Software, Design Defects Cripple Health-Care Website –

Software, Design Defects Cripple Health-Care Website –

Poor software design is still common. I notice the developer was Experian, a private company. Outsourcing the web system for the Affordable Care Act was the right idea, but looks like they picked a weak company.

It will be interesting to get a post-mortem in a year or two. I hope someone writes it up for the New Yorker. It should make a good case study on software product development.

System is down...

System is down…

What happens if California’s solar panels start to fail over the next few years?

Solar Industry Anxious Over Defective Panels – had not solar panel quality was becoming such an acute issue “so soon.” Judging by this NYT article, many Chinese-branded PV panels are not reliable.  This article sounds straight out of the book that Barry Naughton pointed me to, Poorly Made in China. The performance degradation  data on well-made panels is pretty encouraging: 0.5% per year is typical, but the key is well made. There are many manufacturing shortcuts and quality problems that will lead to failure of electrical connections after a few thousand temperature cycles, for example. (Think night/day in Colorado!)

testing solar panels

Power inverters, which are straight power semiconductor products, apparently may also be unreliable.

It will be interesting to see what this problem with Chinese panels leads to in trade/market share. California and other states that subsidize PV should only pay for systems that pass good certification – for both performance and safety. For obvious reasons, testing long-lifetime behavior of electronics is very tricky.I wonder if we will   see a repeat of the “solar water heating” fiasco of the 1980s, when lots of houses put pool heaters on their roof that started to leak and ended up getting ripped out. When the economics of a project are based on a 20 year life, and it only lasts 5 years, that is a colossal fail. If it catches on fire, as described in the NYT article, that is another situation entirely!  What is the typical guarantee for homeowners in California?

China is stealing software? Yes, but it’s not as useful as it sounds.

Inside the Chinese Boom in Corporate Espionage is the headline in a recent article in Businessweek (now named Bloomberg Businessweek). It reports an 007ish tale of software theft by a Chinese windmill company. American Superconductor Corp (AMSC) had a profitable partnership selling control systems to Chinese wind turbine company Sinovel. As for all expensive industrial equipment, software plays a vital role in wind turbines. So when stolen/edited copies of their software turned up in Sinovel machines, and Sinoval stopped accepting equipment from AMSC, it was a calamity for AMSC.

   The Business Week article implicitly blames high tech “Chinese espionage,” which has been getting a lot of coverage in the US press recently. But as a very interesting blog post by Steve Dickinson points out, the actual theft was very traditional. An insider (one of the software’s chief developers) was bribed  to turn over the source code. Nothing high-tech about the theft, unless you still call email “high tech.” And according to Dickinson, the theft was predictable, and was facilitated by lack of low-tech protection measures by AMSC. 

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Roger Bohn – Google Scholar Citations

Roger Bohn – Google Scholar Citations.

Google does its usual amazing job of organizing information. They have a “scholar” page for every academic, with their best guess of all the papers written, and how many times they were cited. In some cases, they found web-accessible versions of academic articles  that I was not aware of.

Rather than trying to keep my own list up to date, I may come to rely on Google to do it for me.

Qualcomm and Intel: Why are industrial companies so bad at consumer products?

Qualcomm is trying to bring out consumer products, and failing — Flo TV, and more on the way. There’s nothing wrong with initiatives that fail, especially when you are as rich as QC, but they are making systematic errors. Intel got burned early in its history trying to do digital watches, and learned from the experience – it has never had a direct-to-consumer product since then, though it has done plenty of brand-marketing campaigns. Qualcomm seems intent on repeating its errors, without learning from them.

I asked a deep-thinking friend, Jim Cook, about this, and here’s his response. He is even more negative than I was!

Industrial companies are built on rationality, non-commodity consumer companies are built on empathy.  These epistemological predilections invade and bias the functioning of  the corporation – R&D needs to shift from cost/performance to fad and fancy, Finance needs to shift from predictable to volatile, Manufacturing has to shift from plans to whim response.  Unless you either separate them completely (resource allocation becomes the major problem, not to mention confusing capital markets), you’re destined to have internal destructive struggles.  One can point to Apple as a counter example, until one realizes that Apple, from its origins, has been a cult satisfier (no price performance in almost any of the Apple products) and without a cult leader (Jobs) will not compete successfully with real consumer companies.  Motorola tried to do both industrial and consumer, eventually split up and both will die in the next decade.

Disposing of old hard drives – do it right!

Here’s an expanded comment I posted to Computerworld recently. Re-using an old hard drive yourself, by putting it in an external drive enclosure and using it for backup is fine. (I have one in a safe deposit box, in case my house burns down). But don’t donate it, sell it, or even recycle it unless you destroy the data on it properly first.  RB

Recycle an Old Laptop Hard Drive

A reader, I’ll call him \”S,\” wanted to know if there’s a hard drive enclosure that can \”accept the thicker hard drive out of an old [laptop].\”

RB comment: Just be sure to destroy the drive if you are finished with it. Unfortunately, donating it /selling it are not wise. You can also do a “secure erase,” which encrypts the old data and allows the drive to be safely reused. Reformatting the drive, and running the various utilities that supposedly overwrite old data, are NOT substitutes, because they don’t get at the underlying data thoroughly. And tests of drives purchased on eBay still show about half of them have proprietary data, including financial records etc.

Here is one such academic study: Remembrance of Data Passed: A Study of Disk Sanitization Practices. There are many others.   Here’s a good popular article.

Here is an explanation of safe erasure.

For physical destruction, the easiest method is a hammer applied to the spindle. Once the bearing has “wobble” in it, the drive can’t read the tracks any more, and it would take an NSA-level lab to recover data, even partially. You can also smash the circuit card. It can be replaced, but the thief has to work much harder to find a compatible card.

Military Deluged in Drone Intelligence –

By CHRISTOPHER DREW  Published: January 10, 2010

HAMPTON, Va. — As the military rushes to place more spy drones over Afghanistan, the remote-controlled planes are producing so much video intelligence that analysts are finding it more and more difficult to keep up.

Air Force drones collected nearly three times as much video over Afghanistan and Iraq last year as in 2007 — about 24 years’ worth if watched continuously. That volume is expected to multiply in the coming years as drones are added to the fleet and as some start using multiple cameras to shoot in many directions.

via Military Deluged in Drone Intelligence –

[Actually I’m surprised that the 24 multiplier is not higher, especially since some drones operate at night. On average, only 24 cameras are running.]

Airmen in air-conditioned rooms