Gmail Mobile.

Google Mail Mobile imageDamn you, Google. As if my email addiction weren’t bad enough already, you have to go and create Google Mobile, a Java app for my cellphone that lets me read my Gmail messages, even on my crappy but stylish Razr V3. Message threading, easy scanning, and most importantly, quick message deletion–all the features I look for in a mail client are there. Too bad the app crashes my phone almost daily, and has a hard time hanging on to a data connection when I’m using it on the train, and is probably running me up a fortune in data transfer charges from Cingular. I just can’t help returning to it time and again, like a junkie returning for a fix of smack even though his needles are rusty and the junk is mixed with too much rat poison.

Gmail Mobile.

I did it in my head!

Last night Clara was working on her homework, part of which involved math problems — simple addition. (Math homework! In kindergarten! But that’s another post.) 2+2, 2+3, 6+0, etc. Karen set her up with a handful of clementines on the table and her homework folder. For 2+3, Clara put two clementines on one side of the folder, and three on the other. Then she “smooshed them together” and counted the total, which she wrote down on the homework sheet. Once she got the hang of it she was pretty self sufficient, although she needed some help re-locating each sum on the sheet after doing the clementines, since the sheet had about 20 different problems. Towards the end, she had a problem, 2+0, and wrote the correct answer without using the clementines. How did you figure out the right answer, Clara? “I did it in my head!” She proceeded to add a couple more sums the same way, but she checked her answers with the clementines this time.

Clara, after dinner: “Mommy, can I do some more homework now?”

I did it in my head!

Freedom from training wheels.

Jean helps Clara break free of her training wheels!At the start of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, near the McLaren Lodge at Fell and Stanyan, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition holds a monthly “Freedom from Training Wheels” event to help kids learn to ride their bikes without training wheels. On Sundays the drive is closed to car traffic, except for the occasional police car or fire engine, so kids have the added bonus of being able to ride in the middle of the street. On Sunday we met Jean, a volunteer trainer and SF Bike board member. Jean is a great trainer, with lots of experience helping kids learn to ride and with a simple, straightforward approach and an easygoing confidence that quickly won Clara’s trust. The fact that she’s not the parent helps a lot too.

So, I removed the training wheels from Clara’s bike and lowered the seat as far down as it would go so her feet could rest comfortably on the ground and support her. Then Jean helped Clara get started, holding on to the back of her seat to push and stabilize her as she got going.

Inside of a minute Clara was yelling to Jean “let go! let go!,” and after a couple of minutes Jean finally complied. (“I’ve never had a kid tell me that before,” she confided later.) Clara’s bike wobbled, then straightened, as she took off on her own for the first time. “Pedal, Clara, pedal!” We shouted. “You’re doing it!” We all started whooping and shouting as Clara, grinning broadly, cruised right down the yellow line in the middle of the road.

Clara went on to make many more successful rides that morning, up and down the low, shallow rise in the road, and one time she rode up the hill, turned around at the top, and rode back down. She fell down a couple times, but recovered well each time and got right back on the back, even when she scraped herself once. By the end of the hour we were yelling at Clara to open her eyes and put her feet on the pedals, because she’d been closing her eyes and lifting her feet up to make the ride more exciting.

As a bonus, in between successful training wheel-free rides, Clara got to take a few rides on the bake of Jean’s bike, which has been extended so it has extra carrying capacity — she might be able to fit six bags of groceries on the supersized rack, and tells us she’s carried as many as four kids on it at one time. “It’s my sport utility bicycle,” Jean said, though it was surprisingly light and stable.

When the hour was up, Clara asked to have her training wheels put back on — to make it easier to ride to lunch. There’s riding for fun, and then there’s practical transportation.

Freedom from training wheels.

2,714 unread messages.

That’s what my inbox contained on my first day of work at Wired News. My inbox had been open for less than 2 weeks prior to my start date, so that represents about 10 days’ worth of mail, of which only one message was directed at me specifically (that I know of — I didn’t read them all). I’ve never worked in an environment where I received so much mail: story pitches, press releases, feedback on published stories, subscription requests, spam. Needless to say, my approach to email will be changing somewhat. I’ll no longer be responding to every story idea, or even most. Here’s how I’m dealing with email now:

  • If something is important, relevant, and requires my response, I’ll respond quickly.
  • If you are initiating an email conversation (ie sending a story idea, pitch, press release, or invitation) and you don’t hear back from me in a day or two, you can assume I’m not interested.
  • If we’ve been in conversation and you don’t hear back from me, I probably overlooked, lost, or forgot about your message. Give me a couple days and then, if it’s still important, send me another message.

Wondering how to reach me, by email, phone, or snail? Here’s my contact info.

2,714 unread messages.

Fame! I wanna live forever!

FOLIO magazine logoOK, forgive the cheesy 80’s TV show reference, but I couldn’t resist using it to announce that not one, but two of the online events I produced while at PC Magazine have won FAME awards from Folio Magazine. As the announcement states, “10 gold winners were chosen from more than 150 entries from consumer, b-to-b, association, and city and regional magazines that have created innovative, revenue-generating and brand-building events” in 2007. PCMagCast walked away with one gold award, for best online event (for the August 2006 Virtual Tradeshow on Security & Mobility we produced) and one bronze, in the same category, for the “How to Select and Set up an HDTV” event from last November. These awards should be a great kickoff for PCMagCast’s second year. And they’re a testament to the hard work and talent of the PCMagCast team I (sadly) left behind last week.

UPDATE: Here’s a quote from Jason Young, president of the consumer and small business division of Ziff Davis: “PCMagCasts have quickly become one of Ziff Davis’s most successful initiatives.” PC Magazine’s PCMagCasts Win Two Folio: FAME Awards for Best Online Events

Fame! I wanna live forever!

My new job at Wired News.

I started a new job this week, as business editor at Wired News, the online arm of Wired magazine. I couldn’t be more thrilled about this new assignment. I’ll be responsible for the web site’s business and gadgets coverage, including overseeing the blogs Gadget Lab and Epicenter.

Wired News doesn’t really have any business coverage per se yet, so I have some scope to define that beat. The way I see it, Wired already covers the essentials of business — innovation, smart people, trends in infotech, biotech, nanotech, space — and it’s simply my job to continue and expand that mission. So you won’t see us trying to clone Business Week’s, or CNet’s biz tech coverage — instead, we’ll be pursuing business coverage in a uniquely Wired way. The front line of that coverage will be the Epicenter blog.

And, of course, there’s the gadgets–I get to play with and write about lots of toys again. As an added bonus, I get to do this with some of my buddies from Mobile PC, including Wired’s products editor Mark McClusky, Danny Dumas, and Chris Imlay.
Wired’s parent, Conde Nast, is in the process of launching a new business magazine called Portfolio. I’m not involved with that at all and I know nothing about it. But this article from last week nicely summarizes why I’m psyched to be doing business news for Wired:

Why Wired is (already) the best biz magazine

My new job at Wired News.

What’s Inside Your Laptop?

Here at PC Magazine, we’ve been prying open notebooks ever since notebooks existed. We can’t help it–we’re just curious. But this kind of curiosity is hard on the computers themselves. (To the many manufacturers whose fine products we’ve destroyed over the years: We’re sorry. Really.) If you’re curious too, put down your screwdriver and take a look at the following pages. By focusing our attention on one small part of your computer, we aim to show you what’s inside a typical notebook, where all those parts come from, and what materials they’re made of. And we look at the hazards some of those components may present. The big picture is one of a strikingly global production chain.

This is the story of how quartz becomes a computer, and it’s a story that–for the typical notebook computer–stretches across nearly every continent, dozens of countries, and literally hundreds of different companies.

At its center is the heart of every computer, the microprocessor–a tiny flake of silicon whose millions of microscopic, precision-engineered circuits do computational work that would have been unthinkable just 30 years ago. But before it becomes a microchip, that little bit of silicon starts out the same way a gravel road does: as a pile of rock chips, hammered out of an open-pit quarry by dynamite and heavy machinery.

Just who ultimately transforms that silicon into a PC might surprise you. “HP or Dell computers basically don’t have anything HP or Dell inside them,” says Eric Williams, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Arizona State University who has done extensive research into the PC supply chain. “[Those companies are] designers of computers, purchasers of components, and assemblers. They may even contract out the assembly.”

It would be impossible to trace in a magazine article the origin of every single component in your notebook, because it contains hundreds of parts, including microchips, the hard drive, the battery pack, the LCD, circuit boards, resistors, capacitors, wires, and even the pieces of metal and plastic that make up the casing. But we can take a look at the web of production leading up to one component–the CPU–and use that to shed some light on just how global the PC industry has become.

Birth of a Microchip
All microprocessors begin life as a pile of quartz chips, plus a source of carbon–usually charcoal or coal. Quartz, whose main ingredient is silica, is one of the most abundant minerals on the Earth’s surface, and it’s mined all over the world. Charcoal is similarly widespread; all you need is wood and an oven to make it.

This fundamental simplicity means silicon could be produced almost anywhere. In practice, however, the major producers of silicon are industrialized countries where there’s a market for the metal, led by China, the United States, Brazil, and Norway. So let’s say our CPU starts life as a pile of quartz and carbon in a factory in Brazil. After being heated in an electrical furnace to 2,000 degrees C, the silica and carbon react to form molten silicon and carbon dioxide.

Impurities are skimmed off the top of the silicon, and it’s further purified by bubbling oxygen and other gases through the liquid. Afterward, the silicon metal is poured into ingots for sale.

At this point, industrial-grade silicon is about 95 to 99 percent pure. But it needs to be far purer than that before it is usable in the electronics industry. So silicon metal next travels to a refining company, such as Germany’s Wacker Chemie or U.S.-based Dow Corning. It’s combined with hydro-chloric acid to form trichlorosilane, a volatile liquid that is repeatedly distilled and purified.

Afterward, the trichlorosilane is converted to polysilicon (a form of silicon that’s 99.9999 percent pure) and hydrochloric acid. The United States is the leading producer of polysilicon, followed by Japan.

Assembling the Circuits
Next, the block of polysilicon journeys to a wafer fabrication facility. Silicon wafers are the foundation on which all microchips are built. Each is a thin, circular plate of extremely pure silicon, typically 150mm, 200mm, or 300mm in diameter and between 0.5mm and 0.75mm thick. Japan is the largest producer of silicon wafers, with the U.S. coming in second.

At the wafer factory, polysilicon is melted in a fused silica crucible and then carefully crystallized into cylindrical silicon ingots. The ingots are sawn into thin circular wafers, which are polished until they’re extremely flat. Finally, silicon wafers are shipped to the chip foundry, where they will be made into microprocessors.

In the entire PC production chain, this is the one step in which the United States still has a stake in production. Intel makes about half of its CPUs in the U.S., although it is expanding production to overseas factories in Leixlip, Ireland, and in Jerusalem. AMD makes the majority of its chips in Dresden, Germany.

Once complete, the wafer contains hundreds of tiny, rectangular chips. The chips are tested for flaws while still on the wafer. Then, in Intel’s case, whole wafers are shipped overseas to processing plants in Malaysia or the Philippines, where they’re sawn apart before being tested again and assembled into the familiar ceramic packages with wires sticking out of them–what most of us would recognize as “chips.”

From CPU to PC
The next step in the assembly of a notebook is placing the chip on a printed circuit board–the notebook’s motherboard. This final leg of the journey begins, most likely, in a factory just outside of Shanghai, China.

Circuit boards are typically made of epoxy and glass or ceramic, upon which circuits made of copper paths have been etched using a process similar to the one used in microchip fabrication, except on a far larger scale. Taiwan entered the motherboard manufacturing market in the late 1970s and quickly dominated the industry. But Taiwanese manufacturers now outsource most of the manufacturing of their boards to China, where labor is cheaper.

In addition to the CPU, a motherboard uses hundreds of other components, including transistors, resistors, diodes, LEDs, capacitors, and more, all of which are plugged or soldered into place. These are mostly made in China, from a wide variety of materials. For example, transistors and diodes are usually made of silicon or germanium, whereas light-emitting diodes use different compounds, depending on their color (aluminum gallium arsenide for red light, indium gallium nitride for blue).

Additional components, such as modems and wireless cards, may be plugged into the motherboard. A hard drive, optical drive, battery pack, LCD, keyboard, and track pad are all added. The notebook’s external casing is snapped and screwed into place. For almost all of these components, the primary suppliers are in China or Southeast Asia (see the graphic on page 89 for more detailed info).

The final step is adding the branding: the logo identifying a notebook’s ostensible “manufacturer.” The finished notebook is then shipped to a distribution point in the U.S., Europe, or Asia, depending on where it will be sold.

Toxic Electronics?
The list of substances that go into a notebook is long, and many of the chemicals used, such as beryllium, lead, chromium, and mercury compounds, are toxic or carcinogenic to humans. But how much of a risk are these chemicals in reality?

The answer depends on what you mean by risk. For PC users most of these chemicals are not hazardous, since they’re present in very small amounts and are well contained within the notebook’s plastic and metal housing.

The standout exceptions are brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which are used in plastics. Computers and consumer electronics products appear to emit BFRs for some time, and in one recent study, BFRs were found in dust samples taken from dozens of different office environments. The toxicity of BFRs hasn’t been established, but some people are urging manufacturers to play it safe and eliminate them. “We want companies to go completely bromine-free and use compounds that do not off-gas,” says Ted Smith, the founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an environmental advocacy organization.

Apart from user risk, the use of toxic chemicals in notebooks is a concern because of the risks that these chemicals pose to factory workers–and the environmental damage the chemicals may cause if the computer winds up in a landfill.

As a result, the SVTC urges users not to throw out their PCs, and its Computer Take Back Campaign has been pressuring manufacturers to recycle old computers at the end of their useful lives. (Some, including Dell, already do.) For more information and to find a local recycler, visit the group’s site, www.computertakeback.com.

The Well-Traveled Notebook
The end result of this long production chain is that a supposedly American product from a company such as HP, Dell, or Apple is actually built overseas, almost entirely from overseas components.

In fact, “original design manufacturers,” or ODMs, for example Taiwan’s Quanta Computer, Compal Electronics, and AsusTek, handle an increasing amount of the design work, too, leaving their U.S. partners to do little more than advertising, shipping, and billing. According to market analysis firm iSuppli, 82.6 percent of the notebook PCs made in 2006 were assembled by Taiwanese companies, and more than 85 percent of those were built in the greater Shanghai area.

“What’s happened is the Taiwanese ODMs started off in printed circuit-board assembly and motherboard manufacturing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they’ve just been climbing that value chain ever since,” says Michael J. Palma, an analyst for IDC. “Laptops are now so embedded in the Asian manufacturing base that they’ll continue to be made there for a long while.”

Whether that represents a triumph or a failure of American industrial ingenuity depends on your perspective. But one thing is sure: Even if you never take your new notebook on a plane, it’s already a well-seasoned world traveler.

Inside A Microprocessor
A modern CPU is a three-dimensional complex of circuits, all resting on a thin subtrate of silicon. One chip may contain up to 20 separate layers.
illustration of the various layers of materials inside a microprocessor
Illustration: Inside a Microprocessor

What–And Where–A Laptop Comes From
This Dell Latitude D600 was reaching the end of its useful life, so we hastened its demise and cracked it open. But please, don’t try this at home. You’ll ruin the notebook–and some components, such as the battery, may be hazardous when opened.
illustration of components inside a laptop, annotated with countries of origin
Illustration: Where a Laptop Comes From

Toxics in your PC?
PCs contain a wide range of potentially hazardous chemicals. Although many of these compounds are not dangerous to you as a user (unless you eat your PC), they can still cause environmental problems if your computer isn’t properly recycled.
table listing possibly toxic chemicals inside a typical PC
Illustration: Toxics in Your PC?

A Lithium Ion Battery
Most modern notebook batteries use lithium ion or lithium ion polymer technologies. Here’s what a typical lithium ion battery pack looks like–on the inside.
illustration showing the internals of a lithium-ion battery
Illustration: Inside a Lithium Ion Battery

Link: What’s Inside Your Laptop?

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What’s Inside Your Laptop?