Cosmic Radiation and the BSOD

Space is full of cosmic radiation. Computer chips that go into satellites and other space gear need special shielding to protect them from the single-event effects, or SEEs, of cosmic radiation, but here on Earth, chip designers haven’t had to worry about it too much because the atmosphere reflects most of it away.

According to an article in EDN, with the increased densities of modern computer chips, SEEs are becoming the dominant reliability-failure mechanism here on Earth.

Paul Dodd, another foremost expert on SEEs and acting manager for the radiation-effects department at Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM), says that commercial designs are also more frequently encountering SEEs but that designers are commonly missing or misidentifying them as other failures. “It could be happening on everyone’s PC, but instead everyone curses Microsoft,” says Dodd. “Software bugs probably cause a lot of those blue-screen problems, but you can trace some of them back to radiation effects.” And designers cannot yet quantify the breadth of the problem because, as IC-design and EDA consultant Pallab Chatterjee points out, “It is something companies don’t brag about.”

As chip densities and clock speeds continue to increase, it seems chips will become more susceptible to SEEs. It will be interesting to see how this affects Moore’s Law.

Marburg Outbreak in Angola

According to this New Scientist story, the Marburg virus outbreak in Angola that started in March has now spread into all age groups. Prior to this the virus was mainly infecting children. The virus has killed 271 of 311 reported cases.

Should I be surprised that this story isn’t getting the same kind of coverage in the mainstream media that, say, the SARS outbreak received?

Challenging the Education Leviathan

Robert Nagle blogs about John Taylor Gatto’s online book, An Underground History of American Education. From the prologue:

The new dumbness is particularly deadly to middle- and upper-middle-class kids already made shallow by multiple pressures to conform imposed by the outside world on their usually lightly rooted parents. When they come of age, they are certain they must know something because their degrees and licenses say they do. They remain so convinced until an unexpectedly brutal divorce, a corporate downsizing in midlife, or panic attacks of meaninglessness upset the precarious balance of their incomplete humanity, their stillborn adult lives. Alan Bullock, the English historian, said Evil was a state of incompetence. If true, our school adventure has filled the twentieth century with evil.

The way he rails against the public education system, you might never guess Gatto was once New York State Teacher of the Year.

Miniature Motors

New Scale Technologies makes miniature piezoelectric motors:

Piezoelectric actuators in the SQUIGGLE motor ultrasonically vibrate a threaded nut, producing an orbital motion. The nut vibration directly rotates a mating threaded screw to create precise linear motion — with no parasitic drag, no backlash, and very high stiffness. The motor holds its position with the power off.

This simple, robust piezo motor generates no magnetic fields, is vacuum compatible, and can be made from non-ferrous metals for use in MRI, scanning electron microscopy and focused ion microscopy applications.

Combine some of these with a miniature low-power DSP, and you have the makings of one tiny robot. What on earth you’d want a miniature robot for is beyond me, but it comforts me to know its possible.

Asynchronous Digital Design by Fulcrum

Fulcrum Microsystems developed a clockless semiconductor design methodology. Which allows them to design processors that run much faster than clocked chips and with lower power.

Back in 1994, near the end of the digital design course I took in university, the professor introduced the class to asynchronous design. Our professor showed us some tricks for solving simple problem with asynchronous logic, but told us that the technique wasn’t feasible for large scale design at the time, because it was terribly complicated with race conditions. It seems Fulcrum has solved the problem, and even designed some rather complex chips with it.

They raised $20 million on Monday.

Is Hiring Obsolete?

Paul Graham has posted the talk he gave a PARC last week, entitled Hiring is Obsolete, where he encourages undergrads and grad students to start up companies with the aim of being bought out/hired by a big company:

When companies buy startups, they’re effectively fusing recruiting and product development. And I think that’s more efficient than doing the two separately, because you always get people who are really committed to what they’re working on.

Plus this method yields teams of developers who already work well together. Any conflicts between them have been ironed out under the very hot iron of running a startup. By the time the acquirer gets them, they’re finishing one another’s sentences. That’s valuable in software, because so many bugs occur at the boundaries between different people’s code.

Paul has hinted at this strategy in some of his other essays. I think it is an intriguing idea, though I question how committed the startup’s team will be to the big company after the buy out. In my experience (I’ve been involved in two buy-outs in my life), the founders are just as likely to bail once their golden handcuffs evaporate as stick around.

Anyways, it’s an excellent read, as usual.

Dan Moniz attended the talk and blogged about it. Larry had some interesting comments on talk’s abstract.

AquaOne Device Stops Toilet Leaks

TI’s MSP430 microprocessor has found its way into a novel and practical application: a leak detector for toilets. The device, by AquaOne, consists of a shut-off valve and two water level sensors, one for the tank, to detect slow leaks, and one for the bowl that detects overflows. Both sensors report back to the shut-off valve, which houses the controller, which can cut off the water supply if there is a problem.