The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 5th 2013

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 5th 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

PS: Sorry if this week’s list is a bit weak as we are dealing with another death in the family.

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1.        Memory that never forgets: non-volatile DIMMs hit the market

Rather crude, but likely effective. Maintaining a DRAM cache in front of an SSD is one way of increasing performance and extending the ‘write life’ of the SSD. A similar thing can be done in software at the OS level, of course, but this should deliver better performance due to the wider data paths, and deliverance from SATA. The external battery pack is rather silly: it would have made much more sense to add a couple pins to the DIMM connector and run a proper protected bus. In any event, I would hope that most servers have at least a few minutes of UPS to arrange an orderly shutdown.

“The server world still waits for DDR4, the next generation of dynamic memory, to be ready for prime time. In the meantime, a new set of memory boards from Viking is looking to squeeze more performance out of servers not by providing faster memory, but by making it safer to keep more in memory and less on disk or SSD. Viking Technology has begun supplying dual in-line memory modules that combine DDR3 dynamic memory with NAND flash memory to create non-volatile RAM for servers and storage arrays—modules that don’t lose their memory when the systems they’re in lose power or shut down.”

2.        Micron, Samsung, Hynix agree to 3-D memory spec

This new memory standard provides a significant step up in main memory performance. I would caution against getting too excited about it, however, as most computers are plenty powerful for the applications most people use them for and, as such, this will likely not impact demand materially.

“The Micron-led Hybrid Memory Cube Consortium has issued version 1.0 of its specification for a vertical memory stack with a defined logic-layer interface. Now the group will turn its focus to higher-speed variations of a dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) module stacked using through-silicon vias.”–Samsung–Hynix-agree-to-3-D-memory-spec

3.        Tablet sales surging at PC’s expense

I predicted the end of the PC era years before the iPad was introduced into the market. While it may be true that there are only so many dollars to go around, the problem is that PCs (and their software) ‘caught up’ to consumer and business needs, resulting in an ever extending replacement cycle. Tablets are not PC replacements, but consumption devices. I predict severe pricing pressure in the segment over the coming years.

“Combined shipments of PCs, tablets and mobile phones are expected to increase 9 percent to 2.4 billion globally in 2013, even as traditional PC shipments are projected to fall meaningfully, according to market research firm Gartner Inc. Shipments of traditional PCs are expected to decline nearly 8 percent globally this year, while tablet sales are expected to surge by nearly 70 percent, according to Gartner (Stamford, Conn.). Last year the PC market contracted for the first time since 2001.”

4.        The final OUYA retail console is ready, we go hands-on

OUYA is a crowd sourced game console based on Android. I am not a gamer, but as near as I can determine this is basically a device with smartphone level power which can connect to your TV. This approach may have merit, given the price and likely affordability of the games. Of course, a lot will depend on the quality of software however the smartphone of today has the power of a premium game console a few years ago. Game producers might embrace this because they won’t be beholden to the likes of Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. We shall see.

“It’s been a long time coming, and now the Android-powered, Kickstarter-funded OUYA video game console is finally heading to backers. Sure, the final retail units for non-backers won’t be available until June, but around 50,000 lucky folks who pledged over $99 to OUYA’s massively successful campaign will be receiving their units in the coming days. We’ve already heard what developers have to say about it, but this week we got our first hands-on with the miniature, Tegra 3-powered game console we’ve been hearing so much about since last summer.”

5.        Low-cost LEDs for saving energy and improving health

This is just an announcement regarding a new facility in the U.K., nonetheless, the ‘backgrounder’ has a fair bit of good stuff. GaN on silicon is probably the way things are headed.

“Gallium nitride has been described as “the most important semiconductor since silicon” and is used in energy-saving LED lighting. A new £1million growth facility will allow Cambridge researchers to further reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of LEDs, with potentially huge cost-saving implications.”

6.        Mobile video streaming drives demand for networking semiconductors in cars

I don’t have a problem with video in cars keeping the rug rats distracted during long drives, however, I have seen, on multiple occasions, drivers watching videos while driving and that is more than a little scary. Increased electronics in vehicles is a clear trend the problem with sophisticated devices is that, unlikely typical consumer electronics, the replacement cost is typically staggering. Plus stream video would likely bankrupt any motorist with the copious misfortune of crossing a border without an international data plan.

“Consumers increasingly want to use their media tablets and smartphones to stream high-definition video to displays in their cars, a phenomenon that will help to nearly double the size of the market for semiconductors used in automotive wired and wireless network applications from 2011 to 2018.”

7.        Panasonic’s Developed a Simple Sensor Tweak That Vastly Improves Low Light Photography

This novel technology has the potential to improve the dynamic range of digital cameras meaning, if nothing else, that low light pictures will have less ‘noise’. Besides the physics, its worth noting that the required computational horsepower is only possible due to the relentless progression of Moore’s Law. You have to watch the video.

“Researchers at Panasonic’s imaging division have found a way to increase the sensitivity of digital camera sensors, which in turn equates to almost double the brightness in photos taken in low light conditions. But the discovery has nothing to do with the sensor itself; instead, the company’s improved the color processing filter placed in front of it.”

8.        Apple’s iMessage encryption hindering DEA’s ability to wiretap suspects

About 25 years ago I was earning consulting money by designing ‘control units’ (the non-radio part) for cellphones. A story leaked that the police were being frustrated by criminals using the new technology because they could not tap cellphones. So I went to my neighbour, who was a detective, and told him I could design such a system if they were willing to pay for it. After about a week, word got back, discretely, that the story was a plant because, in fact, it is easier to tap cellphones than landlines. Long story short, iMessage, or another other commercial ‘secure’ communications system is not really that secure from the authorities.

“A leaked document from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has revealed Apple’s iMessage service is hindering its ability to eavesdrop on drug suspects’ communications. Obtained by CNET, the DEA’s intelligence note — titled ‘Apple’s iMessages: A Challenge For DEA Intercept’ — highlights that encryption used to secure Apple’s messaging service makes it “impossible to intercept iMessages between two Apple devices,” obstructing agents’ attempts to obtain a complete history of suspects’ messages.”

9.        How a 3D printer gave a man his face – and his life – back

Another good example of a real world use of 3D printing for medical reconstruction. Eventually these will be permanent, functioning tissue rather than silicon however this is probably a significant improvement in Mr. Moger’s quality of life.

“When restaurant manager Eric Moger surprised his girlfriend by proposing over Christmas dinner, he could have no idea that less than a year later his life and appearance would be changed beyond recognition. As he started to make plans for his wedding to Karen Hunger four years ago, doctors discovered an aggressive tumour the size of a tennis ball growing beneath the skin of his face.”–and-his-life–back-20130401-2h2a4.html

10.   How to 3-D Print the Skeleton of a Living Animal

3D printers seem to have more and more potential applications. No – this is not about getting a printed skeleton of your cat: this technique could also be used to prepare replacement bones prior to surgery, scaffolds for the creation of artificial organs, or even to prepare fossils without having to remove the matrix they are embedded in.

“The skeleton above was created by taking a CT scan of an anesthetized rat and sending the data to a 3-D printer. Similar life-size models of body parts from other animals or human patients could be used to train veterinary and medical students and to help surgeons prepare for difficult surgeries, the researchers say.”

11.   Architects are starting to 3D print houses—but without a house-sized printer

I thought this might be a rehash of a couple projects I already knew about, and those are discussed. However, there is also a review of different approached which makes it a worthwhile read.

“This month, another Dutch company jumped into the fray. DUS Architects plans to use a 20-ft-tall 3D printer to build a house along an Amsterdam canal. It’s also going to do it by the end of the year. Take that, Ruijssenaars.”

12.   This Material Will Power the Future — If Somebody Can Profit From It

This article is an interesting overview of some of the present and potential future for graphene. The major problem with most nanomaterials is their fabrication, which tends to astronomically expensive for small amounts. Humanity has overcome such challenges in the past (aluminum used to be more valuable than gold) however, the cool thing with graphene is that you can actually produce macroscopic qualities fairly easily.

“It was a Friday evening at the University of Manchester and scientists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov were conducting the sort of playful experiment for which they’ve earned a reputation. In the past they’d levitated a frog with a magnetic field and won an IgNoble Award. On this Friday in 2004, the two professors were toying around with a strip of Sellotape. They stuck it to a piece of ordinary graphite, and then carefully peeled up a one-atom-thin flake of the element.”

13.   Ship-based Quadcopter Designed to Rescue Potential Drowning Victims

I think this is a very clever idea, though I suspect shore based modes would also have their uses for helping people out of easy reach of a life guard. One can imagine that drones could be quite useful for open sea search and rescue as well as a ‘swarm’ could cover a fairly large area. It is a pity the product is being developed in Tehran as this will almost certainly limit availability due to sanctions, etc..

“The RTS Lab in Tehran is developing Pars, an aerial rescue robot designed to save potential drowning victims. The ship-based quadcopter that responds instantly when alerted to potential victims in the ocean, locating them with FLIR, and dispensing life preservers directly over them.”

14.   Mail delivering drones being tested in France

A drone is simply a flying model airplane, and this drone is too limited to have much practical application as a delivery system. However, truly autonomous delivery robots are not as far into the future are you might think and they could have many applications.

“A province in France is becoming the testing ground for a new drone-based postal delivery service. Welcome to the future.”

15.   Regaining proper hearing at last

The hearing aid market was disrupted about 20 years ago through the introduction of digital hearing aids. Thanks to a protectionist and anti-consumer regulatory environment, hearing aids remains extremely expensive, despite the fact the ‘guts’ cost only a few dollars. In fairness, this is an interesting approach with potential benefit to those with significant hearing loss however, more people would be helped if hearing aids could be bought for $30 at the local drug store.

“Around 17 million people in Germany suffer from impaired hearing. For many of them, their hearing is so damaged that a standard hearing aid is no longer enough. A new device will improve patients’ hearing and can be implanted during outpatient surgery.”

16.   Teenager astounds scientists by building a DNA testing machine in his bedroom – and he did it to discover why his brother is ginger

This is a cool story which shows what a clever kid can do nowadays thanks to the Internet. Unfortunately, it’s hard to understand the exact details, probably because the journalist is (characteristically) clueless about the topic. He didn’t appear to build a ‘DNA testing machine’ but a DNA PCR amplifier and there are a few other misstatements in the article. However, it is still an impressive project.

“A teenager has astounded scientists by building a DNA testing machine in his bedroom in an attempt to discover why his brother is ginger. Fred Turner, 17, built the machine from items he found around his house, including an old video player, after becoming fascinated by why he has straight brown hair, while his younger brother Gus, 14, has a shock of ginger curls. Fred from Brighouse, West Yorkshire, impressed scientists so much that he has been named the UK’s Young Engineer of the Year.”–did-discover-brother-ginger.html?ito=feeds-newsxml

17.   CO2 Emissions: Can Europe Save Its Cap-and-Trade System?

I have always found the idea of a ‘carbon credit’ market amusing. If ever there was a system designed to facilitate fraud, this was it (excluding Bitcoin, for example). After all, you are ‘trading’ intangibles. Needless to say there is fraud and there is fraud. Take ‘tree planting’ for example: a sapling doesn’t have much of an impact on carbon so there’s not much credit in it so we sell the credit for the adult tree. Assuming we actually bother to plant the trees (an unnecessary complication) in any event, a significant number of saplings never reach adulthood and their demise can readily be accelerated allowing an unending harvest of carbon credits for non-existent adult trees.

“Europe’s cap-and-trade system for reducing the release of greenhouse gases is broken, but not everybody wants to fix it. Industry has profited immensely from the plummeting prices of CO2 emissions certificates, and from lax checks on questionable environmental projects undertaken overseas.”

18.   Smart foam furniture can be squashed to 5 percent its original size

Interesting – but I don’t see much danger of this become a commercially viable technique, at least for furniture. The durability of such an object is bound to be poor. Nonetheless, perhaps with a sort of permanently hardening coating or something along those lines, similar techniques could be used to construct emergency shelters or the like.

“Belgian designer Carl de Smet has come up with a third option that offers the best of both worlds. His furniture can be shrunk down to just 5 percent of its original size, but needs no instructions like a flat-pack. Instead, once opened the piece of furniture slowly expands into its final shape when subjected to a predefined temperature.”

19.   The MOS 6502 and the Best Layout Guy in the World

I never liked the 6502: it was kind of a downsized version of the 6800, which was, itself an overly simplified device. Nonetheless, it was cheap and found many applications. This is a fun story about the birth of the device. To put things in perspective, a relatively simple and orders of magnitude cheaper, circuit board layout was almost right on the first pass back then.

“The MOS 6502 was ubiquitous in its day. The 6502 and its slight variants were at the heart of the Apple II, the Atari 2600, the BBC Micro, the Commodore 64, and the Nintendo Entertainment System, among others. It’s amazing to think that all five—each a very influential system in its own right—were all built around the same chip.”

20.   Smart bracelet protects aid workers

I would hope for the aid worker’s that this device is removable otherwise they may end up missing an appendage. In any event, I’d suggest that Spot ( is a simpler, and probably more robust, solution.

“A hi-tech bracelet could soon be helping civil rights and aid workers at risk of being kidnapped or killed. When triggered, the personal alarm uses phone and sat-nav technology to warn that its wearer is in danger.”

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