The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 2nd, 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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1. AMD announces ARM-based Opteron CPUs due to launch in 2014
Dementia is caused when enough brain cells are lost that the brain cannot form a coherent thought. Perhaps loss of executives explains AMD’s announcement they were going to distinguish themselves, as a fabless semiconductor company, by competing against themselves by launching an ARM based server platform. After all – anybody can license the same core.
“Amidst all the other news today, AMD also slipped in a small but potentially momentous announcement. Beginning in 2014, AMD will begin shipping Opteron server processors based on the low-power ARM architecture, in addition to the x86-based Opterons that it has been shipping for years.”
2. Why the new Windows 8 won’t spur DRAM sales
Earth to iSupply: Windows releases have not had an impact on semiconductor sales for over 5 years. People no longer replace their PCs because of a new OS, and natural price declines in semiconductors offset the latest release of code-bloat. It’s amazing that people actually pay money for this sort of research.
“It’s been a familiar refrain: with every new Windows operating system that comes out, OEMs to end-users upgrade their systems to handle the new capabilities, including more memory. But not this time with Windows 8. In a departure from past iterations, Windows 8 will not cause any significant rise in DRAM unit shipments, predicts IHS iSuppli.”
3. Intel’s 335 Series SSD reviewed
Some of the details in this report (bumping up against the silly SATA performance and 10x cost reduction in 4 years) are particularly interesting. The world is embracing SSDs, and their adoption will probably speed up when the antiquated SATA interface is dropped.
“Solid-state drives gotten a lot faster in the last few years. They’re already pushing up against the throughput ceiling of the 6Gbps Serial ATA interface, leaving mechanical hard drives in the dust. I can’t remember the last time we saw an HDD score better than an SSD in one of our performance tests.”
4. The Hunt for an Affordable Hearing Aid
Eyeglasses and hearing aids are some of the greatest scams in the world. They cost a few dollars to make but are marked up a few thousand percent because, in most countries the distribution is ‘controlled’ through government enforced distribution channels. It turns out that hearing aid are best adjusted by users, and seriously, what ill will befall you if you get the wrong glasses – many prescriptions are flawed in any event.
“Last year, when my decade-old analog hearing aid started making popping sounds, I knew I had to replace it. But because hearing aids are so costly and generally aren’t covered by insurance, I had put it off. I soon learned that in the last 10 years, purchasing a hearing aid had become even more difficult and confusing than buying a new car — and almost as expensive.”
5. Apple loses right to iPhone brand name in Mexico
You really have to question the legal advice Apple got on this one. I know the company is used to convincing people it invented things which have been on the market for years, but laying claim to a trademark which has been active and in use for years prior to you own – well, that’s stupid.
“A court in Mexico City handed down a ruling last Thursday denying Apple’s injunction request on the grounds that the iPhone brand is too phonetically similar to iFone, a brand belonging to a Mexican company that registered its name four years prior to Apple’s filing for the iPhone brand mark. The decision stems from a legal action that Apple initially filed in 2009 requesting that the company cease using the iFone brand in order to head off the possibility of consumer confusion.”
6. Android now three of every four shipped smartphones
I don’t trust the number which come out of industry analysts such as IDC, and the predictions are generally less than useless. Nonetheless, the figures are probably directionally correct: there is a certain allure to a free operating system backed by a tech giant. Say what you will about the purported deficiencies of Android, the market has spoken.
“The numbers work out to 91.5 percent year-over-year growth, a time in which the overall market growth rate was 46.4 percent. So out of the 181.1 million smartphones shipped in the third quarter, 136 million of them were Android – a record for the OS – and Samsung was the dominant manufacturer.”
7. Yahoo! To Ignore Do Not Track
Yes – it’s only said it is going to ignore Do Not Track for IE10, but we can safely assume that many advertising funded web businesses will ignore DNT because they can. After all, it is a voluntary standard, which is why we need laws, not ‘self-regulation’ and why you should use tools like Adblock and Ghostery (see below) to frustrate this pernicious activity.
“Ultimately, we believe that DNT must map to user intent — not to the intent of one browser creator, plug-in writer, or third-party software service. Therefore, although Yahoo! will continue to offer Ad Interest Manager and other tools, we will not recognize IE10’s default DNT signal on Yahoo! properties at this time.”
A well rated plug in to stop a variety of privacy invading activities by sleazy companies like Yahoo!, Facebook, and others.
“Ghostery allows you to block scripts from companies that you don’t trust, delete local shared objects, and even block images and iframes. Ghostery puts your web privacy back in your hands.”
9. Finland: Plan for universal 100Mbps service by 2015 on track
In contrast, in the broadband backwater which is Canada, my Internet Service provider Xplornet pulled the plug on me this week, despite having received a $400,000 government grant to deploy the service to my area, and despite me having invested about $2,000 to receive it. The difference appears to be the government of Finland is forward thinking.
“Three years into the program, Finnish government officials say they are well on the road to meeting that goal by providing subsidies mainly to local cooperatives that have sprung up to serve rural communities. To date, 86 percent of the 5.35 million Finnish population lives within two kilometers of a 100Mbps connection, and the expectation is that this will grow to 95 percent by 2015.”
10. How Long Will Programmers Be So Well-Paid?
The thing is not so much supply and demand, but demand. Good programmers (and good engineers) are not a product of the educational system – they are born with a talent, and a good education can make that talent flourish. So, as long as there is demand for programming talent, talented programmers will be scarce and well paid.
“But why has the supply of good engineers remained so strained? We’re talking about work that can, in principle, be performed by anyone anywhere with a half-decent computer and a decent Internet connection. Development tools have never been more accessible than in this era of $100 Android phones, free-tier web services, and industry-standard open-source platforms. Distributed companies with employees scattered all around the world are increasingly normal and acceptable. (I work for one. We’re hiring.) And everyone knows that software experts make big bucks, because software is eating the world. What’s more, technology may well be destroying jobs faster than it creates them. Basic economics would seem to dictate that an exponentially larger number of people will flood into the field, bringing salaries back down to earth despite the ever-increasing demand.”
11. Why I’m Returning My Microsoft Surface RT
Whenever a new product is released, the odd fanboy/blogger will write a post which explains how sorely disappointed he is that his beloved company released a product not up to his expectations. (see www.businessinsider.com/dear-apple-im-leaving-you-2012-11) This is one such article, and, normally I’d ignore it, however, the criticism does seem pretty well founded.
“The hardware makes promises that the software can’t deliver – and the ability to type faster than Word can digest is a great example of that. Sure, I understand that the shipped version is “Microsoft Word Preview,” but you can’t deliver software like this. It’s a recipe for returned products – and frankly, that’s exactly what I’m going to do with the Surface RT, return it.”
12. China’s advantage erodes in a key area: rare earth minerals
The thing about ‘rare earths’ is that they aren’t very rare. You’d think somebody would have pointed out to the Chinese government that restricting access to these relatively abundant materials would simple mean people would find alternative suppliers so China would see its market power erode.
“Just like any other supplier, we are trying not to be dependent on Chinese sources. Reliable sources of supply are clearly one of the top priorities.”
13. Carbon nanotubes fit by the thousands onto a chip
There is lots of interesting stuff going on in nanotech, but manufacturing challenges (and related costs) limit commercial applications in many cases. This may prove to be a significant advance.
“The experiments, reported in Nature Nanotechnology, show a kind of two-part epoxy approach to individually place the nanotubes at high density.”
14. Stanford Researchers Use Synthetic Magnetism to Control Light
Of course, they aren’t using magnetism to control light, they have created a device which control light similar to the way a magnet controls electricity. That being said, based on my understanding of the article, this could lead to the development of better optical isolators, multi and de-multiplexors, and switches.
“The process breaks a key law of physics known as the time-reversal symmetry of light and could yield an entirely new class of devices that use light instead of electricity for applications ranging from accelerators and microscopes to speedier on-chip communications.”
15. Single chip planned for radio receivers across Europe
When I saw the headline I thought they were referring t wireless data services, but they are actually referring to radio broadcast. Unfortunately, by the time they get this figured out, the number of people below the age of 30 who actually listen to radio will probably be pretty small.
“Digital radio across Europe has been plagued by uncertainty. We may be reaching a tipping point, but first we have to bank what is certain about radio’s digital hybrid future and join forces to promote a common vision across Europe.”
16. Software adds brawn to 3D-printed objects
This seems like a case of the tools catching up to the technology, though I suspect this capability has been present in non-3D printer CAD toold for some time. Still, it’s a good idea.
“Former Purdue doctoral student Ondrej Stava created the software application, which automatically strengthens objects either by increasing the thickness of key structural elements or by adding struts. The tool also uses a third option, reducing the stress on structural elements by hollowing out overweight elements.”
The cars probably would have been a write off even if they hadn’t caught fire. However, the fact that immersion results in the complete destruction of the vehicle is hardly reassuring from a safety standpoint. I liked the part where the company rep points out that nobody was killed, as though the fact their automobiles self-destruct when wet is not a major issue.
“Approximately 16 of the $100,000+ Fisker Karma extended-range luxury hybrids were parked in Port Newark, New Jersey last night when water from Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge apparently breached the port and submerged the vehicles. As Jalopnik has exclusively learned, the cars then caught fire and burned to the ground.”
18. Biofuels Companies Drop Biomass and Turn to Natural Gas
The irony – it burns – especially when they speak of fracking one of the many technologies painted as evil incarnate by their (pseudo) environmentalist proponents. The thing is, the advancement of human civilization is pretty much pegged to improved exploitation of cheaper energy sources. It seems to me that it is easier to adapt to using natural gas than to waste so much of it making diesel.
“The company, like many others, is attempting to capitalize on cheap natural gas made possible by fracking (see “Natural Gas Changes the Energy Map” and “King Natural Gas”). Some, like Primus Green Energy, are developing variants of existing thermochemical approaches—it’s using a process from Exxon to produce gasoline. Coskata, a biofuels company that had originally intended to make ethanol from wood chips and other cellulosic sources, recently announced that its first commercial plant will use no biomass.”
19. BP Plant Cancellation Darkens Cellulosic Ethanol’s Future
This story may be related, indirectly, to the previous one. It’s absurd to use food (corn) for fuel, especially when research has shown you get less fuel out than you put in. Cellulose might make sense, if it was cost effective. Not surprisingly, increased demand for cellulose ‘waste’ means higher prices. Go figure. In any event, all this is happening while decreased natural gas prices, due mostly to novel extraction technologies, has led to a decline in coal consumption and a signification reduction in CO2 emissions. Indeed, fracking has probably done more to reduce CO2 emissions than all other alternative energy programs.
“Whereas early estimates—the ones that helped spur the cellulosic ethanol mandates—put the cost at $30 a ton, the actual costs are more like $80 to $130 a ton. That means the grass and wood chips required to make a gallon of ethanol will cost $1.30 to $1.48—even before anything is done to process them. (For context, the price of a gallon of processed ethanol made from corn is now $2.40 a gallon.)”
20. Curiosity set to weigh in on Mars methane puzzle
There have been a number of unusual observations which might imply microbial life on Mars, my favorite being the Viking mission (http://earthsky.org/space/did-the-viking-landers-find-life-on-mars-in-1976 ) . Methane has been detected on Mars in the past, and it will be interesting to see if Curiosity detects enough of it in this mission. A negative result will not necessarily mean no life, and even a positive result will leave doubts until a sample is returned to Earth. If life exists and it is DNA or RNA based, the question will remain as to whether it arose independently or whether one planet ‘seeded’ the other.
“Although there are plenty of ways to make trace amounts of methane, levels of more than a few parts per billion would imply the presence of an unexpectedly active source — and raise the possibility that the planet supports methane-producing microbes.”