The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 26th, 2012

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 26th, 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.

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. I am trying to reconstruct my distribution list so if you receive this newsletter and want to be added to the distribution list, send me an email at

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Brian Piccioni


1.        AMD Faces Looming Cash Crunch Amid Quest for New Markets

When I got my first job as a financial analyst, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I had to be able to read and understand financial statements. You know – analyse financial stuff. This appears to be a lost art: not only has actual knowledge of industry been dropped as a prerequisite, and understanding of the impact of the business on finances appears optional, at least until management stresses it in a press release. For budding MBAs out there, note the comment about AMD CDS spreads and bond pricing. So much for the efficient markets hypothesis which underpins all finance theory.

“If the trend continues, cash levels may drop to $600 million by this time next year, according to an estimate by Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. That compares with the $1.1 billion in reserves the company said it requires, and a quarterly operating expense target of $450 million. AMD has $2.04 billion of debt. “I’d never been worried about cash flow; I am now worried,” said Stacy Rasgon, an analyst at Bernstein.”

2.        Combating fake chips by controlling supply chain

This is not a new problem: back in the 1980s I designed mobile phones, and a batch was completely dead. Turns out a tube of TI 74LS244s were actually National Semiconductor 74LS273s. And this was from a well-known distributor (still in business) who was either buying black market parts or who had invested in relabeling equipment.

“It is estimated that the actual cost of a failed semiconductor that makes its way into production – in any industry – can be more than 100 times the cost of the original component. That makes the bargain price – often 70 percent less than the “real thing” – look less and less attractive. No matter how hard the industry tries, it can’t get around that old adage: you get what you pay for.”

3.        Fresh Windows, but Where’s the Start Button?

Most of the coverage of the release of Windows 8 has not been favorable. This is not surprising as the ‘Look and Feel’ of Windows has changed, and the major attraction of the operating system has been familiarity. Young folk today do not reject offhand changes to the user interface, as witnessed by the lack of ‘stickyness’ as new mobile platforms have merged: they just figure it out. Will Windows 8 be a ‘success’? Well, the PC market is in a replacement only mode, and nobody is going to buy a new PC in order to use Windows 8.

“Many of the familiar signposts from PCs of yore are gone in Microsoft’s new software, Windows 8, like the Start button for getting to programs and the drop-down menus that list their functions.”

4.        Anatomy of a Solid-state Drive

A highly technical overview of SSD operation. I should note that, since SSD has only recently been a big market, issues like wear, ‘dissipation’, etc., have only relatively recently become priorities. Also, I know people have to work Apple’s leadership and/or influence into every tech article, but SSDs were well along the adoption curve before Apple ever had one in a product.

“Both the HDD, the core building block of nonvolatile storage in computer systems today, and the SSD are part of a class of storage called block devices. These devices use logical addressing to access data and abstract the physical media, using small, fixed, contiguous segments of bytes as the addressable unit. Each block device consists of three major parts: storage media, a controller for managing the media, and a host interface for accessing the media.”

5.        Cosmo Wenman’s Mind-Blowing Sculpture Made On A MakerBot

Well, it’s not actually a sculpture, but a replica of an actual sculpture. Still it shows what can be done, even with a consumer grade 3D printer if you have the time and patience. This could be the sort of thing museums use to display artwork and things such as fossils without risking damage.

“Since Cosmo aimed to make the pieces true-to-life and not scaled down, he had to slice them up into multiple pieces. This awesome photo shows the 29 unfinished blocks of the horse head before Cosmo went to work fusing them and adding the incredible bronze patina finish seen above.”

6.        British engineers create petrol from air and water

They must have been handing out stupid pills in the UK this week. This story was all over the Internet and in many newspapers, all repeating the same silliness without the slightest trace of critical thinking. I swear.

“The technique involves extracting carbon dioxide from air and hydrogen from water, and combining them in a reactor with a catalyst to make methanol. The methanol is then converted into petrol. “It’s actually cleaner because it’s synthetic,” Peter Harrison, chief executive officer of AFS, said in an interview.”

7.        Difference Engine: End of the electric car?

More of the same as above, and from similar morons, though in this case the source is writing for the Economist. Fun fact: production of liquid nitrogen is costly as hell, from both a financial and energy perspective, and it evaporates really quickly no matter how well insulated the container. Does anybody bother to fact check anything anymore?

“The big difference is that a liquid-nitrogen car is likely to be considerably cheaper to build than an electric vehicle. For one thing, its engine does not have to cope with high temperatures—and could therefore be fabricated out of cheap alloys or even plastics.”

8.        Italian court finds seismologists guilty of manslaughter

And we have a hat trick! I don’t know enough about the Italian legal system to be able to understand how this is possible but since courts have decided wireless causes cancer, why not this? Hopefully, this will be promptly overturned or a pardon will be issued and the law changed. In any event, Italians scientists will probably refuse to issue any comment regarding the future or face prosecution.

“At the end of a 13-month trial, six scientists and one government official have been found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison. The verdict was based on how they assessed and communicated risk before the earthquake that hit the city of L’Aquila on 6 April 2009, killing 309 people.”

9.        The New Cartographers: OpenStreetMap’s World Takeover

OpenStreetMap sure has grown, and it makes sense commercial interests would take advantage of its open-source content (as has been the case for Linux). It will be interesting to see what happens when commercial user violate the terms of the Open Source license, and they inevitably will (and most likely have). After all, piracy should work both ways.

“The tensions facing the community were on full display at OpenStreetMap’s annual “State of the Map USA” conference in Portland, Oregon from October 13 through 14, a frenzied, jam-packed series of over 50 presentations and countless other informal talks between avid geographers and programmers who sprawled over a few generally overcrowded rooms at the Oregon Convention Center, fueled by coffee (beer at night) and their boundless enthusiasm for using and improving the vast and increasingly vital public map.”

10.   Increasing wireless network speed by 1000%, by replacing packets with algebra

This got a fair bit of coverage this week. It’s a proprietary technique, so I doubt any of the comments provide any insight as to what is going on. I suspect they are simply dealing with bad packets by not dialing back bandwidth. The 1000% figure is misleading, except to the extent that, by not dialing back the bandwidth unnecessarily, you lose less performance that you otherwise would.

“In essence, the innovation — called coded TCP — makes packet loss completely disappear. In wired networks, packet loss is incredibly rare, but in wireless networks it’s one of the biggest issues affecting throughput. According to Technology Review, MIT’s WiFi networks generally lose 2% of packets — while on a fast train, packet loss is nearer 5%.”

11.   LG launches 84-inch “Ultra HD” TV

This is surprisingly affordable for an 84” set which won’t sell in significant volumes. Perhaps all future TV sets will be ‘Ultra HD’ the same way most all are ‘3D’ but it is highly unlikely Ultra HD content will ever become mainstream because most people can’t tell it from 1080p ‘normal’ HD.

“In addition to the high price barrier to entry, the problem with the new standard is that there are very few sources of content. Aside from very specialized pieces of content or equipment, the only real draw for Ultra HD sets is the ability to upscale 1080p media, and of course the promise that more content will be on the way soon.”

12.   Why Amazon is within its rights to remove access to your Kindle books

Imagine, for a moment, you bought an umbrella from Walmart and one day they broke into your house and repossessed ‘their’ property. You would phone the police (though you would probably be within your rights to beat them with a baseball bat first). Not in the era of EULA and ‘Terms of Service’ – you don’t own what you buy, and the seller can take it back from you. One might be driven to piracy. Or this

“All content included in or made available through any Amazon Service, such as text, graphics, logos, button icons, images, audio clips, digital downloads, and data compilations is the property of Amazon or its content suppliers and protected by United States and international copyright laws.”

13.   Pay-what-you-want ebooks ‘bundle’ makes $1.1 m in two weeks

Speaking of ebooks, this caught my eye for a number of reasons. First, it works out to $84,000 per book, which seems like a lot, which is good for the authors. Second, it shows that DRM and piracy are not needed if the pricing model is appropriate. Personally, I don’t see the point of paying $9 for an ebook which I don’t own, and which has a $0 marginal cost of production, when I can buy the paperback for $10.  I’d happily pay an author a couple dollars or so for his work, which is probably more than he’d get from a publisher anyway.

“An experiment from major authors including Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow, which allows readers to pay the price of their choice for a collection of ebooks, has shattered all expectations, racking up sales of more than $1.1m (£700,000) in under two weeks.”

14.   Is Europe’s Emissions Trading System Broken?

Let’s see now: there is a market price for an intangible asset (carbon credits) which can be manufactured through a variety of means ranging from bona fide to outright destructive (polluting the ocean with iron). For example, I might decide to plant trees and sell the associated carbon credits. Of course, I don’t plant trees – I plant seedlings, but I sell the credits for the whole, mature tree. Unfortunately, most seedlings die, and even more die if I get creative. No wonder the price the crashed.

“Europe’s carbon market is in deep trouble and it’s not just environmentalists sounding the alarm. Back in April, the CEO of Shell said that the European Union’s system for trading allowances for the emission of greenhouse gases was “in danger.” But that’s about as direct as anyone will get in this world of bureaucratese. Most simply talk of “price weakness” (meaning that emission credits are absurdly cheap), a desire for “long-term policy certainty” (the system needs a fix!), and the need to “restore confidence” (and the fix has to come fast!).”

15.   Microcontroller Maniacs Rejoice: Arduino Finally Releases the 32-Bit Due

Whew! It’s about time the folks at Arduino released a high performance version of their open-source project. RaspberryPi is an interesting project but it is not open source and that presents all kinds of challenges. The one problem I see with the Due is the limited RAM space. Hopefully the device will have enough power to run an email client, which would expand its usability considerably.

“The heart of the Arduino Due is the Atmel SAM3X8E, an ARM Cortex-M3-based processor. And the board builds off the capabilities of this summer’s Arduino Leonardo release, offering two two micro USB ports — one for programming and communications and one that allows the Due to act as a client or host, allowing it to act as or utilize a USB mouse or keyboard.”

16.   Flossie restored: Early computer back to life in Kent

This sort of thing should be encouraged, though most such machines were probably sent to the scrap heap long ago.

“The 20ft (6m) by 22ft machine was built to replace rows of clerks doing office work and featured in the 1974 James Bond film The Man With The Golden Gun. Bought for £200 in 2003, it has 100th of the power of a smartphone.”

17.   New Lithium Si-Graphene Battery Material Opens Doors

It seems a breakthrough battery technology is announced every day and a breakthrough solar technology every second day. The only battery breakthrough I’ve seen make it to market is A123, which recently filed for bankruptcy.  One challenge with this approach is the cost of graphene ($200+ per gram) and other nanomaterials: a breakthrough in those manufacturing costs could open floodgates.

“For eight months CalBattery has been working with Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) to commercialize a novel lithium battery anode material for use with advanced cathode and electrolyte materials to achieve new levels of LIB performance. The work is showing extraordinary results. Independent full cell tests reveal unrivaled performance characteristics, with an energy density of 525WH/Kg and specific anode capacity 1,250mAh/g. In contrast, most commercial LIBs have an energy density of between 100-180WH/kg and a specific anode capacity of 325mAh/g.”

18.   CHAMP – Lights Out

I read the coverage of this ‘successful’ test of the latest high tech gadget, along with the accompanying jingoism, and I came to the conclusion the world (well, the US, actually) is beyond hope. Here we have an expensive, high tech weapon with can be defeated by chicken wire and aluminum foil. And the nation which spent (no doubt) billions to build it can’t defeat goat herders armed with assault rifles and home-made bombs. Don’t people realize actual belligerent’s electronics are already shielded?

“CHAMP approached its first target and fired a burst of High Power Microwaves at a two story building built on the test range. Inside rows of personal computers and electrical systems were turned on to gauge the effects of the powerful radio waves. Seconds later the PC monitors went dark and cheers erupted in the conference room. CHAMP had successfully knocked out the computer and electrical systems in the target building. Even the television cameras set up to record the test were knocked off line without collateral.”

19.   Anthropologist: Apple is a religion

Publisher of the Geek’s Reading List: Anthropology is a science. No – it isn’t, and neither is Apple a religion and the article gets it right on some level. Apple is a very effective marketing organization which has achieved ‘cult status’ the same way celebrities do. One the wrinkles show and droop sets in, people move on.

“Fundraising and struggling for the attentions of the young have tended to force them into indecision between rigidity and compromise. Perhaps this is one reason why the real and the bedraggled have increasingly turned to material things in order to dedicate their beliefs. There is something painfully unsurprising, therefore, in hearing that Dr. Kirsten Bell of the University of British Columbia believes that Apple is a cult-like religion.”

20.   Napoleon’s Major Wardrobe Malfunction: An Introduction to Science XPlained

A good read but I think it is a silly theory: they just would have used string or something if their buttons disappeared and I doubt the buttons would have hit -30 (being close to the body). Plus, at least some of the survivors would have mentioned their defeat was because they couldn’t keep their pants on, rather than starvation, the cold, etc..

“As Ramirez points out, the bonding structure of tin atoms starts to change when temperatures drop below 56°F (13.2°C), and this process speeds up as the temperature decreases. Tin was the main metal used to make the buttons of French uniforms. As the temperature approached -30°C, the tin buttons may have turned to dust.”


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