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Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Big-Bang Machine : Large hadron Collider

Since the world is going to end later this year when the European Organization for Nuclear Research finally turns on the Large Hadron Collider (which will create mini-black holes, magnetic monopoles, or convert all the matter in the universe into exotic strangelets that will get big enough to turn into matter-sucking maelstroms), this might be a good time to make amends and prep for that all.
Unlocking the secrets of the universe doesn't come cheap. The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has spent at least 10 years and $8 billion building the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's biggest particle accelerator, under the Alps. This month, CERN will power up the LHC, and, later this summer, start smashing particles together to try to understand the beginnings of life, the universe -- and everything. Scientists hope the answers to vexing mysteries (What causes mass? How did matter survive the big bang?) will eventually emerge from the debris. Here's a cheat sheet to the world's biggest science project.

1.Two beams of protons are propelled in opposite directions around a 17-MILE CIRCULAR TUNNEL, located at least 165 feet beneath the French-Swiss border. Building subsurface meant lower costs (no need to buy up acres and acres of land) and a natural rock shield for the radiation produced by the LHC.

2. The particles will be guided around the tunnel by more than 1,600 superpowerful, cylinder-shaped ELECTROMAGNETS, some of which weigh more than 30 tons. The protons will zoom around the ring up to 11,245 times per second, reaching 99.9999991% of the speed of light.

3. At four points in the ring, magnets will push the beams together, causing up to 600 million PROTON COLLISIONS per second. If all goes as planned, these high-speed, high-energy crashes will create bursts of rare forces and particles that haven't been seen since the big bang 13.7 billion years ago.

4. Four huge PARTICLE DETECTORS -- the biggest, ATLAS, is 150 feet long, 82 feet high, and has more than 100 million sensors -- will track and measure the particles at each collision. Filters will discard all but the 100 most interesting crashes per second. This will still produce enough data to fill a 12-mile-high stack of CDs per year.

Then What? The results will be analyzed by 100,000 processors and thousands of scientists around the world. CERN predicts that within a year they will be able to identify particles that had previously existed only in theory. Physicists will be hunting for the elusive Higgs boson, or "god particle," which is believed to imbue matter with mass. "We'll either find it," says CERN's James Gillies, "or prove that it doesn't exist." Particle physicists also hope to learn more about the composition of dark matter and dark energy -- the invisible stuff that makes up 96% of the universe. They also want to prove that science fiction is actually reality by finding evidence of extra dimensions beyond our 3-D world.

General Motors introduces hybrid car sales in China

Customers look at Buick and Chevrolet cars at a sales office in Beijing in this Oct. 18, 2006 file photo. General Motors Corp. will sell its first gas-electric hybrid cars in China in July, introducing a model created in part by GM's Shanghai design center, the company said Saturday. (AP Photo/Greg Baker, File)

General Motors Corp. will sell its first gas-electric hybrid cars in China in July, introducing a model created in part by GM's Shanghai design center, the company said Saturday.

The Buick LaCrosse will be the second hybrid to enter the Chinese automobile market following Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius in early 2006.

The LaCrosse is due to be unveiled Sunday at the Beijing auto show, GM managers said. They said it would be priced under 300,000 yuan ($43,000; 27,000 euros) — comparable to the Prius.

"We don't expect to see a very high volume of sales of this car in China in a short period of time. But we bring this technology to help China support sustainable growth and bring consumers in that direction," Joseph Liu, GM China's vice president for sales, told reporters.

The car was developed with contributions from GM's Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center in Shanghai, said Maryann Combs, the center's president.

Hybrids improve fuel efficiency and cut emissions by generating extra power from the brakes as a vehicle stops. But they also cost more because they require both gasoline and electric motors.

GM says the LaCrosse will be the first hybrid made in China. The Prius is assembled from imported parts.

Toyota has sold about 2,500 Priuses in China since 2006, but sales are slowing in part because Chinese drivers are unfamiliar with hybrids, according to reports in the industry press.

GM has made China, the world's second-largest and fastest-growing vehicle market, a key part of its efforts to develop alternative power sources. It announced plans in October for a $250 million (euro158.43 million) fuel research center in Shanghai.

On Saturday, chairman Rick Wagoner took part in opening an automotive energy research center partly financed by GM at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the alma mater of President Hu Jintao.

GM hopes the Chinese government will introduce incentives to encourage sales of alternative vehicles, Liu said.

The company plans to introduce a hybrid version of the Cadillac Escalade sport SUV in China next year, followed by an all-electric car as early as 2010, he said.

GM says it sold just over 1 million vehicles in China last year.

20 Percent of Scientists Admit Using Brain-Enhancing Drugs -- Do You?

Nature released the results of an online survey in which 20 percent of respondents, largely drawn from the scientific community, admitted to using brain-enhancing drugs like Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Provigil (modafinil).

Sixty-two percent of the scientists who had taken drugs used Ritalin while 44 percent reported using Provigil and only 14 percent had tried beta blockers like propranolol.

The 1,427-person survey was launched after a duo of articles this winter touched off a storm of questions about widespread neuroenhancer use by the scientific community. Jonathan Eisen of UC-Davis, an evolutionary biologist, even successfully spread an April Fools' rumor that the National Institutes of Health were planning to regulate the use of brain "steroids" as a condition of funding scientists.

All of this led me to ask scientists (and other readers) three questions:

1. Have you used cognitive enhancers?
2. Did they work for you?
3. Would you talk to me about your experiences?

Feel free to comment, e-mail (,

Fitting MySQL into Sun's orbit

Sun recently experienced a hail of criticism when the company hinted that some add-ons for the popular open source database, MySQL, might be available only for paid customers.

Today Marten Mickos, former CEO at MySQL AB and now senior vice president of Sun’s database group, backed off the statement, saying that Sun has not made an official decision.

Sun, which acquired MySQL earlier this year for over $1 billion dollars, raised the ire of the MySQL community when it suggested that some high-end features due to arrive in MySQL 6 would be available only to paying customers.

A shrill chorus of critics on Slashdot and throughout the online world loudly condemned the potential move and accused Sun and MySQL of betraying the community that has helped make it successful. MySQL claims users in the tens of millions.

Mickos responded to the Slashdot post saying:

In 6.0 there will be native backup functionality in the server available for anyone and all (Community, Enterprise) under GPL.

Additionally we will develop high-end add-ons (such as encryption, native storage engine-specific drivers) that we will deliver to customers in the MySQL Enterprise product only. We have not yet decided under what license we will release those add-ons (GPL, some other FOSS license, and/or commercial).

MySQL is used by a host of major Web businesses, including Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Under Mickos' leadership, outside analysts estimate, the private company garnered about $50 million in revenue last year while making its source code available for anyone to use or adapt at no cost. MySQL charges for technical support and collects licensing fees from companies that use the code in their own proprietary software.

But Mickos recently traded his chief executive title for that of senior vice president at tech giant Sun Microsystems, which acquired MySQL for $1 billion this year. And last week, as 2,000 programmers and users gathered for the annual MySQL conference at the Santa Clara Convention Center, some open-source enthusiasts blogged with alarm on learning that MySQL may offer "add-on" features to paying subscribers, without including them in the free version.

Others said that's not unusual. Mickos posted responses on several blogs, saying the move predates Sun's acquisition and is part of an effort to build revenue while keeping the core product open-source. He also said there's no decision on how the add-ons may ultimately be licensed.

Mickos' new boss, Sun CEO

Jonathan Schwartz, has called the open-source model a cornerstone of Sun's business, and describes MySQL as a key element of Sun's drive to supply everything from hardware to software for clients around the world.
We asked Mickos how MySQL fits into Sun's efforts; the following was edited for length and clarity.

Q Is Sun's approach to open source any different from what yours has been?

A With open source, you can't find two companies with exactly the same view. But when we discussed acquisition, they said we are acquiring you for what you are, not to change you.

Q Sun said downloads of your products increased from 50,000 a day to 60,000 after the deal was announced. Is that continuing?

A They did increase, but we may have reached saturation levels. (Laughs.) How many developers are there in the world?

Another thing we measure is the number of blog postings mentioning MySQL, and they have grown significantly.

Q That could be a positive or a negative, though.

A No, this is open source. It doesn't matter what they say. A blog posting saying, "MySQL stinks and here are all the defects," is a positive one. And this is what closed-source companies don't get.

When somebody is complaining about your product, they are saying, "I would love to love you but I cannot currently." These people will become your most passionate users if you listen to them and if you take action.

Q What's the conversion rate, or number of customers who are paying for MySQL compared with those who use it for free?

A We don't call it a conversion rate, because there are many who will never convert. We have worldwide about 1,000 non-paying users for every paying customer. But then, kids at the age of 11, they download our stuff and play around with it. Every student downloads it, every developer.

It's common thinking: Hey, you're open source and it's free - you will never amount to anything. But it's not true.

Yes, we will have millions who will never pay us. If you run a blog on WordPress, you don't necessarily need me to service you or your database. But if you are YouTube or Flickr or Facebook or Nokia or Cisco, then you need us, and you pay. You couldn't scale the way you scale if you didn't have MySQL and if you didn't have support from the vendor, from Sun.

Q Are you expecting to see MySQL integrated into other Sun products?

A Integrating with Sun's products is an attractive thing, but it's not the main idea. The main idea of the acquisition and of our business generally is to be the platform for the Web economy. Now, with the help of Sun, we will be able to accelerate this.

We had in our field organization 200 people; Sun has 17,000. We have a lot of usage in the big corporations, but we haven't been able to sell to them and become key vendors for them yet. With Sun, we get instant access to the big Fortune 500 and Fortune 2000 customers.

And to those who do want more than the database, we'll be able to say, "If you need the operating system, the middleware, the hardware, the development environment, you can get that from us, too."

Q Are you expecting your number of employees (currently about 400 people) to grow, and will your workforce become more concentrated here in Northern California?

A We have a distributed organization, with about 70 percent of our people working from home in 30 countries around the world.

We are a growth business and the mandate we have from Sun is to continue to grow even faster than before. So we'll continue to hire the best people, wherever they are. We have programmers in China, India, Scandinavia, the Ukraine.

The interesting thing is we have one programmer in California and he's in Los Angeles. (Laughs.) Offices are so last century.

Q Would you expect MySQL's corporate culture to change now that you are part of Sun?

A I do think it will change, but we've always had that mindset at MySQL of saying: "What are the core values that we must not change?" - but then let us change everything else.

Q You've been in Silicon Valley for five years, but you have worked in other parts of the world. What's your sense of how Silicon Valley's role in the tech industry has changed?

A Silicon Valley has changed from being a production center to a trading place. There's still development and production being done here, but this is a place where you get together to strike a deal, build partnerships, have your (conferences and other) events.

Q One component of MySQL is a product called InnoDB, developed by a company that was acquired by Oracle. Do you feel any pressure to drop that component, for competitive reasons?

A We continue to use the component. It's very good, but there are many alternatives, so it's not that we are dependent on them. The surprising thing is it's good for Oracle to have a presence in our ecosystem and it's good for us that that little piece of software is now having the backing (from Oracle) and we can trust it.

Q It's an open-source product, but you pay a license fee for it?

A It is open-source. We do pay them money for the commercial benefit we get from it. They provide us support and other things.

We always had the view that the fact that it's open-source doesn't mean you can't pay money for it. We pay money for value and our customers pay us money for value.

Google shares soar 20 percent to record- only 1-day gain

Google Inc.'s stock soared 20 percent Friday, restoring $28 billion in shareholder wealth as Wall Street renewed its love affair with the Internet search leader after weeks of worry about an online advertising slowdown.

Driven by stellar first-quarter results that surprised industry analysts, Google shares surged $89.87 to finish at $539.41. It marked the biggest one-day gain since Google's initial public stock offering in August 2004, leaving the shares at their highest closing price since January.

Google had lost favor with investors as Web surfing data and the faltering U.S. economy raised concerns that people aren't clicking as frequently on the Internet advertising links that generate most of the Mountain View-based company's revenue.

The trend threatened to chip away at Google's earnings because the company typically gets paid by the click.

Although there were signs of decelerated clicking in the United States, Google more than offset any negative effects by expanding its foreign business and tweaking its online ad system in a way that helped reap more revenue per click.

The first-quarter performance reinforced the belief that Google is a "must-own stock," American Technology Research analyst Rob Sanderson wrote in a Friday note.

"While (economic) concerns won't be completely dispelled, we believe the growth story remains intact and investors will again fall in love," he wrote.

Dinosaur Securities analyst David Garrity also is convinced that the worst is over for Google's stock, which was down 35 percent in 2008 before the first-quarter earnings changed investor sentiment.

"We think (Google's stock) has seen its 2008 low. Onward and upward," wrote Garrity, who expects the price to hit $750 during the next year.

Friday's rally still left Google shares well below their peak of $747.24 reached less than six months ago. At that point, Google's market value stood at $235 billion, about $66 billion, or nearly 40 percent higher, than at Friday's close.

Whether Google's stock can get back to where it once was will depend largely on how much more the company's earnings and revenue growth tapers off. With the company's annual revenue headed toward $20 billion, it's becoming more difficult to produce the hefty gains that excite investors.

For instance, Google's first-quarter revenue climbed 42 percent. That's impressive, but well below the 63 percent growth in 2007's first quarter.

Google's profits could be squeezed later this year if it has to spend more money to upgrade the data centers that power its search engine and other online services like e-mail, said Collins Stewart analyst Sandeep Aggarwal. He said he thinks additional investments probably will be needed, given some of the data centers are three or four years old.

Microsoft Corp.'s bid to acquire Yahoo Inc. also could create a more formidable competitor to Google. Recognizing the threat, Google is trying to help Yahoo thwart Microsoft's takeover bid by using its lucrative advertising system to place commercial links on Yahoo's Web site. The potential partnership, in the midst of a test scheduled to be completed next week, would likely face intense antitrust scrutiny.

If nothing else, analysts believe Google wants to delay a combination between Microsoft and Yahoo for as long as possible to give it a better chance to widen its lead in the Internet search market, which currently generates the biggest chunk of online advertising.

Google ended the first quarter with a 60 percent share of the U.S. search market, up from 58 percent at the end of the fourth quarter, according to comScore Media Metrix. Yahoo was in second at a 21 percent share followed by Microsoft at 9 percent.

Despite the challenges ahead, Google still has ample opportunities to grow as advertisers shift more of their spending to the Internet from other media like newspapers, magazines, radio and television.

The Internet is expected to capture about 7 percent, or $44 billion, of the total worldwide advertising market this year. Analysts say the percentage of Internet advertising lags behind the amount of time consumers are spending online, suggesting that marketers will need to ramp up their spending even more if they want to reach potential customers.

Google also has been adding more advertising vehicles to supplement its search engine. Just last month, the company bought DoubleClick Inc. for $3.2 billion in an effort to sell more graphical advertising. And Google is starting to show more video advertising through its increasingly popular clip-sharing site,

Finally, the first quarter represented a tipping point in Google's maturation into an international company that's becoming less vulnerable to the ups and downs of the U.S. economy. Google collected most of its first-quarter revenue outside the United States, the first time that has happened in the company's 9 1/2-year history.

Besides diversifying its business, the higher international revenue should also help boost Google's profit because it should keep company's tax rate slightly lower than it has been in past years.

Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt left little doubt he expects the company to prosper as he hailed the first quarter results.

"It's clear we are well positioned for 2008 and beyond, regardless of the business environment we are surrounded by," Schmidt told analysts.

CEO of the Year : Mark Hurd has earned a name at Hewlett-Packard

When Mark Hurd was named chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co. in March 2005, the first question on some observers' lips was: Mark who?

The top spot at HP was formerly occupied by Carly Fiorina, the jet-setting favorite of magazine covers who had orchestrated the merger with Compaq Computer Corp. in 2002. Her replacement was the chief executive of NCR, a much smaller, Midwestern company known for making cash registers and ATMs.

While Wall Street showed early support for the quick hire, many held their breath. Would the new CEO turn around HP's woes, which included struggles to make money in the PC and server market, and a recent dearth of innovation, once HP's bread and butter. Could one man take HP back to the top of the tech world?

The short answer has been yes.

Since Hurd's arrival, HP's stock price has more than doubled. In fiscal 2007, which ended in October, HP's annual revenue reached $104 billion, eclipsing the $100 billion mark for the first time and allowing HP to overtake rival IBM. In fiscal 2007, the company's earnings totaled $7.3 billion, a 17 percent increase from the $6.2 billion earned in fiscal 2006. Profit grew not just from cost cutting but from real growth across the board.

In 2006, HP also reclaimed the top PC-maker title from Dell Inc., confirming the company's decision to buy Compaq and later retain the PC business instead of spinning it off, as some pundits had suggested.

And unlike under Fiorina's watch, HP has consistently exceeded analysts' earnings estimates. In February, it beat Wall Street's projections for the 10th straight quarter, a streak that has cheered investors.

Hurd "hit the ground running and never looked back," said analyst Jeff Embersits of Shareholder Value Management.

HP's performance in the past three years has earned Hurd the title of The Chronicle 200's CEO of the year. The company stands at No. 2 on the list of the Bay Area's top 200 public companies by revenue.

Hurd, however, is uneasy with the quick assessment of him as a turnaround artist.

"Running a company like HP, which is so global and so diversified, is absolutely a team sport," Hurd said in an interview. "I'm very honored to receive the recognition, but it's about the people at HP driving this thing."

That modesty is typical of Hurd, who has cut a different figure from his predecessor. Fiorina was the well-known charismatic face of HP, a visionary who championed the merger with Compaq when scoffers questioned the deal. But Fiorina struggled to put her vision into practice and realize the fruits of her signature merger.

Formula for success
Hurd, who built his reputation by turning around NCR, has been able to help HP unlock its potential by quietly stressing execution, growth, efficiency and accountability, all the while keeping a low profile.

"Carly was criticized for being a public jet-setter, but you don't get that sense of flamboyance from Mark," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupiter Research. "He's very nuts and bolts, focused on what needs to be done, and delivering on that."

When Hurd arrived, HP was working to find direction. The company's finances were solid but sluggish, with a stock price hovering around $20 per share. HP was struggling to turn a profit in PCs and servers and relied on its printing business for profit. Some were calling for a spin-off of the low-margin PC business, following the lead of IBM, which sold its computer unit to Lenovo.

Hurd came in and cut 15,000 employees just four months into his new job. He then began looking at ways, both small and big, to squeeze more efficiency out of HP.

He reduced the number of people who weighed in on major decisions, entrusting more autonomy and responsibility to his managers. The move sped up the decision-making process and also saved almost $2 billion.

He also split up the sales and marketing group, dividing them up among the major business units. The decision again granted managers more power to direct their sales spending, simplifying what used to be a complicated process.

"My principles: Do it simple, and have accountability and responsibility," Hurd said in a 2005 presentation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Hurd's reign had one other significant hurdle: a 2006 scandal involving then-Chairwoman Patricia Dunn and at least four others over "pretexting," obtaining phone records of board members, journalists, employees and others in an attempt to identify who was leaking confidential company information to the media. Hurd replaced Dunn in September 2006, and the scandal gradually faded away.

Pushing his managers has been one of Hurd's tools for success. He has granted them more responsibility, but in return he expects more from them and has recognized their efforts when they perform. That has created challenges but also sowed loyalty among his managers, said Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group.

"Hurd knows who's playing him and who's not, and he pushes his people to make commitments a little ahead of what they think they can do and then drives them to meet them," Enderle said.

The results have been noticeable, especially for the once-maligned PC business, which struggled to turn a profit. It has now grown into the jewel of the company, Enderle said.

Revenue for the personal systems group, which makes PCs, grew to $36.4 billion in fiscal 2007, a 36 percent increase from 2005. In the first quarter of 2008, the group reported a 52 percent rise in profit, to $628 million, with an operating margin of 5.8 percent. In the first quarter of 2005, just before Hurd arrived, the same unit generated $147 million with a profit margin of 2.1 percent.

From fiscal 2005 to 2007, the technology solutions group, which handles business storage and servers plus the imaging and printing group, grew by 13 percent.

Hurd has also been working to provide new vision at HP. He declared that HP's goal is to be the leading information technology company in the world, and to that end it would regain its mantle of being one of the most innovative companies in technology. HP, he reaffirmed, is a technology company.

Last year, HP said it was shaking up its famed HP Labs under the guidance of new director Prith Banerjee. The labs would take on fewer projects and focus its efforts on executing on ideas that could lead to usable technology.

"For us to lead, we have to lead in technology and service, not just market share," Hurd said.

While HP has refined its focus on its existing businesses, under Hurd's guidance it is betting big on a three future major growth areas. The company is looking to expand in next-generation data centers, mobile computing, and new imaging and printing endeavors, which includes HP's move into commercial printing. All three are areas where HP hasn't been a dominant player.

Turbulence lurking
While the first three years have been rosy for Hurd, other than the pretexting scandal. potential turbulence lies ahead. With tech spending falling due to the economic slowdown in the United States, it will be harder for HP to keep up its stellar performance and meet its goal of $111 billion in revenue this fiscal year.

Some analysts also wonder how much more efficiency Hurd can wring out of the company. And others are waiting to see if Hurd can follow up his initial steps of cutting costs and reorganization with real innovation.

"Hurd's proven he can execute and grow," said analyst Shaw Wu, with American Technology Research. "Now he has to prove he can innovate. That's yet to be seen."

Hurd is upbeat about the future of HP. He said the company should emerge from the economic downturn relatively unscathed because it is positioned well overseas, with almost 70 percent of its revenue generated abroad.

And he said the talent at HP will continue to shine under his watch, ensuring a bright future for the company.

"We've done some things well, and some thing I wish we did faster," Hurd said. "But I believe the best days of HP are ahead of us."

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