; I missed said flight and couldn't take another until the following morning; Delta refused to give me my luggage but a cranky customer service lady gave me a voucher to spend the night at a serial killer's hideaway called the Comfort Inn Camp Creek.

 

More on Crusher later, and certainly more on the astonishing "first domino" in this chain of events. Could someone maybe post a comment explaining how an airplane can lose all power from being unplugged? Even my cell phone is more sophisticated than that.

 

HD-DVD Is Dead. Long Live Blu-Ray

We all knew that HD-DVD was a goner at the January Consumer Electronics Show, but it took until today to pronounce the body dead on arrival. As Reuters and many other are reporting, Toshiba, the principal backer of HD-DVD, announced today that it was no longer going to manufacture the players. A question remains, however. There certainly wasn't room in the world for two high-definition disk formats. But how much do we really need one at all?

Toshiba to quit HD DVDs, ends format war

Tue Feb 19, 2008 10:45am EST

Toshiba, which had hoped HD DVD would drive growth in its consumer electronics business, said it would aim to end its HD DVD business by the end of next month.

"This was a very difficult decision to make ... but when we thought about the trouble we would cause to consumers and our partners, we decided it was not right for us to keep going with such a small presence," Toshiba Chief Executive Atsutoshi Nishida told a news conference.

The company said it would continue to service existing HD DVD products, and added it expected bigger profits over the next year as it will cut spending earmarked to promote HD DVD.

As Spectrum and many others

reported at the time, Time-Warner's decision to no longer back HD-DVD was the beginning of the end.

The following week, Blu-ray took 93 percent of next-generation DVD hardware sales in North America, according to the NPD group.

Big U.S. retailers took their cue, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N: Quote, Profile, Research), Best Buy Co Inc (BBY.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and online video rental company Netflix Inc (NFLX.O: Quote, Profile, Research), and pundits began writing obituaries for HD DVD.

Blu-ray made up 81 percent of all high-definition disc sales in the week ending February 10, according to Nielsen VideoScan First Alert.

Then, late last week, Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, left the sinking ship ("Wal-Mart picks Blu-ray in HD DVD disaster").

Interestingly, today's Reuters story also had this to say:

But the Blu-ray win comes just as digital movie downloads appear on the market, rolling out movies and TV shows on high-speed Internet connections and bypassing the disc altogether. That could limit growth for Blu-ray, analysts said.

As it happens, that's a prediction that wasn't widespread, but was one we made last month in a radio story, "No More Disks?"

In it, we said,

There's every reason to think that Sony's Blu-ray victory will be a Pyhrric one. We won't rebuild our video collections yet again, or if we do, it won't be with thin little platters.

US's Current Penchant for Theocracy Does Not Bode Well for Nanotechnology

I suppose it should come as no surprise that in a country where three of the initial 10 Republican candidates for President (Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, for those keeping tabs) announced last Spring at an early Presidential debate that they did not believe in evolution, that most Americans reject the morality of nanotechnology on religious grounds.

Dietram Scheufele, a professor of life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin, conducted a poll of 1,015 adult Americans in which only 29.5% of respondents agreed that nanotechnology was morally acceptable.

When this poll is contrasted against the poll conducted by the Project on Emerging Technologies, which indicated just how ignorant Americans are about nanotechnology, it becomes clear that when one doesnâ''t understand something it becomes a source of fear, and what better foundation to rationalize your fears upon than religion.

But the US seems to have really cornered the market on translating fear of the unknown into religious dogma. In the United Kingdom, 54.1%, in Germany, 62.7%, and in France, 72.1% considered nanotechnology to be morally acceptable.

To be honest, even the European results are a bit strange: morality?! Okay, you might have ethical qualms about nanotechnology being used without its environmental, health and safety issues being clearly determined, but moral?

But Scheufele offers an explanation. The moral question seems to stem from nanotechnology being lumped together with biotechnology and stem cell research in that to the respondentsâ'' minds they are all engaged in enhancing human qualities.

I wonder if these same people have any qualms over vaccinations, say like the polio vaccine.

Nanotech IPOs Get Another Blow as Nanodynamics IPO Fails

The imminent future of nanotechnology companies going public in greater numbers, as predicted by the New York Times (login required) and examined on this blog, has gotten off to a bad start as Nanodynamics has abandoned their most recent IPO attempt on the Dubai exchange.

Nanodynamicsâ'' IPO on the Dubai exchange follows the companyâ''s attempted IPO closer to home on the Nasdaq exchange last November. In that failed attempt they were trying to raise $90 million as compared to the $100 million sought in this most recent effort.

In either case, you might imagine that there was some incredulity on the part of investors to hand over that kind of money for a company with 2006 revenues of just $4 million and losing $1.5 million a month.

It would seem that nanotechnology companies contemplating going public should try having some revenues to support the level of public investment being sought. A quarterly burn rate higher than your yearly sales does not exactly inspire confidence, no matter how much you may need the money to change the world.

Anyone who perceives this recent announcement as a death knell for the commercialization of nanotechnology, or that elusive specter â''the nanotechnology industryâ'', should instead see it as a serious shot across the bow of any company that believes money can be raised merely on a promise and not actual revenues.

A strontium clock that loses one second every 200 million years

An atomic clock that is based on thousands of strontium atoms trapped using lasers and loses only 1 second in more than 200 million years has been demonstrated by researchers at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, a collaboration between the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder. It is more precise than the current US time standard, which is based on a "fountain" of cesium atoms and accurate to 1 second in 80 million years.

Super-precise atomic clocks are used to synchronize global telecommunications networks and deep-space communications, as well as military navigation and positioning.

The new clock uses lasers to trap thousands of ultra cold strontium atoms in an optical lattice. The strontium atoms absorb very precise frequencies of optical light. This allows researchers to use them to keep time. (A strontium clock such as the one demonstrated ticks 430 million times each second.) The NIST standard uses microwaves, which have lower frequencies (and hence lower precision).

However, the strontium clock is the not the world's most precise. That honor goes to an experimental design based on a single mercury ion. It is supposedly so accurate that it loses only 1 second in 400 million years.

But strontium-based clocks have some advantages, according to scientists.

"A large ensemble of neutral atoms offers an enhanced clock signal strength that will make them more precise than a single trapped ion based clock," said Jun Ye, who is the leader of the scientific team that developed the new strontium clock.

So what is next?

"We will continue to enhance the clock precison and the clock accuracy," said Ye. "At this point, it's likely that the performance improvement by another factor of 10 will come relatively quickly."

For more information, go to the Jun Ye's research page on strontium clocks: http://jilawww.colorado.edu/yelabs/research/ultracold.html#jumpToClock

A solar system like ours is found

We continue to see that our place in the universe is not special at all. This past week, astronomers announced that they had found a solar system that looks surprisingly like the one we live in -- except that it lies thousands of light years away.

Astronomers report in the latest issue of Science that they have found two planets across the galaxy, around a reddish Sun-like star which lies 5,000 light years away. They saw two planets â'' one about two thirds the mass of Jupiter and one about 90 percent as massive as Saturn â'' orbiting the star in a manner reminiscent of our own solar system. Between the star and these planets may lie Earth-like planets, say the scientists, it's just that our telescopes are not yet powerful enough to see them.

This is a major scientific â'' and philosophical â'' milestone, which continues the revolution started by Copernicus and Kepler and Galileo, in which Earth and then the Sun lost their special place as the center of the universe.

It was only in 1995 that the first planet beyond the Solar System was observed. Since then, astronomers have found about 260. Most of these were found by an indirect method, inferring a planet's existence from the gravitational wobble it introduced into the orbit of the parent star.

Last November, NASA astronomers said they had seen a planetary system with five planets surrounding a nearby star, 55 Cancri, in the constellation of Cancer. But the solar system just found -- which goes by the unwieldy name, OGLE-2006-BLG-109 -- is the most analogous to our own.

More details, including how the planetary system was discovered, can be found at:

http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~microfun/ob06109/

Mars may have been too salty for life as we know it

Our neighboring planet, long a favorite of those who believe in extraterrestrials, may have been too salty for life as we know it, according to latest evidence gathered on Mars by one of the NASA rovers, Opportunity.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science currently underway in Boston, Harvard professor Andrew Knoll, who is a member of the NASA rover scientific team, said the high concentration of minerals on any Martian water would have made it very salty. Previous research had shown that Martian water would have been quite acidic as well.

"There are limits to the way microorganisms can adapt to tolerate acidity and salinity,' Knoll said.

On Earth, there are no environments that have a combination of such high acidity and salinity and which harbor life, he pointed out.

For images and information about NASA's Mars rovers,

Spirit and Opportunity, go to

http://www.nasa.gov/rovers

Science Debate 2008 - it's not too late

The Union of Concerned Scientists has organized a call for a U.S. â''science debate.â''

UCS is working with all three National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and scores of universities nationwide to hold Science Debate 2008â''an initiative to hold a presidential science policy debate in April in Philadelphia before the Pennsylvania primary.

There couldnâ''t be a better place. Philadelphia was the home of one of the first electrical engineersâ''Ben Franklin. It was the birthplace of many of the oldest computers ever built.

And there couldnâ''t be a better time. Some of the biggest political questions facing the United States either are scientific issues themselves, or cannot be settled without good science.

Global warming, stem-cell and other medical research, space exploration, wireless communications, food and water safety, the digital divideâ''thereâ''s no shortage of things to ask the candidates about.

Legislation introduced last year would shield the U.S. Surgeon General from political interference. Where do the candidates stand?

Which candidates would restore the Office of Technology Assessment?

Should the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy report directly to the president?

Would the candidates increase or decrease funding at the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health? And what would their priorities be? What about science education in public schools?

The UCS has a petition calling for the science debate here.

Sadly, a moderator would have to ask about some of the most basic matters of science factâ''for example, â''Do you believe in evolution?â''

When that question was asked in an early Republican presidential debateâ''one of the few times a scientific issue has been raised so farâ''three of the ten candidates then running said they did not. Thankfully, the moment has (of course) been preserved on YouTube.

One of those candidates, Mike Huckabee, is still in the race, so if the Science Debate should come off, I know what Iâ''d like the first question to be.

Yet another nail in HD DVD's coffin

toshiba-hda3-large.jpg

The early January announcement by Warner Bros. that the company would no longer be releasing high definition movies in HD DVD, just Blu-Ray, essentially signed HD DVDâ''s death certificate. Now the nails are being placed in the coffin, in spite of Toshibaâ''s mid-January announcement that it would be stepping up its HD DVD marketing campaign.

Todayâ''s nailâ''an announcement that Wal-Mart and Samâ''s Clubâ''s will be dropping all HD DVD players and titles from their shelves. This followâ''s Netflixâ'' Monday announcement that it is phasing out HD-DVD titles. The one million owners of HD DVD players (in North America alone) soon wonâ''t be able to get anything new to watch.

Joining the ranks of the folks about to be â''betamaxedâ'' is tempting, however. HD DVD prices canâ''t be beat, you can easily find a player for just over $100, while Blu-Ray players cost $350 and up.

But donâ''t do it unless you collect orphaned formats. Instead, sit tight and play the prediction game. Hubdub is taking votes on the question, â''Will the HD DVD standard officially be canceled by October 2008.â'' Iâ''m betting yes. You can vote here.

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