The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 1st 2013

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 1st 2013


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. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included, please send them on to me!

I blog at


Brian Piccioni

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1.        We Aren’t the World

This is potentially the most significant article I’ve read in a few years. What it suggests is that much of the basis for many ‘soft sciences’ are based on faulty premises. The data derived from a small subset of people appear mostly relevant to that small subset of people and the conclusions associated with that data can, at best, be only applied to that small subset of people. The ramifications for economics, in particular, are profound.

“The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences—particularly in economics and psychology—relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments. At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West.”

2.        A tantalising prospect

This is potentially a very significant development. “Rare Earths” are not rare, and titanium is one of the most abundant elements. Unfortunately, purification of these and some other metals is very expensive and complicated, as once was the case for aluminum. If this process can be scaled commercially, there would be a disruptive effect on many industries. Cost effective production of nanomaterials could also be similarly disruptive.

“ALUMINIUM was once more costly than gold. Napoleon III, emperor of France, reserved cutlery made from it for his most favoured guests, and the Washington monument, in America’s capital, was capped with it not because the builders were cheapskates but because they wanted to show off. How times change. And in aluminium’s case they changed because, in the late 1880s, Charles Hall and Paul Héroult worked out how to separate the stuff from its oxide using electricity rather than chemical reducing agents. Now, the founders of Metalysis, a small British firm, hope to do much the same with tantalum, titanium and a host of other recherché and expensive metallic elements including neodymium, tungsten and vanadium.”

3.        Defense Department opens contracts for Apple, Google

This is not unexpected however it is very bad news for RIM. Just as Department of Defense adoption of RIM helped RIM penetrate government and even corporate markets, loss of that endorsement will surely work against them.

“The U.S. Department of Defense announced today that it was further dropping its exclusive BlackBerry contract and opening all of its mobile communications networks to Apple, Google, and other device makers.”

4.        Samsung Knox: a work phone inside your personal phone (hands-on)

This may not be a new idea, but it may be an idea whose time has come.

“”BYOD” — Bring Your Own Device — is one of the hottest buzzphrases in business right now, the idea of users bringing in their own smartphones to use with their corporate email accounts rather than taking a company-issue BlackBerry that they don’t really want. Samsung’s Knox software tries to capitalize on that: your company installs it on your Galaxy device and you’ve got two distinct, secure environments for personal and business use.”

5.        HP’s $170 Android Tablet Is Devastating News For Microsoft (MSFT, HPQ, GOOG)

I don’t think the introduction of anything by HP is a problem for Microsoft. What could become a problem is the concurrent pricing pressure on tablets and smartphone and the availability of a credible alternative to Windows. A $170 tablet is something I would consider buying.

“For years, pundits have been calling for the demise of Microsoft And for years, Microsoft has just kept on trucking along. And perhaps, that’s what’s going to happen, yet again. Perhaps, Microsoft will be fine. But, this time it’s really starting to look different.”

6.        Next-gen consoles can’t compete with PCs, says Crytek boss

I get the sense that the game industry is due for some sort of paradigm shift. Traditionally console vendors (Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft) subsidized proprietary platforms and profited from massive royalties associated with software sales. Meanwhile, PC performance continues to rise, while prices continue to fall, putting pressure at the high end, while open source hardware is becoming more common and higher performance. Consoles seem due for a squeeze.

“Whatever Sony and Microsoft have up their sleeves for the next round of console wars, Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli says the next-gen boxes won’t be able to compete with existing PCs on horsepower. Speaking with Eurogamer to promote the launch of Crytek’s Crysis 3, Yerli said the math just doesn’t work out in the console makers’ favor.”

7.        Android’s enterprise market share dropped in the fourth quarter

I have no confidence in industry research, but these data may be of some interest. However, given trends in the marketplace, I have to say these do not seem ‘right’.

“Despite increasing efforts from vendors to appeal to business customers, a new report found that Android’s enterprise market share actually declined in the fourth quarter. In the latest Device Activation Report released by Good Technology, iOS was found to be at the top of the enterprise market with 77% of all activations, an increase from 71% in 2011, and it captured eight of the 10 spots for most popular devices. Enterprise activations for Android devices fell 6.3% year-over-year for a 22.7% share of the market, while Windows Phone came in at a distant third with 0.5% of activations.”

8.        Windows 8 swells to 2.7% of OS market

Since it is nearly impossible to buy a new PC without Windows 8, and since ‘downgrading’ to Windows 7 is expensive (due to egregious new license terms) and indeterminate (due to the unprecedented step by vendors of not supporting Windows 7) increased penetration is scarcely surprising. However, until Microsoft fixes Windows 8, consumers would be advised to buy pretty much anything else, or simply defer purchases.

“Windows 8 is winning over more users, but it’s doing so at a snail’s pace. Microsoft’s latest OS took home 2.67 percent of all global traffic seen by Web tracker NetApplications last month. That put it in fourth place among all operating system versions, just ahead of Mac OS X 10.8 and behind Windows Vista. But that was only a slight rise from January’s figure of 2.26 percent, which itself jumped from 1.72 percent in December and 1.09 percent in November.”

9.        Torvalds clarifies Linux’s Windows 8 Secure Boot position

Microsoft’s latest kludge attempt at security is causing lots of problems for open source software. I am sure this is just a coincidence. One cannot help but wonder if the time has come for ‘clean’ hardware, devoid of Microsoft’s dictates.

“No one, but no one, in the Linux community likes Microsoft’s mandated deployment of the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) Secure Boot option in Windows 8 certified PCs. But, how Linux should handle the fixes required to deal with this problem remains a hot-button issue. Now, as the debate continues hot and heavy, Linus Torvalds, Linux’s founder and de facto leader, spells out how he thinks Linux should deal with Secure Boot keys.”

10.   What Is the Point of Google’s Chromebook Pixel?

When I saw the announcement of the latest Chromebook, I was certain there was a typo – why would anybody pay a super-premium for a laptop which has limited utility? After all – with a Window’s Ultrabook (even with the repugnant Windows 8 OS) you get much more capability and a vast array of applications. I’d consider an Apple laptop before buying a Chrombook Pixel at this price – I and I would never consider buying an Apple computer of any type. What are they thinking?

“That’s the baffling news from Google’s latest offering, the Chromebook Pixel. It’s a high, high, high-end version of the earlier laptop that made so much sense at $250.”

11.   Raspberry Pi and the rise of small computers

I was designing embedded systems in the 1980s and that’s really all these devices are. What has really changed is that these ‘small computers’ are being placed into the hands of non-engineers. Of course thanks to Moore’s Law these things have a lot more horsepower than I had access to back then. Many such units (not Raspberry Pi) are open source, meaning they can be extended at will, and the support network is much stronger. It is surprising that the semiconductor companies have not really caught on to this and introduced their own open platforms.

“In the same way that people buy a smartphone to browse on the move, if they want to try their hand at coding, they opt for the Raspberry Pi or one of its rivals. Similarly, if they want a home media server for their DVDs, they pick Intel’s NUC or perhaps something from Zotac or Xi3. The prices of these small form factor machines varies widely but all these gadgets can, with a little help from a few add-ons and peripherals, do anything that used to require the services of a fully functioning, and quite hefty, desktop PC.”

12.   Bill would force ‘patent trolls’ to pay legal costs

One of the bizarre things about the US legal system is that the loser rarely pays the winner’s legal expenses. This opens the doors for all kinds of frivolous and harassing legal actions since the downside risk to the complainant is usually limited to their legal fees while the downside to the defendant starts at their legal fees and goes up from there. Carefully crafted legislation to make ‘loser pays’ the default should significantly reduce harassing patent litigation and devastate the business model of patent licensing firms.

“The Saving High-tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes (SHIELD) Act from Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) would force plaintiffs to pay for the defendant’s attorney fees and other legal costs if their patent lawsuit fails in court.”

13.   Code Found In Youtubes Most Recent App Update All But Confirms Pay To View Channels Are Coming

A paid Youtube option makes perfect sense, and it is one means by which Google might hope to extend Android in to the same domain as iTunes. Ideally, customers would have a choice: pay for view/listen or opt in to advertising.

“Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal suggested that Google is in talks with record labels to start its own Spotify-like music streaming service. In the same article, the newsgroup also reported that El Goog is looking to do something similar with YouTube, and launch pay-to-view channels, though no specific details past that were given. Now, some code found in the most recent YouTube app update basically confirms the service is on its way.”

14.   Freescale preps IoT attack with tiny MCU

Freescale is nowhere near the top of my list of most favored vendors however the article sheds some light on the state of the art with respect to miniaturization. If I recall correctly, this device has significantly more computing resources than the Apollo command modules, so that’s pretty impressive for 3.8 square millimeters.

“Freescale Semiconductor is preparing for what it thinks will be the next driver of microcontroller sales, the Internet of Things (IoT), with the introduction of a 32-bit microcontroller measuring just 1.9-mm by 2.0-mm. That’s the not the die size but the complete Kinetis KL02 MCU–in its chip-scale packaging.”

15.   Self-driving trucks tested in Japan, form a close-knit convoy for fuel savings

It seems increasingly likely that ‘self-driving vehicles’ will be the first common robots. As this article shows, autonomous vehicles will not just be for lazy drivers, but also significantly reduce labor costs and improve productivity. Eventually, vehicles will be built for this application. Within a few decades expect small courier trucks to show up and deliver packages without human intervention.

“As Google and others ramp up their plans to develop self-driving cars, one government-funded corporation in Japan is already making headway with autonomous heavy duty trucks. In order to save fuel, the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) has programmed a convoy of four trucks to drive just four meters (about 13 feet) apart. That cuts down on air resistance, reducing drag (and thus improving fuel efficiency) similar to drafting with a race car.”

16.   Volvo To Unveil Permanent High Beam Headlamp Technology

This is a great idea, but a rather bizarre choice of implementation. LED headlamps can be made through an array of devices with different projection patterns, and it would be easier, cheaper, and more reliable to control those instead of a contraption to mask a xenon headlamp.

“Volvo will be showing off its Active High Beam technology at the Geneva Motor Show next week. The system will allow drivers to use their high beams all the time and adds another responsibility to the cameras mounted by the rearview mirror, making them detect traffic ahead, whether it be another car or a truck or motorcycle and in the same lane or oncoming. When a vehicle is detected, a special projector in the Xenon lamps can block out only the portion of the high beam that would impair the other driver. Volvo says the system is accurate down to a 1.5-inch margin around another object.”

17.   Leeds University submerges a server in liquid, cuts cooling costs 97 percent

What’s old is new again. Liquid cooling makes perfect sense, which is probably why the Cray III used in in the mid-1990s. This approach – incorporating it in to a ‘blade’ enclosure, has its merits, but individual servers are so reliable you might as well immerse the whole rack. By the way: I suspect that locating server farms near the arctic is silly: broadband and electricity costs are likely to be extremely high, unless maintained at artificial levels through subsidy.

“Datacenters use a lot of energy to power the thousands of servers they each contain. But a significant proportion of that cost comes from actually keeping those servers cool. To minimize the costs of cooling, novel approaches have been taken such as reusing the waste heat, running entire datacenters very hot, or even building a datacenter 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Leeds University has figured out how to bypass such extreme measures, however, by coming up with a new way of cooling servers in a liquid. So efficient is this so-called wet server, it can cut the cost of energy consumption related to cooling by up to 97 percent.”

18.   Rodent Mind Meld: Scientists Wire Two Rats’ Brains Together

This is interesting, though a bit disturbing. There appears to have been a number of seminal advances in machine/brain interfaces coming out of this lab recently. As suggested in the article, this sort of advance could be helpful to paralysed patients.

“It’s not exactly a Vulcan mind meld, but it’s not far off. Scientists have wired the brains of two rats together and shown that signals from one rat’s brain can help the second rat solve a problem it would otherwise have no clue how to solve.”

19.   Automakers Oppose FCC’s Proposal to Free Up Wireless Spectrum for Wi-Fi

Since the Great Spectrum Gold Rush, any organization which has any ‘rights’ to spectrum of any sort of spectrum has fought vigorously to keep it, even if they have never attempted to exploit it. This suppresses innovation. Personally, I’d strip rights from any spectrum licenses or grantee unless the spectrum has been used in a timely fashion. That alone would open up vast swaths of what is, in any event, no longer a scarce commodity.

“Automakers aren’t too happy about a recent U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposal, which uses part of the wireless spectrum assigned to vehicle-to-vehicle technology for Wi-Fi instead.”

20.   Rats: Scratch and sniff landmine detection

It is a pity that landmine detection is an issue, however, there’s lots of money in land mines – even if they leave a devastating legacy – so don’t expect the US or Russia to abide by relevant treaties any time soon. Poor people in poor countries need cost effective solutions, and HeroRats seem to fit the bill. I can’t wait for PETA to get involved.

“When the first of Apopo’s furry and four-legged HeroRats were released into a landmine-ridden field of Mozambique, there was understandable skepticism among the various government officials in attendance. “In Mozambique we eat rats,” joked Alberto Augusto, the director of Mozambique’s national demining institute, “so it was very strange to see them working and demining. We were thinking to grill them.””


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