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What Makes a Workplace Great?

Every year for the past 14 years, Fortune Magazine has teamed up with the Great Place to Work Institute on a list of the 100 best companies to work for in the United States. This year, a third of the top 15 employers on the list were tech firms. Cisco, Microsoft and SAS are list veterans, having been on it for each of its 14 years. Google, SAS and NetApp have made it to the list’s top rungs the past three years.

So what makes a company a great place to work? Good pay definitely helps. But it’s outstanding perks that tip the scale. Fitness centers and bagel breakfasts are the stuff of mere good employers. These 100 best workplaces earn their “great” badge by offering some pretty unusual benefits.

SAS, for instance, offers high-quality daycare for US $410 a month, unlimited sick days, and its own medical center. The software firm also pulls out all the stops at its Cary, NC campus: tailor, manicurist, summer camps for kids, and car detailing. Cisco offers excellent day-care and brings a car care company to the office twice a week. Microsoft’s Redmond Campus, meanwhile, has a shopping mall called The Commons, with two-dozen shops and restaurants.

What do the companies get out of this? Good reputation for one, says Marcus Erb, a senior research partner at the Great Place to Work Institute, with current employees, potential job seekers, and with customers and supply chain firms. “Reputation is a powerful marketing tool especially if you’re in a very competitive field for talent. Engineers are always in high demand for firms competing for talent. So these companies build a great workplace to attract top-quality recent grads and pull in mid-level professionals.”

Good benefits also make for happier employees who stick around longer. And that means big savings. It takes a lot of money to hire and train someone, not to mention the cost of lost knowledge and time. SAS has a turnover rate of 2 percent compared to their peers’ 22 percent, Erb points out. The company saves $100 million annually in turnover costs. And it has never had layoffs.

Over 500,000 companies nominated themselves for a place on the list this year, says Erb. A survey of hundreds of employees at each company accounts for two-thirds of the score. The other third are based on what the companies say about things such as pay, benefits, hiring practices, and diversity efforts.

So why don’t more employers get in on the game? Erb says sometimes it’s just not a priority. Firms that are already good know the importance of becoming great, but they don’t necessarily act on it. Other times, he says, “it’s a question of aptitude. Some of the companies on the list have always been great. They have built-in leadership DNA. Other companies have learned how to do it over the years. But some just don’t have that aptitude.”

Your Brain On Cell Phones

Epidemiologists have for years tried to settle the question of whether or not cell phones cause health problems without coming up with a definitive answer. Meanwhile, the cell phone industry has maintained that it's unlikely that the phones are a health risk because the only effect on brain tissue is local heating, and cell phone standards make sure that heating stays below any danger level.

But a paper published today  in the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers from the National Institutes of Health and the Brookhaven National Lab identifies another effect, showing through their experiments that holding a cell phone to the ear increases the metabolic activity of nearby brain tissue. What this means for long term health is unclear, but it certainly supports the calls of those who want more research, and those who are practicing prudent avoidance by trying to select cell phones with the lowest radiation and limiting their talk time.

ISSCC 2011: Sorry, There's a Solar-Powered Sensor in My Eye

This cubic millimeter-sized sensor's creators at the University of Michigan hope that future iterations of this proof-of-concept gizmo could help thwart optical nerve damage caused by glaucoma. It was one of several gadgets presented yesterday during a biomedical session at the 2011 International Solid-State Circuits Conference.

Gregory Chen explained that his team designed the device for implantation in the eye's anterior chamber, which is out of the field of vision and already routinely accessed for cataract surgery. The device itself includes a MEMS sensor which determines pressure by monitoring the movements of capacitor plates. Most of the device is encased in a glass housing which relies on the iris's elasticity to hold it in place. They designed the device to measure and record pressure every 15 minutes, but it is meant to transmit it only once a day--to a wand that's held up to the patient's face. Storing enough energy for even one daily transmission was a challenge in such a tiny device, Chen says, so it relies not only on a custom-made, thin-film Lithium battery but also a tiny solar cell for harvesting more energy. Yes, a solar cell in your eye.

Chen explained that the device needs some 10 hours of indoor lighting or 1.5 hours of sunlight per day to get enough energy. When a senior researcher on the project Dennis Sylvester gave a preview on Sunday night someone in the audience asked if a user might charge it more quickly by staring directly into the sun. Sylvester said that wasn't the best idea… 

Another presentation in the biomedical session questioned the best way to transfer data into the body--and as a specific example, again, into the eye. But this time, instead of transmitting pressure data out, Maurits Ortmanns of Ulm University in Germany described beaming data in for nerve stimulation as a vision aid for the blind. He explained the dilemma of getting a lot of information in without large amounts of power dissipation (not so good for eyeball tissue). As a solution, he proposed an infrared data link with an implanted photodetector and to get a data stream of up to 2Mb/s.

Yet, talk was not limited to eyeballs: Roxana Heitz of Stanford University described a method developed with Santa Clara-based National Semiconductor, for long-term cancer progression monitoring. The basics behind her technique: inject subject with fluorescent dyes which bind to cancer-related molecules, emit laser light, and watch progression of cancer. That's already possible, she says, but requires bulky instruments. For this research she integrated the essential electronics into a 1 centimeter cubed, 0.7 g device. She tested it in rodents and could monitor the dye while they freely roamed--well, almost freely. That proof-of-concept version required a cord to read the device's digital output, but she imagines that future versions would be completely implantable.

Image: Gyouho Kim

What Are the Turning Radii of the new Prii?

Toyota announced this week that it had ended what it called a “decade-long debate” by decreeing that the plural of Prius would be Prii henceforth and to the end of time. Okay, they didn’t say that last part.

Toyota unveiled the winning word at the Chicago Auto Show this morning. Jay Schwartz, head of content for, was on hand to inform the public that, as the plural of Prius has now been determined, the term 'Prii' will be reflected in

After the more than 1.8 million votes were cast during the course of the six-week campaign, Prii beat out its four competitors: Prius, Priuses, Prium and Prien. Prius came in at a close second with 24 percent of the votes.

I can’t decide whether the French Academy should be pleased or will start to clear the ground of its plot at the Panthéon in preparation for turning over in its grave until the end of time.

On the one hand the Academy—the body that insisted for decades that un hot dog be referred to as a chien chaud and that e-mail could only be referred to as courier électronique—should be pleased that the decade-long debate was being resolved by executive fiat.

However, insofar as Toyota ratified the will of 1.8 million voters, instead of relying on its own team of 40 or so Immortals, the Academy would surely see the debate as resolved by the masses at their most revolting.

Ironically, the world seems to be moving away from charming and esoteric plurals in favor of applying the ordinary English rules of pluralization, regardless of a word’s foreign origin.

It’s likely that the 1.8 million are a self-selecting group of language mavens, effete intellectual snobs, and other Latin curricula alumni and alumnae, even as the self-same lists radiuses as an acceptable alternative plural for radius and even prefers memorandums to memoranda.

ISSCC 2011: Meeting the Chip Champs

In January, IEEE Spectrum gave readers a sneak peek at some of the chip greats that would grace the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC). This week it's time to meet them.

I must admit that I am an ISSCC newbie, and that yesterday afternoon during the "Enterprise Processors and Components" session, I found my tired self at one late presentation pencil down, counting the number of times the presenter said "leakage" instead noting all of the details of amazing chip architecture advances. But, during my more lucid moments, here's what I learned:

The program started with a talk on the speed demon, IBM's zEnterprise 196 system. It's a 512 square millimeter, 5.2 GHz chip (first commercial chip faster than 5GHz) built in IBM's 45nm SOI CMOS process. Jim Warnock, the IBM engineer who presented, said that the new design, which requires 13 levels of copper interconnect, improved efficiency by 25 percent and that resulted in an 8 to 10 percent increase in frequency.

The IBM system also benefited from out-of-order instructions processing--a technique addressed in more detail in a later paper presented by AMD's Michael Golden. After another AMD engineer Hugh McIntyre described the workings of AMD's 2-core "Bulldozer" module (in an 8-core CPU) which is built in a 32 nm SOI CMOS process, operates at 3.5 GHz in 30.9 square mm, and should also win the best name award, Golden took the audience on a tour through the CPU's out-of-order scheduler and integer unit, which increases efficiency by chewing through the data that's easiest to get at first, not necessarily what's called for first by a program. All the while, the Bulldozer saves power by avoiding dynamic logic.

That prescription for power saving was also made in Weiwu Hu's presentation on the Chinese Academy of Science's 8-core Godson-3B, which was touted as the most energy efficient of the lot. For me, it was hard to compare it to the others, given that the 299.8 squared mm chip is built using an older, 65nm CMOS process and operates at 1.05 GHz. But more knowledgable neighbors sitting nearby seemed impressed with its 3.2GFlops/Watt (peak performance 128/256GFlops for double/single precision with 40W power consumption). Hu, who is the lead architect on the project, started with some background on the chip, noting that it was part of a 2006-2020 Chinese initiative including 16 major projects such as large aircraft and high-resolution, earth-observing satellites. Hu has said that the next petascale Chinese supercomputer, the Dawning 6000, will use a Godson chip.

In the final presentation, Intel engineer Reid Riedlinger described the transistor count record-breaker--the latest in Intel's Itanium line, code named Poulson, with 3.1 billion transistors in an 18.2 mm by 29.9 mm, a 50 percent increase in transistor population over the previous processor in the line. The design has 8 cores, connected by a merry-go-round of interconnects--"a ring based system interface." Riedlinger highlighted the chip's efficiency stats, displaying a chart that showed the Poulson's increase in power management prowess over not only the previous chip line, but also a hypothetical version of its predecessor if scaled to Poulson's 32 nm CMOS process. That seemed to speak to his claims that this chip required a "complete redesign," not just a shrinking. He noted that it was a “rather exciting project in that sense.”

ISSCC 2011: Silicon Gets Personal

The 1950s pacemaker: a box that patients had to wheel around on a cart and keep plugged into a wall. Clearly a problem if you wanted to go outside, or if you lost power. This morning, Tim Denison, director of neuroengineering for implant maker Medtronic, asked engineers at the 2011 International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) to remember that device as he described the ongoing challenge for electrical engineers to make medical devices tinier, more efficient, and capable of treating more ailments. Denison was the first plenary speaker Monday morning at ISSCC which began this week in San Francisco. The theme of this year's conference is "electronics for healthy living."

Denison started his talk with the tale about pacemakers' early days and Medtronics founder Earl Bakken, who invented a battery-operated wearable pacemaker, after adapting a design for a metronome circuit that he saw in a popular science magazine. The device needed manual tuning to adjust the heartbeat's frequency (it's hard to sleep or to go for a jog when your heart rate never changes) and early designs had knobs for self tuning.

Today's pacemakers, thankfully, have come a long way. Completely implantable, they have leads that go into the heart through the patient's veins, and can monitor blood temperature and patient's breathing to adjust the rate. Denison questioned what was next in the pacemaker's evolution and showed a graphic of what looked like a hybrid between a pill and a fishing lure, a future device that could be implanted completely inside of someone's heart. He said that even that device was not the smallest we might see, and that other tiny gadgets could treat a wide range of problems.

In the Sunday tutorial "Interfacing Silicon with the Human Body" that he instructed, he outlined a variety of devices that are commercially available or in development to correct stray electrical signals that mess with our nervous system. These include gadgets for treating obsessive compulsive disorder, Parkinson's disease, dystonia (he showed a video of a patient before and after for this one), depression, migraine headaches, and fecal incontinence. The number of problems isn't limited to those where engineers can detect electrical signals either, he said in the tutorial, noting that small devices can now detect chemical signals and accelerations. He gave a nod to the menagerie of MEMS devices that we've seen wheeled out recently, specifically the Foucault pendulum turned accelerometer on a chip

Once we have all of those mini-devices that can correct what ails us, we might need to network them--so that doctors can know of any hitches. Denison mentioned that heart problems can start days before a patient needs to be rushed to the emergency room and a networked device could inform a doctor.

That idea fit well with the talk that followed by Imec Senior VP, Jo De Boeck on wireless personal healthcare. He described a "smart patch" that one day might monitor a variety of general health stats, and specifics depending on the patient. He gave examples including devices that could determine iron levels in a pregnant woman and when a patient has swallowed his pills (a means to improve medication compliance). He noted that one important development has been the proliferation of the smartphone and also pointed to a future need for cheap plastic circuits (such as the plastic microprocessor that his company will unveil later this week). He said that he believed that such circuit design would become increasingly important, pointing to the crowd of 3000 engineers gathered before him and noting that, in the future, half of the room might be working on plastics and half silicon.

A panel discussion this evening will get into some of the details of "Body Area Networks"--including security and protocols to make sure the future's smarter implants don't interfere with one another.

Image: Medtronic 

Sifteo Makes Smart Blocks for Gaming and Education

Wii-motes, Kinects, and multi-touch screens--the number of ways that gamers can control their games has certainly grown. Now, a set of smart blocks created by San Francisco start-up Sifteo, Inc., offers another way to play: by hand-arranging physical tiles, each with its own video display.

Each 4.3 by 4.3 by 1.9 centimeter block weighs a mere 35 grams, but packs in a 3-axis accelerometer, a 2.4 gigahertz radio receiver and transmitter, a full-color 128 by 128 pixel LCD, an ARM micro-controller, and a Lithium-ion polymer rechargeable battery.

Sifteo co-founder Jeevan Kalanithi chatted with IEEE Spectrum at last month's 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, where the company sold its first batch of blocks as part of its Early Access program. These first sets sold-out overnight, before the show floor even opened. Kalanithi says the toy blocks take advantage of the ever-cheaper and ever-smaller components found in smartphones as well as the market's demand for new user interfaces. 

He also says they also tap a desire for the unplugged games of yesteryears:

"There's a long tradition of hands-on play," Kalanithi says, "games like checkers, mahjong, jacks, or poker." Video games are more interactive, he says, but can also make for catatonic play--"zone-out style." Sifteo has designed the blocks to keep the interactivity but forgo the stupor.

Right now the company develops most of the games--including puzzles, adventure, and educational programs--in-house, but Kalanithi says they plan to open up the system's API and invite third parties to develop their own apps for the blocks later this year.

Kalanithi and Sifteo co-founder David Merrill first envisioned the blocks while at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. Whimsy is no stranger to that lab: Harmonix founders made a prototype of the game Guitar Hero there, and it's where the One Laptop per Child project got its start.

Kalanithi says that it wasn't easy to turn this academic project into a commercial product: "2009 was a rough year to raise money." Still, the company managed to get investors including the Foundry Group, True Ventures, and the National Science Foundation on board. The appeal, he believes, was how instinctive playing with the technology is: "I think we had something that people really understood--and really liked."

Electrical Impedance Tool Wins $1 Million ALS Prize

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a devastating disease. It progressively shuts down patients' nervous systems until they can no longer speak or move. There is no cure, and most patients die within three to five years after diagnosis.

Five years ago, the nonprofit group Prize4Life offered $1 million to the first researcher who could develop an inexpensive method for quantifying ALS symptoms. While not a cure, such a tool would make clinical trials of potential ALS treatments much easier. Last week, the organization announced that it would be awarding the $1 million prize to Seward Rutkove, a neurologist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Massachusetts, for his handheld device that assesses neuromuscular deterioration with a method called electrical impedance myography.

As Rutkove points out in a recent review paper, researchers have been using electricity to study nerves and muscles for more than a century. But most studies focused on the nervous system's ability to generate electricity. Impedance analysis--inferring tissue's structural properties based on how electrical current flows through it--was, by and large, relegated to the food and nutrition industries. Rutkove got into the field in 1999 after reading a paper by two physicists who used electrical impedance to study human skeletal muscles. Perhaps the approach could help quantify the damage caused by neuromuscular diseases, such as ALS, he thought.

Within a few years, Rutkove was collaborating with those physicists and had partnered with Joel Dawson, an electrical engineer at MIT, to create a handheld electrical impedance system for clinical use. The method turned out to be a great way to chronicle neuromuscular deterioration: decreases in fat and muscle mass have different effects on resistance and capacitance, creating a disease state-specific electrical signature.

"It's not like it's the fanciest technology," Rutkove told the New York Times, "but I truly believe it will help people." A clinical trial of a stem cell treatment for ALS is already using electrical impedance as an outcome measure, and more are sure to follow now that the technology has won the Prize4Life contest.

Image: The current version of Rutkove's electrical impedance myography system.
Image Credit: Convergence Medical Devices

Do Mobile Electronics Really Interfere With Flight? They Could

Confession.  I once left my computer on during takeoff. I know I shouldn’t have. I really shouldn’t have. But it was acting up and half the time when I shut it down it wouldn’t turn back on again unless I plugged it in, so I left it on going through security in case the screeners wanted it turned on, and then I forgot, and… well, it’s not a very good excuse. And I really really will never do it again.

I’ve read enough to know that in a perfect world, with brand new planes and pristine mobile gizmos that have never been, oh, dropped on a sidewalk, turning on a computer, or even a phone, won’t cause problems for the pilot.

But I also know that this isn’t a perfect world, and there a heck of a lot of gizmos on a plane, and no one really knows how they all will interact, particularly with the wiring on older planes, and I don’t want to my gadget to be the one causing trouble. Since 2000, the New York Times reports, there have been at least 10 voluntary reports filed by pilots with the Aviation Safety Reporting System when devices used by passengers clearly were interfering with flight electronics (pilots test this when flight systems are behaving oddly by asking passengers to turn their gizmos on and off.)

Back in 1996, fellow Spectrum senior editor Linda Geppert and I reported on a study from the RCTA, a nonprofit that advises the FAA; the RCTA had looked at anecdotal reports of problems, but couldn’t quantify the real risk, and urged more research to be done.

In 2006, Bill Strauss and his coauthors from Carnegie Mellon University reported in Spectrum’s Unsafe At Any Airspeed, that, according to measurements made on 37 flights during 2003, least one person on a typical flight makes a cellphone call, and that cellphones and other portable electronic devices can indeed interfere with normal cockpit instruments, concluding that, eventually, a device like a cellphone will be found at fault in an accident.

This research hasn’t been repeated recently; but you have to think it’s happening more and more. Folks don’t like turning off their smart phones. Ever. And the so-called airplane mode doesn’t exactly solve the problem. On a recent flight I told the really large guy in a leather jacket crammed into the seat next to me, who was trying to make a cell phone call halfway through the flight, to please turn off his phone or put it into airplane mode. He told me he had tried airplane mode—but it wasn’t working, it wouldn’t let him make the call. And he’s probably not the only person confused.

But odds are his phone hadn’t been dropped, it was a fairly new plane, and everything was fine, as it usually is. Usually.

photo credit: Gonzalo Pineda Zuniga

Cellphones Take the Witness Stand

The outcome of a dramatic murder trial underway in San Jose, Calif., may hinge on the prosecution’s cellphone evidence. And, while calling a “cellphone witness” may seem just so Silicon Valley, it’s likely to become commonplace, now that so many people take and use their cell phones everywhere, and police departments are learning how to properly handle cell phone evidence (explained in detail by Richard Mislan in Spectrum’s July article, Cell Phone Crimesolvers).

The case: Bulos “Paul” Zumot, owner of a Palo Alto business, The Hookah Spot, is charged with murdering his girlfriend, Jennifer Schipsi. The couple’s Palo Alto home went up in gasoline-fueled flames in October 2009; after firefighters put out the blaze, investigators found Schipsi’s burned—and strangled—body inside.

Both Schipsi and Zumot were heavy iPhone users. And those iPhones had more to say than either of them might have suspected.

For one, cell phones, even those that don’t use GPS, reveal their locations as they pass in and out of the signal radii of various towers. The carriers keep those location records, which, in a tower-dense area like Silicon Valley, can come quite close to pinpointing a precise spot. According to these records, it appears that on the afternoon of 15 October, shortly before the fire, the two phones travelled together down Highway 101 and called each other, even though police later found Schipsi's phone in her car. The prosecution theorized that Schipsi was already dead when the trip down 101 took place, and Zumot was attempting to set up an alibi. The trail shows the phones nearing Palo Alto shortly before the fire started. The defense countered by introducing instances in which AT&T’s cell phone records had obvious mistakes—with Schipsi's phone occasionally appearing to connect to odd places, including Hawaii—and argued that the location data had been mapped incorrectly.

The prosecution also introduced reams of text messages—including angry messages exchanged with Zumot in the days before her death that had been deleted from Schipsi’s phone.  As Mislan points out, deleted messages can hide away in a chunk of memory known as the subscriber identity module (SIM) and be retrieved by forensic investigators. The prosecution also argued that a message on the afternoon of the fire sent to a third party from Schipsi’s phone was not in her writing style, and more akin to Zumot’s voice.

The trial continues, with the defense presenting this week.


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