The toxic secret of Samsung’s success: Best of the Web

The emergence of South Korea after World War 2 to the status of scientific, industrial and technological powerhouse has been inexorably linked to the growth of the Samsung Group of companies. But is there a darker side to this story?

As Cam Simpson at BusinessWeek explains, the conglomerate represents nearly a quarter of South Korea’s entire economy:

Many Koreans revere Samsung. In part that’s because its success mirrors their own climb from a war that divided a country, killed millions, and left millions more destitute. In 1961, eight years after the Korean War ended in a stalemate, South Korea’s per capita gross domestic product was $92, less than that of Sudan, Sierra Leone, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. By last year, South Koreans had the world’s 15th-largest economy. Almost 24%  of GDP came from the revenue of the Samsung Group, a conglomerate made up of dozens of businesses including a life insurance company, a heavy-construction company, the world’s second-biggest shipbuilder, and of course Samsung Electronics.

While Samsung competes in many industries, from ships to theme parks, the heart of the company is Samsung Electronics, and the many firms in the group that supply it with chips and components.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, many of these semiconductors were produced by American firms in Silicon Valley.   However, production moved offshore as public concerns grew about the chemicals used to make them:

Despite the reliance on cleanrooms, semiconductor manufacturing has never been a particularly clean business. Chipmakers have been using extremely hazardous chemicals since the early… As the impact of chemicals dispersed into the Valley’s environment caused concern, alarm bells also sounded over the far greater concentrations workers potentially faced inside the plants. Chemicals used to make semiconductors, or byproducts created from the complex manufacturing processes involved in putting circuits onto and into silicon wafers, include known and likely human carcinogens such as benzene, trichloroethylene, ethylene oxide, Arsine gas, and arsenic trioxide. The chemical cocktails, often used as chip baths, and a lack of ventilation intended to reduce the dust inside semiconductor plants fell under increasing scrutiny—just as semiconductor manufacturing was departing California and the rest of the U.S. for the lower-wage shores of Asia.

As Simpson discovers, some of the chemicals used in this production process can have a devastating impact on both employees and their families:

Just inside his single-story home, built of concrete blocks and coated in turquoise paint, Hwang Sang-ki, a 58-year-old Korean taxi driver, sits on a floor mat… “Here,” says Hwang, pointing to two women in the center of the group. Both had the same job at the same semiconductor factory, on the same line, standing side by side at the same workstation, dipping computer chips into the same vat of chemicals. Both got a particularly aggressive form of the blood cancer known as acute myeloid leukaemia. One was his daughter, Yu-mi. In South Korea, only about 3 out of every 100,000 people die of leukaemia. “They worked together, and they died,” says Hwang. The snapshot is among a few private memories Hwang keeps of his late daughter.

Recently, despite the economic might of Samsung and the national pride associated with the company, the situation has come under increasing scrutiny in South Korea:

The story of the two women, and dozens of Samsung workers with leukaemia and other rare cancers, is now a very public one in South Korea. In February and March, Koreans could see two movies depicting the seven-year battle led by the Hwangs and other families against Korea’s biggest and most influential corporation. Another Promise, released in February, tells the story of a thinly veiled Hwang and his daughter, who went to work at a Samsung semiconductor plant in 2003, when she was 18, and died at 22.

Graphene: Developing a miracle material

While the chemicals used to manufacture silicon wafers are coming under increasing scrutiny, some are calling a new material, called graphene, the next big thing.

So what’s so great about graphene? Nick Bilton from the New York Times explains:

Graphene is the strongest, thinnest material known to exist. A form of carbon, it can conduct electricity and heat better than anything else. And get ready for this: It is not only the hardest material in the world, but also one of the most pliable.

There are many other benefits to this wonder compound as well:

The American Chemical Society said in 2012 that graphene was discovered to be 200 times stronger than steel and so thin that a single ounce of it could cover 28 football fields. Chinese scientists have created a graphene aerogel, an ultralight material derived from a gel, that is one-seventh the weight of air. A cubic inch of the material could balance on one blade of grass.

So what do you do with graphene? Physicists and researchers say that we will soon be able to make electronics that are thinner, faster and cheaper than anything based on silicon, with the option of making them clear and flexible. Long-lasting batteries that can be submerged in water are another possibility.

It will come as little surprise that the tech industry is investing some serious research dollars into this new wonder material:

Samsung is not the only company working to develop graphene. Researchers at IBM, Nokia and SanDisk have been experimenting with the material to create sensors, transistors and memory storage.

When these electronics finally hit store shelves, they could look and feel like nothing we’ve ever seen.

Obviously, it’s early days. However, the progress on developing graphene-based tech is worth keeping an eye on. Who knows – it might be coming soon to a home theatre near you.

Is open source still more secure?

For years, proponents of open source software have argued that making the source code to computer programs freely available inevitably makes them more secure.

However, at the centre of the Heartbleed bug, the biggest security scare of the year, lies a piece of open source software. So is open source still more secure?

Over at Datamotion, Bruce Byfield investigates:

As [open source advocate] Eric Raymond famously said, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Yet, somehow, Heartbleed appears to have existed for over two years before being discovered. It may even have been used by American security agencies in their surveillance of the public.

Tired of FOSS’s continual claims of superior security, some Windows and OS X users welcome the idea that Heartbleed has punctured FOSS pretensions. But is that what has happened? To what extent does Heartbleed challenge or re-affirm FOSS’ belief that it represents a superior method of software development?

The historic argument in favour of open source security has been that more developers looking at code mean a greater likelihood of problems being picked up:

Raymond made his famous statement in his 1999 book The Cathedral and the Bazaar. A comparison of proprietary and FOSS methods of software development, the book summarizes the beliefs of many FOSS developers – then and now – about why their work habits are supposed to produce higher quality software with fewer bugs.

Implicit in the description is not only the idea that peer review can substitute for software testing, but also that no special effort is needed to detect bugs. Simply by going about their business as developers, FOSS project members are likely to notice bugs so that they can be repaired.

However, as some leading OpenSSL developers explain, there are some problems with this theory in practice:

Robin Seggelmann, the OpenSSL developer who claims responsibility for Heartbleed, says that both he and a reviewer missed the bug. He concludes that more reviewers are needed to avoid a repetition of the incident — that there were not enough eyes in this case.

Another conclusion that might be drawn from Seggelmann’s account is that depending on developers to review their own work is not a good idea. Unless considerable time passes between the writing of the code and the review, the developers are probably too close to the code to be likely to observe the flaws in it.

If your business relies on open source software, the implications of Heartbleed are certainly worth considering.

Is Condoleeza Rice the next Brendan Eich?

Finally, last week in Control Shift, I suggested that the criticism suffered by former Mozilla chief executive Brendan Eich would become an increasingly common phenomena in the age of social media.

As if to underline the point, this week DropBox came under criticism after adding former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to its board of directors.

Once again, the debate has raged all over the internet. So, once again, here are both sides of the story.

Over at TechDirt, Mike Masnick has been beating up concerns over the appointment of Rice to the board:

Dropbox is probably the most well-known of the cloud storage providers out there, and it’s angling for an IPO. As such, it recently made some changes in its management, including a bit of news that is getting a fair bit of attention: adding Condoleezza Rice to its board. Rice’s consulting firm has apparently been advising the company for the past year, and the announcement says that the former Secretary of State will help Dropbox navigate “international expansion and privacy” issues. While she’s certainly qualified to help with international issues, it’s the privacy issues that are raising significant concern among many.

As for Dropbox, there have certainly been quite a few concerns about how private your data is on the site. When the first slides about PRISM came out, it was noted that Dropbox was about to become a part of the program. And while the fears about PRISM are greatly overstated, Dropbox has been fighting against public perception over this for some time. Dropbox’s CEO, Drew Houston, spoke out against the NSA’s efforts at the State of the Net conference back in January, and the company recently changed its privacy policies to address concerns about NSA spying. The company has also taken a strong stand saying that it will protect users’ data against blanket government requests and backdoors.

It seems once again a senior tech company figure is coming under criticism, both in social media and in the mainstream media, because of their political beliefs or affiliations.

This time, even colourful US political commentator Rush Limbaugh has joined in the debate, with a column titled “Liberal Fascists try to drive Condi Rice from Dropbox Board”:

They also announced they’d added Condoleezza Rice to their board of directors, and now there is a massive movement throughout the tech world to get her thrown off the Dropbox board of directors because she wiretapped people.  She was part of the Bush administration, secretary of state, warrantless wiretaps.  They are trying to get rid of her. Condoleezza Rice had nothing to do with it.

These leftists, these militants, are gonna start pressuring Dropbox the same way Mozilla was, until they drop Condoleezza Rice. They’re not gonna give it up.  It’s bigotry.  It is hatred.  This is McCarthyism. It’s a number of other things, too. You might even say it’s racism because Condoleezza Rice is black.

It is unlikely that Rice will resign like Eich did. That said, as I said last week, the hysterical commentary  about new company executives – especially where they hold strong political or social views – is likely to become far more prevalent in the future.

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