Can Motorola establish a new smartphone platform?

Every electronics company dreams of starting a new platform that other firms adopt and build on. It’s one of the few paths to riches  in electronics (think: iPhone, Android, Blu-Ray, CDMA, Steam, Playstation). Check out extensive writing by my friend Michael Cusumano and his colleague Annabelle Gawer, such as this article in Sloan Management Review. (May be behind a paywall.) Although even if successful, the originator may have to make so many deals that it does not capture much rent. (Think: Android again, Blu-Ray again, Wi-Fi, 4G, HDTV, etc.) And doing it successfully is very hard, even for large companies.

moto-1935  A  related dream is modularity without sacrificing performance. This has been discussed for cell phones for many years, although in the past I have been skeptical. This article, though, sounds as if Motorola has a chance at doing both. Technically, it sounds like a good concept, if they can pull it off as well as the article suggests. Of course, technical excellence is  never sufficient to become a standard. And Motorola, with all its ownership turmoil in recent years, is not very credible. But I’m heartened to think that the goal of a modular smartphone may be technically realistic, which would be great for consumers. (It’s important that Moto is not talking about creating a new operating system or app platform. Just look at Nokia and Microsoft to see how hard that is.)

Video version of the Wired article.

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Some flying still relies on personal skill

For some reason I take comfort in knowing that there are still aviation jobs that have a high degree of craft (art). According to this article, a lot of the training is by apprenticeship (copiloting), which was the only way to learn flying in the 1930s.

Most of my aviation research emphasizes how craft skills are becoming less important. And indeed there is also a lot of procedural science in mosquito spraying. But in a variety of high-variety, high-risk aviation, expertise is still key. Other examples are bush flying and low-altitude military flying.

Source: Expert Pilots Keep Disease-Carrying Mosquitoes in Check | Flying Magazine


Not your grandfather’s crop duster!

Google/Alphabet continues toward Total Person Awareness: tracking every vehicle + person.

Secretive Alphabet division aims to fix public transit in US by shifting control to Google (from The Guardian)

Documents reveal Sidewalk Labs is offering a system it calls Flow to Columbus, Ohio, to upgrade bus and parking services – and bring them under Google’s management.


The emails and documents show that Flow applies Google’s expertise in mapping, machine learning and big data to thorny urban problems such as public parking. Numerous studies have found that 30% of traffic in cities is due to drivers seeking parking.

Sidewalk said in documents that Flow would use camera-equipped vehicles,…. It would then combine data from drivers using GoogleMaps with live information from city parking meters to estimate which spaces were still free. Arriving drivers would be directed to empty spots.

Source: Secretive Alphabet division aims to fix public transit in US by shifting control to Google

Notice that this gives Google/Alphabet a legitimate reason to track every car in the downtown area. Flow can be even more helpful if they know  the destination of every car AND every traveler for the next hour.
The next logical step, a few years from now, will be to track the plans of every person in the city. For example Mary Smith normally leaves her house in the suburbs at 8:15AM to drive to her office in downtown Columbus. Today, however, she has to drop off daughter Emily (born Dec 1, 2008, social security number 043-xx-xxxx) at school, so she will leave a little early. This perturbation in normal traffic can be used to help other drivers choose the most efficient route. Add  together thousands of these, and we can add real-time re-routing of buses/ Uber cars.
For now, this sounds like science fiction.  It certainly contains the ability to improve transit efficiency and speed, and “make everyone better off.” But it comes at a price. Yet many are already comfortable with Waze tracking their drives in detail.
Tune back in 10 years from now and tell me how I did.

Web site: Data mining with R for MBA level students.

I just completed teaching a 10 week course on data mining for MS level professional degree students. Most of the material is on a web site,   The course assumes good knowledge of OLS regression, but other than that is self-contained.
Software is R, with a heavy dose of Rattle for the first few weeks. (Rattle is a front end for R.) The main algorithms I emphasize are Random Forests and LASSO, for both classification and regression. I emphasize creating new variables that correspond to the physical/economic characteristics of the problem under study. The course requires a major project; some students scrape or mash their own data. Because we have only 10 weeks, I provide a timetable and a lot of milestones for the projects, and frequent one-on-one meetings.
The web site is not designed for public consumption, and is at best in “early beta” status. I am making it available in case anyone wants mine it for problem sets, discussions of applied issues not covered in most books, etc. Essentially, it is a crude draft of a text for MBAs on data mining using R. This was about the fifth time I taught the course. 

By the way, a lot of the lecture notes are modestly modified versions of the excellent lecture material from Matt Taddy. His emphasis is more theoretical than my course, but his explanations and diagrams are great. Readings were generally short sections from either ISLR by James et al,  or Data Mining with Rattle and R. Both are available as ebooks at many universities. My TA was Hyeonsu Kang.


Hospital Hand-Washing – how long should it take?

There is a large literature on the importance of frequent hand washing in hospitals, to prevent spreading infectious diseases among patients. It’s a major problem, since hospital-caused infections are growing, and have nasty effects.image5b135d

Brad Stats recently sent me two papers he co-authored on the topic. Both are based on an analysis of  behavior by 4100 caregivers. They led me to ask two sets of questions. First, if everyone did comply with the recommendations on hand-washing frequency and duration, how much time would it take out of their work day? Second, while there have been lots of projects using  electronics for monitoring compliance, has there been any work on straightforward manufacturing-style interventions to make compliance easier?

Here are my questions in more detail, taken from an email to Brad.

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Drones Hunt Down Poachers in South Africa | Flying Magazine

The Lindbergh Foundation’s Air Shepherd initiative uses drones to catch poachers in South Africa.

My comment: Flying at night, up to 40km away, is technically difficult. But smart autopilots, using GPS and accelerometers, mean that the operators (pilots) don’t have to do hands-on flying except landing and takeoff.  Probably every component in the system except the ground vehicles is hobbyist level, although some of the specialized long-range radio gear might need to be hand built.  Nothing from aerospace companies.  Battery powered, so essentially noiseless. Also, the aircraft itself is the cheapest part of the system.

The article mentions flights of “up to 4 hours.” That is a very long duration, and would require lots of batteries. 2 hours or even less sounds more realistic. Efficient cruising speed is probably is probably around 40 kph (25 mph). If anyone finds other discussions of this project, please let me know.

Source: Drones Hunt Down Poachers in South Africa | Flying Magazine

What is under the Internet of Things?

MEMS  (Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems) is a comparatively new and little known class of semiconductor chips. They are physical devices, mostly sensors, built with standard semicon technologies so that they are small and cheap.  Amazing new sensors are opening up all kinds of low-cost measurements, and when/if the IoT world materializes, MEMS sensors will be ubiquitous.

Detail of a MEMS chip from Analog Devices. Width of image is about .5 mm

An early application was accelerometers to measure what happens during an auto crash. Precisely calculating when to set off the airbags and how much force to use  substantially reduced the incidental injuries caused by airbags expanding at 100 mph or faster.  Another early application was the Wii’s wand. Now they are common in many products such as phones and toys. They also play key roles in “lab on a chip” technologies. In the future, household appliances may include MEMS microphones, vibration sensors, chemical sensors, and many other.

So MEMS is one of the multitude of “important but invisible” technologies that make the world work. As an aside, too many of my students look for jobs only with companies they have heard of, ie. they completely miss industries like MEMS.

Many years ago I helped Analog Devices with some manufacturing problems. ADI was a MEMS pioneer, so of course it had many new problems to deal with. Their fab (plant) was in Cambridge, MA, right next to MIT!  Now the technology is more widely diffused, so the industry is more competitive and apparently not very profitable. This article has a short discussion of price pressure and product directions.   Semiconductor Engineering .:. The Trouble With MEMS

A short description of the technology itself is at MEMS Motion Sensors: The Technology Behind the Technology.