The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 24, 2012
I offer a welcome back to my earlier readers and an introduction for my new ones. I am an independent analyst and consultant with 19 years of experience as a sell side technology analyst, and 13 years of prior experience as an electronics designer and software developer.
The purpose of the Geek’s Reading List is to draw attention to interesting articles I encounter from time to time. I hope that what I find interesting you will find interesting as well. These articles are not to be construed as investment advice, even though I may opine on the wisdom of the markets from time to time. That being said, it is absolutely important that investors understand the industry in which they are investing, along with the trends and developments within that industry. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon.
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Have a good weekend.
1. Q2 semiconductor revenue may be “troubling” indicator of market health
In 2001 I wrote a detailed analysis which predicted that the growth era of the semiconductor industry was (then) in the past. There were/are no large growth markets for semiconductors – just replacement and substitution. Unfortunately, I rather foolishly predicted a collapse in valuation multiples whereas the opposite has occurred. There is nothing unique or unusual about this growth. It’s par for the course in a moribund industry.
“In a troubling sign for the health of the semiconductor market in 2012, Q2 revenue increased by less than 3% compared to the typically weak first quarter. If the semiconductor industry were on a trajectory for stronger annual growth in 2012, sequential growth would be expected to amount to at least 4% or more in Q2.”
2. Tablet market breaks records as PCs falter
People might point to the tablet market as a counterpoint to my above comment. I would argue that the tablet market is due for extreme price compression, and, in any event, the semiconductor content of the average tablet is modest compared to the average PC.
“Most impressive about Apple’s 17.0 million tablet shipments in 2Q’2012 was it nearly matched 2010 total worldwide shipments of 17.3 million for all vendors,” explained ABI Research analyst Jeff Orr. ”Nearly one million of its iPad 2 devices were shipped to US education customers during the period, which contributed to the company’s growth but also its continuing average selling price (ASP) decline.”
3. Gartner’s 2012 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies …
I don’t consider Gartner predictions or analysis to have any value or utility. Nonetheless, some people might find this interesting.
“Big data, 3D printing, activity streams, Internet TV, Near Field Communication (NFC) payment, cloud computing and media tablets are some of the fastest-moving technologies identified in Gartner Inc.’s 2012 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies.”
4. LG’s flexible, plastic e-ink display hits mass production
A bit dated, I know, but interesting nonetheless. Plastic displays could be a big deal because they have the prospect of extremely low cost, meaning disposable dynamic display devices in the not so distant future.
“The technology, known as electronic paper display (EPD), will enable e-reader manufacturers to produce thinner devices and perhaps featuring different form factors from what’s available today, all of this without sacrificing durability. The South Korean company says its plastic display survives repeated 1.5-meter drop tests as well as break and scratch tests with a small urethane hammer.”
5. Chinese solar industry faces weak sales, price war
This article contains a lot of interesting information. It mentions that production of solar cells is essentially trivial with very low barriers to entry – not news to me, but solar advocates who suggest rapid price declines are sustainable might take pause. The article also mentions the loses and massive debts accumulated by Chinese companies – setting aside the opacity of Chinese financial disclosure, these alone may explain the pricing environment: things are really cheap when you sell below cost. Finally, solar advocate would point (absurdly) to the wisdom of the Chinese government in its ‘massive’ move to solar. If Chinese domestic demand was so robust, why are these companies bleeding cash and blaming it on US and EU tariffs?
“Since 2010, the price of polysilicon wafers used to make solar cells has plunged by 73 percent, according to Aaron Chew and Francesco Citro, analysts for Maxim Group, a financial firm in New York City. The price of cells has fallen by 68 percent and that of modules by 57 percent. “The solar manufacturing industry has been wracked by a collapse in pricing,” said Chew and Citro in a report. The major Chinese manufacturers have accumulated a total of $17.5 billion in debt, leaving balance sheets “at the breaking point,” they said.”
6. Vestas Speeds Layoffs in Face of Uncertain Wind Energy Outlook
The wind and solar industries are all about subsidies, without which they are non-viable. There is no reason to suspect this will change any time soon. Despite massive spending by governments, ‘renewable energy’ constitutes a token contribution to electrical production. With governments all over the world struggling with high debt, the gravy train is grinding to a halt.
“The move at the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer stems from lower demand due to sluggish economies around the world and the uncertainty regarding a production tax credit in the U.S., which could expire at the end of this year.”
7. Scientists develop lithium-ion battery that charges 120 times faster than normal
Yet another revolutionary battery breakthrough: if one percent of the ones I read about ever made it to market, the world would be a different place. At least in this article the author mentions the challenges of delivering such a massive amount of power.
“The Korean method takes the cathode material — standard lithium manganese oxide (LMO) in this case — and soaks it in a solution containing graphite. Then, by carbonizing the graphite-soaked LMO, the graphite turns into a dense network of conductive traces that run throughout the cathode. This new cathode is then packaged normally, with an electrolyte and graphite anode, to create the fast-charging li-ion battery. Other factors, such as the battery’s energy density and cycle life seem to remain unchanged.”
8. IBM taking two paths toward making solar power cheaper than fossil fuels
I guess it’s a good thing IBM has so much money to spend on basic research, but I rather doubt a revolution in solar power will emerge as a result.
“The panels that most people are familiar with use silicon as a semiconductor. That has a few advantages, like cheap raw materials and reasonably high efficiency. But manufacturing panels remains expensive, and there aren’t obvious ways of squeezing large gains in efficiency out of standard silicon. So, IBM is looking at materials that don’t involve silicon: thin films and concentrating photovoltaics.”
9. New space-age insulating material for homes, clothing and other everyday uses
There is a lot of interesting stuff going on in material sciences nowadays. These aerogel materials are very exciting and their production could become a major industry. Unfortunately, specifics about costs, etc., are missing from the article.
“Meador said that the aerogel is 5-10 times more efficient than existing insulation, with a quarter-inch-thick sheet providing as much insulation as 3 inches of fiberglass. And there could be multiple applications in thin-but-high-efficiency insulation for buildings, pipes, water heater tanks and other devices.”
10. Why I’m uninstalling Windows 8
The gaming industry has not been kind in its comments regarding Windows 8, so I thought this article from a gaming site, was more of the same. However, most of the comments, which are universally unfavorable, are not gaming specific. What possessed Microsoft to radically overhaul its user interface – which is the one thing most users know about and OS – is a mystery. I continue to predict Windows 8 will be an epic disaster.
“The Metro interface is Windows 8. The desktop that you’re used to is also there, but it’s built as a separate app. Think of it this way: Metro is the shell. The desktop is an app within that shell. If you want to start Steam, you’ll want to launch the Desktop app, and then launch Steam. This is insanity. This is Windows 8.”
11. More RuggedCom Woes
Yet another discovery of weaknesses in RuggedCom’s security firmware. It really makes you wonder what the stock price would be if these disclosures had been made while the company was still publicly traded. Now, of course, it is Siemens’ problem.
“This time, Justin took a different track with the device firmware and showed that all products use the same SSL private key, hard-coded in the firmware. This is fairly typical in cheap consumer-grade embedded products, and has the unfortunate effect that easy Man-In-The-Middle attacks can be performed against products.”
12. Eighth Broadband Progress Report
Nearly every day I read something about the increased use of tablets and broadband in education. With a little less than one third of Americans not subscribing to broadband (and, presumably many of those because they can’t afford it) you really have to wonder what the future of education is in the US. That being said, I live 50 km from Toronto, Canada’s largest city and I can’t get broadband. Indeed, while preparing this week’s Geeks List I repeatedly lost access to the Internet. Good thing my kids don’t have a homework assignment due.
“Notwithstanding this progress, the Report finds that approximately 19 million Americans—6 percent of the population—still lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds. In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population —14.5 million people—lack access to this service. In tribal areas, nearly one-third of the population lacks access. Even in areas where broadband is available, approximately 100 million Americans still do not subscribe.”
13. Darpa Has Seen the Future of Computing … And It’s Analog
I found this article amusing because the author appears to have no idea what a computer is or of the history of computing. In any event, probabilistic computing has been around for a long, long, time, and, while it has its applications, few of those are exactly mainstream. Analog computers are, by their nature, not general purpose or easily reprogrammable, and storage is a problem. I figure if you are going to do probabilistic computing, memristor based neural nets are the way to go.
“Hammerstom, who helped build chips for Intel back in the 1980s, wants the UPSIDE chips to do computing in a whole different way. He’s looking for an alternative to straight-up boolean logic, where the voltage in a chip’s transistor represents a zero or a one. Hammerstrom wants chipmakers to build analog processors that can do probabilistic math without forcing transistors into an absolute one-or-zero state, a technique that burns energy.”
14. Slime mold mimics Canadian highway network (w/ video)
This is actually an example of probabilistic computing (see above). I don’t know how the architects of the highway systems feel being compared to slime mold, however. This story reminds me of an experience I had as a design engineer: we were evaluating a VHDL (hardware design language) compiler and my colleague applied it to a problem I had previously solved, namely an extremely complex memory control state machine. After about a month of work, the system came up with , more or less the same solution I had. To which my boss quipped “A hundred thousand dollars and it’s only as good as Brian!”
“By showing species as low as slime mold can compute a network as complex as the Canadian highway system, we were able to provide some evidence that nature computes.”
15. Programming playground: A whole-cell computational model
This is an interesting exercise, especially because the model appears to be in the public domain. This should allow experimenters to more easily design models for other cells and to perform virtual genetic experiments. Who knows – maybe this will become a novel method for exploring therapeutics. That being said a model of a mouse, no matter how good, tells you nothing about mice. All experiments will have to be replicated in vivo to discover how things actually work.
“Three days ago, Jonathan R. Karr, Jayodita C. Sanghvi and coauthors in Markus W. Covert’s lab published a whole-cell computational model of the life cycle of the human pathogen Mycoplasma genitalium. This is the first model of its kind: they track all biological processes such as DNA replication, RNA transcription and regulation, protein synthesis, metabolism and cell division at the molecular level. To achieve this, the authors integrate 28 different sub-models of the known cellular processes.”
16. Bonobo genius makes stone tools like early humans did
I don’t want to say anything bad about Kanzi, because bonobos can be pretty nasty, but he appears to be applying what he was shown previously. Admittedly, that is interesting, but figuring out, all by himself, how to make stone tools would be an awful lot more exciting.
“Perhaps most remarkable about the tools Kanzi created is their resemblance to early hominid tools. Both bonobos made and used tools to obtain food – either by extracting it from logs or by digging it out of the ground. But only Kanzi’s met the criteria for both tool groups made by early Homo: wedges and choppers, and scrapers and drills.”
17. The Black Death is dead (thanks to evolution)
I hate it when articles written about evolution provide deterministic explanations. It shows a weak grasp of the theory: selection pressures do not have deterministic outcomes and creatures don’t ‘have to’ do anything. This could have played out an infinite number of ways. In any event, we have no idea whether the Black Death is dead – it could be ‘resting’. Of course, antibiotics and modern health practices would quickly contain any outbreak.
“In other words, the original plague died out, probably long ago. The likely explanation is just this: the Black Death was simply too deadly to persist. Evolutionary theory tells us that a pathogen that kills all its victims will eventually run out of victims, leading to its own extinction. The plague bacteria needed to evolve into something less virulent, and that seems to be what happened. A bug that doesn’t kill its host is far more successful evolutionarily. (Just look at the common cold, which we can’t seem to get rid of.)”
18. Universal vaccine could eliminate annual flu shots
This is an interesting story and, if it works out, could be a big deal in public health. The reason I included it is the lesson it provides for what passes for journalism nowadays. Rather than focusing on the science, some halfwit journalist decided to call up a anti-vaccination organization for their counterpoint. Have a look at the Vaccine Risk Awareness wbsite (www.vran.org) and see if you can find out what Ms. West’s qualifications are. Appalling.
“I had a child who suffered a severe vaccine reaction … it’s a real wake-up call,” said Edda West, a founding member of the Vaccination Risk Awareness Network. West said only 10 per cent of all flu-like illnesses are actually caused by the influenza virus. “Even if their vaccine is super-successful and 100 per cent effective, and every person in this country gets it, you’re still going to have 90 per cent of those people coming down with flu-like illnesses,” she said.”
19. New Hover Vehicle Recalls ‘Star Wars’ Bike
This looks seriously cool but I doubt anything like it will be on the market any time soon. It seems to be a military project with the end product expected to be an (unmanned drone). Since making a drone would be easier than making a manned version, I figure they just made the manned version to have a blast.
“The aerial vehicle resembles a science fiction flying bike with two ducted rotors instead of wheels, but originates from a design abandoned in the 1960s because of stability and rollover problems.”
20. The iPhone 5 Leaked!
With Apple being the most valuable company in the world, any information regarding their next earth shaking product is of great interest.