The Fabric of the Cosmos [Book Review]

Ahhh, Dr. Greene…. We meet again.

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Almost a decade ago, I read an intriguing book called The Elegant Universe. It talked about relativity, a bit on quantum physics, and then it dives headfirst into string theory. Almost too abruptly. During my undergraduate years, it became a forced struggle just to continue reading one sentence after another. When a book becomes a burden, you know it’s time to put that book down and really enjoy your free time.

When I was in NC last November, I picked up two books at the airport’s used book store. Please don’t ask me how a used book store survives the rent prices of an airport; I don’t know. Regardless, the purchase of two books are the only non-perishable items I’ve purchased at an airport. Programming the Universe, by Seth Lloyd, was the first book I’ve read and written about a few months ago. The other book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, written by Dr. Bryan Greene, is the topic of today’s post.

If you remove the glossary and notes section, this book is just shy of 500 pages long that span over 4 major topics. And oddly enough, there’s a lot of overlap between both of Greene’s novels. They both discuss the topics of relativity, quantum physics, and string theory. Halfway through this book, I started to wonder which book would have been better read first…… And due to the difficulty of the topic for most individuals, was the prior knowledge that I acquired from his first book REQUIRED for me to finish the second?

This book starts off on the topic of space. What is it? What is it referenced to? The scenario of “a rotating bucket of water” is the main referenced analogy. If you swirl a cup of wine in your hand, the liquid will accumulates at the edges leaving a curved shape on the surface.  While the notions of classical physics and relative motion are tossed around, this topic becomes a good point to introduce special (and general) relativity. The current theory is that the bucket is spinning in reference to “space-time,” this notion that space isn’t composed of ether, but it’s still there in the form of … something. Most likely fields…..like the Higgs Field. If you hit it hard enough, Higgs Bosons fly out!

And once you have talked about relativity, then it makes sense to bring up all the technical discoveries on quantum physics….and how it clashes with general relativity so much! While there is no equations or mathematical jargon in this book, the author does state that solutions utilizing both theories result in answers of infinity….or something implausible. Then, the history and idea(s) of string theory are introduced.

Yes, there’s multiple versions of string theory, and another one on top (M-Theory) that (supposedly) brings them all together.

You may wonder with all this scientific jargon ….. if it’s easy to get lost. And YES, you will find yourself re-reading multiple sections to make sure your thought process is in parallel with the authors. In parallel to that thought, being lost throughout this book is due to multiple reasons.

The first and most obvious is, of course, the fact that most of these topics go against your traditional mindset on how you perceive the universe’s outcomes. The fact that the speed of light is constant REGARDLESS of how fast you are going, still boggles my mind. The concept of a Higgs Field applies a sort of “resistance” to an object’s acceleration (and not velocity) is also intriguing.

To alleviate these inceptions, the author delivers A LOT of analogies. A frog in a bowl to represent the Higgs field. The crystalline nature of an ice cube to show entropy. Some topics even have multiple analogies to help visualize the same topic (even in the same paragraph). This may help some, but sometimes I had to sift through all the “comparable fluff” to stay on track with the current subject. Then again, depending on the reader’s background, it’s hard to tell how much is enough to truly get the main highlights across.

And numerous pictures all throughout the book help tremendously!

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Though, I must admit, there’s a point halfway though the third section (string theory), which I feel the author just gives up on this analogy strategy……especially when it comes to the topics of branes. What’s a brane? Umm……even the glossary doesn’t say. Let me check Wikipedia:

“A brane is a physical object that generalizes the notion of a point particle to higher dimensions. Branes are dynamical objects which can propagate through spacetime according to the rules of quantum mechanics. They have mass and can have other attributes such as charge.”

If I had to take a guess, branes are higher-order dimensional versions of strings (which are one dimensional) that the universe COULD be made of. They could connect the ends of strings? They could create universes (see Figure 13.8). It’s a whole new realm of mathematically robust possibilities…..

And the concept that our universe is just a holographic projection of a 2D brane where all of our pasts and futures are already known….. is an extremely unique, and unsettling, possibility.

ANYWAY…….

There is, in addition to your basic breakdown of these theories, a fourth section that I would call “quantum applications.” Time travel and teleportation are reviewed by utilizing previously discussed knowledge and implementing various scenarios which could arise. For example, a warp hole through space-time could be created that start in the same temporal slice of space-time. However, one side of the wormhole could be pushed farther into the future, but never backwards. This hypothetical situation demonstrates how EVEN IF we invent time travel in our future, they will never be able to travel back into the past to visit us NOW.

The second application, transportation, involves more-or-less the transportation of DATA, which is used to recreate a clone of the object that was “dismantled” during the measurement process. Thus, this brings up some philosophical questions, especially what is the meaning of an object? Does this mean that the original person is dead? They will be made with the same types of elements in the same orientation; they will act and behave the exact same way before “transportation.” However, they are not made with exact same elements, and they will not exist during that specified period of time during information transport…..or do they still? So many fun questions to ask that have no relevance to our age regardless the outcome. And don’t worry….. it’s only like two pages of the text.

Besides these topics, the author does cover a lot of additional topics to tie all the topics together, including entropy and the arrow of time, the cause and effect of the big bang, and quantum entanglement. And looking back at his older book, I found this work a lot more encompassing and approachable (instead of jumping straight into string theory only after a hundred pages of brief overview).

But despite the fascination that these topics can bring to mind, I’m done reading books on particle and deep theoretical physics. It’s a great mental exercises, attempting to grasp theoretical concepts that picture a stark contrast to our perceived environment. But in the end, there are a lot of theoretical guess and a lot more unknowns, all with a minimal impact on our personal lives.

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Introduction to Microelectronic Fabrication

This isn’t a book review, per se. I don’t even know if this “textbook” is still available, as I found at my university’s library book sale stuffed with out-of-date textbooks. But I wanted to highlight some of the technologies written in the book.

Note: I just got done with an interview with Sandia National Labs, and this book actually helped a lot with understanding more of the fabrication capabilities and equipment they possess.

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Microfabrication, for me personally, is a very fascinating topic. By manipulating atoms, electrons, and photons in such a controlled way, one can create extremely practical devices that power the electronic needs of our everyday lifestyles. There isn’t much in terms of design theory in this book (that’s what Volume I-IV are for). However, despite being quite small (~150 pages or so), this paperback gives a precise overview of each possible process in microfabrication and the practical limitations for each. Additionally, the book is littered with (extremely beneficial) images from concept visualizations to experimental graphs to explain both procedures and parameter controls respectively.

To the fabrication methods!

Lithography

This is the general term for the method that creates a desired pattern on the wafer. By applying a thin film of radiation-sensitive polymer, one can expose the material and change its properties. Exposure is typically done with UV light, but it can also be conducted through alternative means including electron and atom beams. When exposed to an appropriate liquid (solvent), one part is removed (washed away) while the rest of the material stays. If the exposed material is dissolved, the material is known as a “positive” resist. In contrast, a “negative” resist becomes resistant to solvents when it’s exposed to radiation.

Of course, these patterns are never useful on their own. However, they create “windows” that additional processes now have access to the wafer below.

 

Etching

Etching is when you want to remove material in the lithography windows. Etching can either be done either using wet (liquid) or dry (gas/plasma) methods. The majority of etching methods are driven through chemical reactions, which allows for chemical selectivity during the etching process. Alternatively, one can create an ion beam for a pure “physical” etch that removes material through atomic bombardment, though this method is typically slower than preferred chemical etching methods.

It’s interesting to note that some etching methods (wet or dry) are directional (anisotropic) and can be used to create novel or deep trenches in your design. For example, a directional beam of atoms will remove material in the beam’s path. Other methods will selectively attack the crystal lattice row-by-row and allow unique shapes in your design.

 

Film Deposition

To add material, numerous methods are utilized to apply layers either on the atomic scale to create crystalline (epitaxial growth) layers or in “bulk” (poly-crystalline or amorphous) films (the latter being the easier and faster method). These methods include chemical vapor deposition (CVD), material sputtering, e-beam evaporation, and many others that result in thin film coatings to be applied the entire wafer.

 

Ion Diffusion & Implantation

In the making of microelectronic circuits, one wants to change the conductive properties of the Si wafer underneath all these films. That is where doping comes in, which allows for the creation of p and n doped materials necessary for diodes and transistor technology.

The easier method is to heat up the wafer environment and allow for material (vapor) to come into contact in your “window” regions of interest. Material accumulates on the surface and slowly makes it way into the wafer beneath the surface. Smaller and less interactive atoms will, of course, diffuse into the material at a faster rate.

The one thing with dopants is that they will still move around whenever the wafer is heated up in processing steps farther down the manufacturing line. Thus, one has to take into account ALL the high temperature manufacturing steps to make sure material diffusion does not get out of hand.

 

Oxidation

Sometimes, all you want to do is just change the chemical composition of the surface. The most common method is the oxidation of silicon (Si) to silicon dioxide (SiO2). SiO2 is an insulator and is a simple, yet robust barrier to many manufacturing methods. When photoresists used in lithography are not resilient enough for the required microfabrication processes, a layer of SiO2 can be grown underneath and etched to create more chemically “inert” windows.

The visually interesting aspect of growing SiO2 on Si wafers is that the wafer will change color based on the final SiO2 thickness. Thus, one can easily verify if the process went smoothly just by comparing the wafer color to a “look-up table” (but precision measurements are still used to understand your fabrication precision and consistency).

This is one of the easiest methods in a microfabrication setup, as it only involves heating up the wafers in an oven. No plasmas, no fancy chemicals. Of course, the gases present in the chamber are highly controlled as undesired chemicals can fuse to the surface and diffuse inwards when heated at such high temperatures.

Contacts & Packaging:

Finally, semiconductor chips have to be connected to the outside world and easily handled through macroscopic manufacturing processes (like being placed on a circuit board). One is typically familiar with standard processors and integrated circuits (ICs) being a black plastic box with metal leads coming out the sides or underneath. The semiconductor chip is connected to these leads typically through wire bonds “stitched” to both surfaces before the final device is completely confined in black plastic.

 

This is just a basic overview of the processes in microfabrication in this book. There are also a few additional topics on specific methods and insights for building specific designs, including BJTs (current-controlled switches) and MOSFETs (voltage-controlled switches). The last chapter details various methods on the design for MEMs (MicroElectroMechanical Systems). This is a fascinating area of research where microscopic gears, levers, springs, bridges, and many more unique shapes can be created using standard microfabrication capabilities.

After completing my 10 hour long on-site interview with Sandia, I realize that I do have a soft-spot for microfabrication. It’s a career area that I should pursue to fulfill my long-term career desires. But until then, someone has to be the sales engineer for LEDs!

Lean Six Sigma for Beginners [Book Review]

If you’d like a book that repeat itself, this is the book for you. Most of the book can be summarized in probably 20 pages…..but at least you’ll definitely remember those cliff notes by the time you are done. To the subject at hand!

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Six Sigma is about analyzing the statistics from your production and being able to reduce the variance observed in your results. Lean is about reducing waste including worker time, input ingredients, information flow, output overproduction, unwanted defects, and procedural delays.  When you put those two together, you get Lean Six Sigma (LSS).

In terms of quality, the first notion that you have to understand is what “quality” means, and this can change depending on your point view. Most people think of luxury items having “quality,” while others would believe that they are overpriced for their application. Thus quality is typically referred to how true and consistent a product (or service) is based on the price paid for it. Not everyone pays top dollar for luxury vehicles as many standard sedans are practically perfect.

Once you know WHICH metrics are important, then it’s time to measure them. This is where statistics come in. Of course not every measurement will be the same, so there will be a range for all of your results. How broad the range of your results is typically known as the variance or standard deviations [st. dev. = sqrt(var)] or your data. The lower the variance, the more consistent you can deliver. Sometimes you want to focus on both sides of the range (such as the size of a gear for a watch, where it can’t be either too big or too small). Other times, one has to worry about just the minimum or maximum rating in the data (the delay for when a call representative finally answers a customer’s call shouldn’t be over a certain time).

Some metrics are easy to measure, analyze, and correct for. In contrast, if you are working on a large scale production line that is online 24-7, the time and money required for LSS investigations become a larger burden. Thus, the book discusses how implementation of six sigma practices should be done BEFORE tragedy strikes, with hindsight from a project leader, and requires backing from your managers and business leaders.

And of course this book, written by G. Harver, praises the benefits of LSS practices. Lower costs long term despite the short upfront costs for investigation. A stronger understanding of your business practices. But most importantly, a continued and improved level of trust from your customers (who could always leave you for the next off-shore supplier, typically promising cheaper labor but with unknown levels of quality).

There’s also 5-8 chapters that tend to say the same thing. Just a few include…..

  • Chapter 3: Beneficiaries of LSS: [Initial Content]
  • Chapter 4: Things for CEOS to note in readiness to implement LSS: [Copy Paste]
  • Chapter 11: Why adopt the LSS style [Copy Paste]
  • Chapter 12: Howe good is LSS for small and medium sized companies: [Copy Paste]
  • Chapter 16: How does LSS Compare to Total Quality Management [Copy Paste Add]
  • Chapter 19: Why companies are not taking advantage of LSS: [Copy paste]
  • Chapter 20: Why LSS is worth the Effort: [Copy paste]

Due to the relatively repetitiveness of the book, I started skimming towards the end of the book hoping to find something more different or detailed. Even a few more detailed examples of where and how LSS was incorporated, especially with a few numbers describing the level of improvement gained. However, the book is mostly a collection of vanilla statements, and half of the book is in bullet form. In case you are too busy to read a 100 page book with large font, you can treat it as a look up reference copy-pasted from PowerPoint slides….

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Despite the lack of technical information that I was hoping to read about, I did learn a few things. Most of this is more on the insight on becoming LSS certified and the bureaucracy that can complicate the possible steps involved in implementing LSS practices. Most of these portions are more planning and managerial “lessons” in nature. But I would still recommend people just read the Wikipedia pages instead of this book:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lean_Six_Sigma

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_Sigma

 

 

…. ..ONE MORE THING! The author also has 5 pages at the end as a “bonus” where he advertised another one of his books totally unrelated to this topic…..selling stuff on Amazon….

Up Yours [A book review on career advice in the field of engineering]

Before I get to the actual book review, I’d like to first talk about the topic of cover art and design. Everyone has heard of the term “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” but I personally take that lesson with a grain of salt, as it should be. The cover is a strong portrayal of what one may be getting into.

Let’s take exhibit A: Advice to Rocket Scientists. As you can see below, this book has a simple logo for a small (~80 page) book for its topic of giving career advice for current and future scientists of all ages and career paths.

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The book cover should do a few things. Of course it should catch the eye of the customer, the key aspect on marketing a product. Something has to get your attention before you start contemplating the choice of investing time and money (mostly time) in the novel. Additionally, the cover should help portray the style of writing that the book has to offer. A simple icon: a clean-cut style of writing. Lots of white space could also implement a feeling for advice in a modern era. And the wording advertises a solution to a potential (or current) lack of fulfillment in one’s career status.

Now, lets take the book of interest in this article, Exhibit B: Up Yours.

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I’m sorry Spiro, but guess what? I am DEFINITELY judging this cover ….. a lot!

I wouldn’t say that a picture of a rocket launching up someone’s rear would be the choice I would utilize to advertise technical advice to professional engineers and possibly future industrial executives. I actually ignored this book the first time I saw the cover on Amazon, unconsciously disregarding it as a possible joke of a book. I didn’t consider purchasing this until I read another one of the author’s books [R&D is War, the previous book I reviewed].

After reading this book, the cover (in hindsight) makes a lot more sense. Engineers aren’t the most social creatures on the planet, and the overly nerdy representative on the front is a dramatization of that stereotype. But the oddly farce of a cover, along with the “phrasing” of a title, is a flag that this isn’t your typical clean-cut boring read that you would expect from your popular titles including 7 Effective Habits or How to Win Friends. The underlying atmosphere is similar to a scene where two employees are meeting at a local pub and casually talking about how their own experiences have shaped their view in the work force. The novel discusses how the gears grind, what has greased their chains, and which hazards to try and avoid or prepare for (almost like a personal FMEA).

I never found myself falling asleep while reading this book……..most of the time (unlike my text book Light Emitting Diodes that I’m slowly reading for “continuing education”).

Thus, the book Up Yours, by Clifford Spiro, once again brings you into his realm of experiences and insights during his career path from R&D to various VP positions through his 30+ years in industry. There is a small amount of overlap with his previous book, but it’s mostly references to the larger stories he writes more in detail in R&D is War. The book is also a lot thicker (>200 pages) than Exhibit A was. The chapters are easily divided into possible segments along your professional career development: from your first interview to what one can expect during executive leadership, along with everything would expect to get there.

It’s hard to summarize everything in this book, considering it’s already a 200 page summary of life experiences. Rather, I’ll list some of the overall highlights that extend beyond individual chapters:

  • Passion: When you go into engineering, we hope that you are in it for more than just the plentiful pay. Most students need a strong desire to learn their majors, and employees should never lose this personal drive during their professional career. As long as you work on what you truly love, the money will follow.
  • Teamwork: A major dislike I had with academia was the strong “individualism” factor; you are always competing for the top grade, the first papers, and the best grants. There is a little bit of collaboration in academia, but it is mandatory in an industrial environment. You have to sacrifice your level of narcissism for the betterment of your manager, team, and company. If the company is a keeper, your work will truly be acknowledged not just by your boss, but your boss’s boss and his/her peers (hopefully with your boss praising your efforts behind your back).
  • Development: While it always seems safe to “sandbag” (do small jobs and over-perform), don’t be afraid to take on some challenging objectives that do have a risk of failure. Being able to expand your expertise and your comfort zone will not only improve your confidence and capabilities, but also your personal standing and trust with your fellow co-workers. There’s even a chapter on how to handle failure, which isn’t a time for blame but a great learning experience. However, failing all the time comes to others as a red flag, so please know your personal limits.
  • Face-time: As humans, we are very social beings. Thus, part of success in your company isn’t about what your accomplishment are, but also how you present yourself. Spiro strongly suggests that you build a personal brand (image) and stock (experiences). These are the first impressions and the unconscious images that your peers will relate you with. It may be a cold, hard truth, but it is truth nonetheless. Furthermore, it makes you more approachable and agreeable in times both frustrating and beneficial.
  • Networking: Friends, family, college peers, current and past co-workers. You don’t have to suck up to those that are above you, but maintain positive ties that you feel strongly about. While building a web of social fulfillment, one never knows what opportunities will arise from these bonds. Hopefully the best of friends will still be there for you in times of need. When I broke my shoulder, it definitely split my real friends from the “poser.”

The final topic that I wanted to pick out from this book is on “knowing thyself.” Multiple chapters approach the reader on how well you know what you want, and how badly you want it. This spans across topics including what company environment you want to work in, what positions match your skill set, and how to know when it’s time to change your current projection (and how to do so without burning too many bridges).

The largest example is an employees internal urge for “promotion.” Typically this is found up the management ladder track. However, those individual are more fond of the pay and privilege bestowed on these titles, but they don’t necessarily enjoy (or even acknowledge) the required tasks of higher-level management. The positions require losing all of your time to meetings and paperwork, switching from technical problems to inter-personal conflicts, and having to bestow independence of work to your employees (not micro-manage them).

Personally, I’m taking a lot of advice from this book during my current career hunt for a more technology-driven career path. Since mid-January, I’ve had a few phone interviews and now have an on-site interview planned for later this month. If I do have a few offers, I’ll have to choose carefully based on what personal goals I want to fulfill. This includes:

  • Involved in a technology that I can “own” inside the company
  • Having access to nice “toys,” like an SEM
  • Working for a supportive manager that appreciates my time while acting as a technical mentor
  • I don’t plan on acquiring a management role, but I do find my organizational skill set a possible strength for such a position. It’s a idea that I won’t fight for, but I will take it a managerial position if the need arises. At least I’ll know what I’m getting myself into
  • Oh, and no more customers. That would be REALLY NICE. I’d rather talk to suppliers, the kind that don’t take you out golfing.

 

R&D is War [Book Review]

This book review isn’t going to take long for a few reasons.

  • This book is almost an autobiography of Clifford Spiro’s career experiences in research and development (R&D), so there’s not much technological review that I can write about
  • While I like to reduce the amount of content in the book to a few basic ideas and expectations, this book already has a “Lessons Learned” at the end of every chapter. I’ve marked each page in the book, so I can just find my favorites and rephrase them here.
  • Finally, this book is a rather smooth read, and it’s sprinkled with sarcasm. This is especially true when he references the sales (order takers) and finance (bean counters) personnel in the workforce. This is even more hilarious when it makes you realize that YOU are doing the exact same comparisons at your work.

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I picked up the book R&D is War mostly to see how excited I would get over the idea of re-pursuing a technological-based career path again. I’m currently an applications engineer (which is just a sales person that at least knows that I = V / R ….. along with a few other things). Now I’m at the point where I will not be valued based on improving my technical knowledge for the company, but more on “which customers do I know” and “how many profitable accounts have I’ve been connected with.” It wouldn’t be my preference, but that’s the life in a satellite sales office.

These personnel review meetings, which we discuss these question, make me realize that …………………. I belong somewhere else. Yeah…. that’s a nice euphemism for my internal response.

I got my PhD in microfabrication and phonics, so let’s put it to good use. I was initially scared away from R&D due the stress levels I experienced during my 5 years at MTU. However, I believe graduate school has it’s own deep pit of stress and misery that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.

Note: I will never get back into academia for personal (low levels of collaboration) and professional (academically inbred) reasons. So most of these topics will be mostly industry and slightly government lab based.

The one thing about R&D in industry, in comparison to all other business units, is that it works on the longest time scale. You can’t discern quarterly outcomes of your research like a CFO can look at sales charts. While some incremental development projects can be completed in a year, most work requires 2-5 years before they bear fruition. Thus, R&D employees tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to company recognition [even look at Nobel peace prize winner Shuji Nakamura from Nichia in my previous book review Brilliant!]. When you invent the perfect material or product, the person that “completes the sale” tends to get the largest monetary compensation.

Another aspect in R&D is how poorly undervalued previously discovered knowledge is. While working on a project that did not turn into a success, it tends to prove useful for additional assignments. This is regardless of if any useful outcome is obtained or if “upper management decided to go in a different direction” [That was the response I got after an on-site interview after graduate school. I still like to question what that actually means ………….].

Based on Spiro’s experiences, the latter happens…… a lot. This personally makes sense, as most of the cost in developing a product or method is within the last 6-12 months getting the mass manufacturing production line up an running. Compared to the tens of millions of dollars to get a large-scale clean room line up and running that only does ONE thing, the lab time and costs are nothing in comparison. Knowledge is discovered and stored for another time.

A typical career in R&D is also not localized to only one field, where being a jack-of-all-trades can significantly help in additional positions. Spiro’s main example is using his rubber experience for light bulb coatings (after coming from coal ‘liquidizing’ and diamond ‘enhancement’).

R&D can also be volatile not just in specialties, but also in different positions at different companies. Industry will pay you well, but it will also let you go (sometimes with “nice parting gifts”). And advancement in each company will be environment dependent, so taking the effort to switch jobs (internally or externally) is sometimes ideal. This is especially true in the current world of globalization, where companies can only survive if they have an outsourced product where cheap manufacturing is the only way to create a cost-competitive product.

Let’s take light bulbs for example. Unless you are a lighting enthusiast, do you really buy lighting fixtures based on the color rendering capabilities of the source. I’m an engineer at a LED company, I still buy the cheapest $1-2 bulbs from Home Depot or Lowes (as long as they are LEDs, I’m fine with that).

At the end of the book, there are also some overall thoughts on intellectual property. The first is due to the risks for a company going global. Employees don’t just “pick up and fly to China,” so you have to employ local candidates in the area and train them, sometimes to replace your job before the company lays you off. These new employees need to know how to exactly develop and design the competitive product that you made at corporate R&D.

However, when you build sites in additional countries where IP laws are not as strict, there’s a chance that employees will just leave for other companies and utilize your “secret recipes” for their new company’s behalf. Spend millions on development, or pay someone $100,000/yr salary for the same knowledge at instant speed? Who wouldn’t do that? That’s why all job applications ask for candidates with “5+ years of experience”…………

[Ironically, all the Intel positions I’ve recently looked at were asking for 3 months. I like this approach. It basically asks a “Can we have an intelligent conversation on this topic? Yes or No?”]

Additionally, IP in the form of patents are typically a negative investment for most companies. Patents are an easy way to disclose your product research to everyone. And since they are so detailed, it’s easy for competitors to utilize and just “build off of that work” into something that is “unique” enough to sell in the market. Legal IP fights are too expensive for individual or small companies to compete in. The patent filing process also takes 2-5 years to complete as well [my patent is on year 3 right now in the filing process….], so the company should already be working on the next best thing by the time the patent is out in the public.

Bottom line: There’s a time and place for everything…….but a patent may not always be a the best option.

And that’s R&D in a nutshell….. in another nutshell.

I personally felt invigorated reading the book, and it only took a few leisure hours to finish the 160 pages of larger-than-normal text. Some people need the feedback of seeing their work go into a final product, and R&D would drive these individuals somewhat crazy. That’s one of the reasons why my manager left Yazaki to work for OSRAM OS as a sales engineer. I find myself to be the opposite. I personally wouldn’t mind working with projects that kept being ‘canned,’ as long as my diligence and hard work is appreciated.

I don’t expect raises or external gratification to be happy. I already get paid enough to feel comfortable living life [I’m a true believer that happiness scales with pay until you reach $75,000. From there on, personal happiness is all about expectations in luxury and tastes]. I find an inner happiness when I can play with expensive ‘toys’ and feel like I own a part of the company’s knowledge. The one thing I won’t stand for is negative feedback for a ‘lack on a return on investments.’ If the company’s management understands these risks and timeline associated with R&D,  I will gladly work with them.

 

 

 

 

Brilliant! [Book Review]

Yes!

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In the realm of available books to read, the selection of those involving an inventor’s contribution towards a technological breakthrough for the benefit of society are slim. And even most of these are written by the inventors themselves, which tend to be smeared with a level of “smugness.” It’s almost like it’s the frosting on the celebrity cake that they have created for the fruits of their labor.

I swear, the main job of celebrities is to make sure that no one forgets that they exist….. books, shows, charities. (“philanthropists”…….I’m pretty sure most people with a multi-million dollar income would donate that level of income to those in need. What else would you do with it?)

The story of this book as portrayed by Bob Johnstone, the author, is slightly different. While Shuji Nakamura (the inventor of the bright blue LED) takes the center stage in this novel, this book is written as a story on both the technological reasoning behind the inventor, the political friction that evolved from these advances, and the opportunities that have arisen thanks to the various players in the new market.

Brilliant! is the story on the creation and adaption of the efficient and commercially viable blue LED. While blue LEDs have been made in the past, the efficiency was worse than the energy guzzling incandescent bulbs based from Edison’s original invention. These previous Silicon Carbide blue LEDs were mostly used to make small icons glow in various electronic devices, which isn’t that exciting. And we’ve had red LEDs for quite a while, which had a similar impact.

Another significant factor: the shorter the wavelength (blue or purple …. for those non physicists out there), the more useful the color typically is for extended applicatinos. It’s a lot easier (and efficient) to lengthen light (from blue to red) than it is to shorten it (from red to blue).

With the realization of blue LEDs, one can use part of the blue output to create other colors, including green, yellow, and (most importantly) white.

Blue + Yellow = White

White LEDs: the new source of interior illumination (Alliterations are awesome!).

Note: Yes, you can just create an LED that either creates green or yellow light. However, there are characteristics that blue LEDs plus a converting material have over a standard LED. For example, there’s no real magical formula to create a cheap, efficient green LED; efficiency peaks at blue and red for InGaN and InGaAlP respectively, the two chemical compounds currently used for commercial LEDs. InGaAlP LEDs used for red and yellow LEDs are also more sensitive to heat than blue InGaN LEDs, which makes them less practical for high power or extreme environmental applications (bright lights in broad daylight : the best of both worlds).

This literature starts its first quarter out as a biography of Shuji and his early career at Nichia Corporation. Not wanting to leave his comfortable rural area in Japan, he gets employed straight out of college at the local phosphor company. With a strive to make something successful for the company, he ruthlessly purses R&D in various projects with not much to show from it. While initial successes were always too late to market for any significant success, strongly due the small R&D headcount of ~1 in his field, he becomes desperate. Going against management internal politics, and gambles in the development of InGaN LEDs, which seemed impractical at the time.

[I’m still hoping that room temperature superconductors become a reality in my time…..]

During that time, there was a LOT of interest in creating blue LEDs, and there were two compounds with the “energy potential” to emit blue light efficiently: InGaN and ZnSe. And due to significantly high levels of failures from large-firm companies, only a few people still stuck with InGaN technology until Shuji’s development of the ideal recipe. However, when reality hit the fan, that’s where things got complicated.

The second section talks about some of the major shifts in lighting trends. Portable, efficient lights for third world countries become a beneficial alternative to burning flammable kerosene that produced hazardous fumes inside living quarters. LED lights made post-sunset activities more efficient and safe for those in remote locations. The realization of isolated safety and warning lights for remote locations became a realizable market, which included off-shore and sunlight-rechargeable applications. The evolution of lighting as a architectural aspect and main theme also allowed more control in directional lighting and color-controllable aspects thanks to RGB LEDs (Red, Green, and Blue LED inside a single device).

Similar manufacturing methods can also be utilized in the creation of UV LEDs. This market is filled with a plethora of different applications, from curing polymer materials in manufacturing to disinfecting water and public areas (including the bathroom). Previous sources of UV sources came from high-voltage Mercury vapor bulbs, a hazardous material, which emits a broad spectrum of wavelengths. UV LEDs have a fine, tunable output spectrum of energy which allows for more control in commercial and industrial applications.

However, this story is not all unicorns and rainbows. After making Nichia THE TOP manufacturer of LEDs in the world , Nichia…….basically treated Shuji like shit. No major pay raises were given to the inventor. In addition, they sideline him to a paperwork-pushing job out of pure spite by the head management and the CEO himself.  This “assumed sacrifice” that seems well-acknowledged in Japanese culture degraded Shuji to the point where he did something that’s frowned upon in his home country; he left his first company. He took an offer to work as a researcher associate in Santa Barbara.

He turned down a $500,000 salary from CREE during the process.

Of course, he did this to try and escape possible patent infringement that could arise from working with a competitor in the LED manufacturing market. However, Nichia still decides to sue this purely academic being on fraudulent claims of “leaking company secrets to its competitors.” This was also done in parallel with Nichia’s numerous lawsuits with its competitors to keep its choke-hold monopoly on the global production of InGaN LEDs. This latter half makes sense from Nichia’s standpoint with the goal to keep as much possible revenue within its country. The rural, formerly small-sized company has a strong desire to protect (most of) its employees with job security and a flourishing local economy.

But going after its former employee with massive lawsuits and filing their own fraudulent attempts to ruin Shuji’s reputation as the sole inventor of the blue LED…….Nichia even goes to the lengths of publishing and handing out free copies of their own book, “Blue Light Emitting Diode: Invented by Nichia Corporation and Its Young Engineers” (by anonymous authors….. of course). This book portrays a false tale of the company’s dedication of technological pursuit as a whole-company discovery and not a one-man army. Angered by the excess legal battles with Nichia, Shuji files his own counter lawsuit to reclaim some of the company’s profit gained based on his invention. This amount should have been around $190 million, but it was settled at ~$8 million (half of which went to cover Shuji’s legal bills, and the rest was definitely not worth the stress).

There is a fourth quarter of the book, but it’s more of a continuation of the second quarter in terms of emerging markets and lighting trends. I found myself skimming over this section due to the boring aspects of “famous people” finding more “novel business models.”

Despite the last quarter of the novel, I found the book a very entertaining read. It expressed a lot of the technical areas that both explained the complications realized during the history of the blue LED, but also the technical reasoning why specific methods or models were used. There is discussion on the “snow” that can occur in the semiconductor crystal growth chambers (MOCVD). The selection of growth processes and substrate issues involved in LED fabrication are also brought up. All of these technical topics are not expressed in academic detail but enough that even the uneducated reader can understand and comprehend.

I even learned a few new things, as some aspects in technology (such as selection of growth methods) are not easily found in textbooks or scholarly papers without a fight.

Oh yeah, the book also does have a few images showing various players in the book.

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Programming the Universe [Book Review]

I noticed that while I’m at work, I tend to get disappointed whenever I see a PowerPoint slide without a picture. There’s something magical about being able to connect a theory, statement, or an idea to a visual symbol. And my laziness to actually take pictures of my books at memorable sections has been in stark contrast to my preferences. This is something that I want to fix from now. Hopefully, I’ll also take photos of my books before I throw their “protective coverings” away (like in the book below).

But I found out that I can skip a few steps using the WordPress App. I can take a picture on my phone and upload it to my website, skipping a few steps along the way. Thank you website!

Well, on to the actual book review: Programming the Universe.

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The title does state most of what you would find within the book. It’s not necessarily about actually programming the universe (surprise), but the methodology in which one COULD simulate physics, life, and the underlying forces of nature.

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That’s the easy answer, though. The book goes deep into the idea of what information is, how to define it at the quantum level, and how quantum information can be used for unique computational methods (possibly being able to outperform conventional computers in the future). An actual summary the book in two words: “Quantum Computing.” That’s the short answer that may need some explanation (hence the book review).

If you are vaguely familiar with quantum mechanics, you have probably heard a bunch of weird quotes, which are theoretically true. I could walk through the wall because a small part of me exists on the other side. A bouncing ball in your hand could pop out of existence and reappear nearby. The reasoning behind these thought experiments is that, deep down, everything exists as a “wave.” The smaller the unit, the larger an area its wave-like nature is in size. This wave, in theory, is “the probably of where that item’s existence is at any specific moment.”

Electrons are funny “particles,” if that’s an accurate way to state them. If given multiple paths to travel, it will take them all at the same time [The same thing goes for photons, atoms, etc.]  Unless it decides to interact with something else, it stays like a wave until doing so. But when it does, all the energy in a wave “collapses” on a very specific location (which is pseudo-randomly chosen based the shape of it’s wave). That’s why we got pixels on old CRT TVs (remember those bulky displays?). The electron beam didn’t make a broad splash but typically hit a phosphor screen at a specified spot.

It’s also the reason why electrons exist in orbitals around the atom, instead of falling straight towards the positive nucleus like a meteor in the night sky. The wave “wraps” around the nucleus with a minimal energy level looking like a marble. Excited levels of the electron wave look like ripples in water; the more excited the particle is, the choppier the water appears.

The main line is that individual quantum objects, or qubits, (electrons and atoms included) act as waves until we “disturb” them. The neat thing about waves is that we can add multiple types of waves on top of each other, a term called “superposition” in quantum mechanics. Just like multiple notes played on a piano, multiple waves can exist in a single qubit (quantum bit), and they can be used for computations simultaneously.

The quantum computer, in theory, involves taking a bunch of qubits (particles or otherwise) and exciting them with their initial superposition of initial quantum states (lasers or Electromagnetic fields). Then these qubits will interact with each other and over a brief time will “collapse” into the final answer when “measured.” …..I think……

Unfortunately, the author Seth Lloyd, doesn’t relay many of the technical details on HOW to build a quantum computer (I mean, he helped build one). There’s a decent amount of theory involving the types of waves that can be used. This included atomic nuclear spins, electron excitation levels, and currents in superconducting rings. There’s a little bit of talk on interactions between lasers and atoms. However, this entire section only takes up 21 pages. And for a 200+ page document about quantum computing, wouldn’t you think it would be a larger chunk of the literature?

For example, there’s one page that talks about superconducting loops: Josephson junctions. I would have probably just skimmed this section, but I recently learned about them by browsing my Modern Physics textbook a few weeks ago. In superconductors, there’s a phenomenon call Cooper pairs (not mentioned), where the electrons all interact with each other in-sync and result in a single “wave” of electrons. Being a wave, the electron flow can go both clockwise AND counterclockwise simultaneously (which is briefly mentioned). By applying a magnetic field, the electrons can start to “spin” as desired (zero resistance means an indefinite flow of current without a voltage drop in the loop) within the circle and can the final results can be measured using an applied voltage (also not mentioned). In a nutshell, the book basically says that it was difficult to prove these devices initially, and then it was possible…… I mean, c’mon!

Being a quantum physicist in the mechanical engineering department at MIT, the author’s writing (and possibly most of his works) also seem to be more philosophical rather than technical. The first 100 pages (which doesn’t even touch the topic of quantum physics yet), is more of a pursuit of the terminology of bits, information, and the energy tied to the computation of data. There’s also an entire chapter in the back of the book on the topic of defining complexity (he currently has 30+ different measures of it)……

But seriously, I was definitely looking towards obtaining more technical information on this potential future technology. Not on how the universe is going to die, and on how we could live forever as a supreme being as large as the universe, fed off the scarce potential energy at the expanding edges of the universe and slow our internal processing down to the point where internal thoughts would take decades to compute……….. And that’s the last chapter?

As you can tell, I’m not really thrilled about this book. I fell asleep a lot reading it, hoping it would get more interesting. Yes, I did learn a few things, and cemented many more concepts I’m already aware of. But I don’t see myself recommending this book. I bought this book at a used bookstore in an airport (that I approve of!), and I was determined to finish it. The 3.7 rating on Amazon helps confirm my level of “excitement” towards this work.

I also have to say something about large numbers in a book. It’s one thing to put them in a text book, as if something you would reference or use in a computation. But almost every 5-6 pages, the author says something outrageous and attaches a number to it. Like 10^91 or 0.5^1024 or something outrageous. I’ve seen this done before in previous books, but it’s only happened like 2-5 times total in most, not >50 times (a possible exaggeration). There’s something distracting about these numbers, as if they have an importance that requires me to remember them. I have to force myself to step back and tell myself “It’s just a crazy large number, what’s the real idea that I want to take away from this paragraph!”

And they all are. 10^91, the number of bits in the universe? No one can fathom such a number! Yeah, sure it’s not as big as 10^122, the number of computations that a cosmological computer could have performed since the big bang….. but both numbers are still psychologically indistinguishable to a normal reader. It’s kind of like my rant over random people and quotes in my book review of “American Nations;” save the gritty details for the textbooks, please?

But …….. if you’re really into monkey-based analogies, this may be the book for you:

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