The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 3rd 2013

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 3rd 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.        AMD Unveils its Heterogeneous Uniform Memory Access (hUMA) Technology

This sounds pretty revolutionary, but I don’t expect much to change as a consequence. GPU performance figures are not really comparable to CPU performance figures because the internal structure og a GPU is optimized for the sorts of computations which are only rarely encountered outside of graphics and image processing. AMD’s (relatively) novel approach may generate some buzz among gamers – which is always a good thing – and possibly move them up the list for supercomputer applications, but this will have little or no effect on sales.

“To illustrate this, consider the following example: in 2002, the Radeon 9700 Pro could provide a performance of 31.2 GFLOPS of performance, 5 years later the Radeon HD 2900 XT offered 473.6 GFLOPS and by 2012, the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition was capable of computing 4301 GFLOPS  – an increase of 13,700% when compared to the Radeon 9700. Though this change can reasonably be attributed to Moore’s Law and the continued decline of the $:GFLOP ratio, it is important to note that CPUs have not kept pace with the exponential growth of GPUs’ computing power as between 2002’s Pentium 4 “Northwood” processor and 2012’s Core i7-3970X processor, the computing ability rose by “just” 2600% from 12.24 GFLOPS to 336 GFLOPS.”,22324.html


2.        Spain’s Extremadura starts switch of 40,000 government PCs to open source

I am frankly surprised at the glacial pace of open source adoption in the public sector, especially within the context of global austerity. Of course, then again, government is rarely the cutting edge of anything. Regardless, I think we’ll see more and more of this, and the path has been greased by widespread adoption of Android (aka Linux) by consumers.

“The government of Spain’s autonomous region of Extremadura has begun the switch to open source of it desktop PCs. The government expects the majority of its 40,000 PCs to be migrated this year, the region’s CIO Theodomir Cayetano announced on 18 April. Extremadura estimates that the move to open source will help save 30 million euro per year.”

3.        Why an Android Laptop is a Great Idea. No, Really!

I am not so sure of the reasoning here, because I find touch interfaces to be a major pain in the ass most of the time and almost unusable in traditional PC type applications, though that may be my Neanderthal brain (or because its faster to move my thumb than my while arm). I continue to believe the success of Android in the mobile space has paved the way for broad adoption of Android and other Linux forks in the laptop/desktop space.

“Misleading and misunderstanding blogging and reporting this week is leading everybody into falsely believing that Intel plans to ship or support Android-based laptops. This has sparked debate over the wisdom or folly of Android laptops. I’ll make a case for why Android laptops are a great idea, but first let’s kill the myth that Intel announced Android laptops.”

4.        Why I won’t buy another subsidized Android phone (and why you shouldn’t, either)

All good points, but he closes off with misinformation: a subsidized phone is not going to be cheaper than an unsubsidized phone because you are financing it through the carrier. I haven’t had a subsidized phone or mobile contract for over a decade and I don’t think anybody should ever sign a mobile contract.

“The root of the problem is this: With subsidized Android phones, your carrier takes away your control of your phone in exchange for that subsidy, which has direct, negative consequences for your security, privacy, and battery life. Because of my experience with this I won’t be buying another subsidized Android phone, and I think you should consider avoiding them, as well.”

5.        Pentagon Expects to Enlist Apple, Samsung Devices

If true (and it likely is) this should have limited direct impact on Blackberry because the end market is relatively small. However, the importance of such an approval on demand by security conscious customers (bankers, lawyers, etc.) is probably significant, so this would be a negative for Blackberry over the longer term. I like the idea of a ruggedized smartphone provided pricing is reasonable.

“The U.S. Department of Defense expects in coming weeks to grant two separate security approvals for Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones, along with iPhones and iPads running Apple’s latest operating system—moves that would boost the number of U.S. government agencies allowed to use those devices.”

6.        BlackBerry CEO Heins: Tablet Market is Kaput

Full disclosure: I don’t own a tablet, however, I think this is a pretty silly thing to say, especially if you are less than a rounding error in the market. There may not be much of a business model for tablet manufacturers once prices collapse to the $100 – 200 range, as I figure they will within the next year or so, whereupon volumes will explode, albeit at tiny margins. There is nothing inherently profitable about making tablets, but, at the right price, they’ll sell a lot of them.

“BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins believes that tablets will be dead within the next five years. In five years I don’t think there’ll be a reason to have a tablet anymore,” he told an interviewer at the Milken Institute conference in Los Angeles, according to Bloomberg. “Maybe a big screen in your workplace, but not a tablet as such. Tablets themselves are not a good business model.”

7.        Qualcomm Proposes a Cell-Phone Network by the People, for the People

I can see the advantages for the carriers here: they replace a small number of expensive installations with a much larger number of very cheap, almost disposable, installations. This could save a lot of money for the carriers. What I don’t understand is what possible benefit this would provide for the consumer, who usually feels less than charitable towards carriers.

“Mobile chipmaker Qualcomm and some U.S. wireless carriers are investigating an idea that would see small cellular base stations installed in homes to serve passing smartphone users. That approach is believed to be a more efficient way of meeting the rising demand for data and fixing patchy coverage than building more traditional cell-phone towers.”

8.        Kenya’s new cellphone money model could disrupt global banking industry

The headline is silly, but the technology is real. To put it mildly, the developing world is rarely well served by traditional banks as success of Gamine Bank showed. The overhead per loan or transaction is relatively unaffected by the size of the transaction, so small transactions can be very expensive. This is probably good for Africa but it doesn’t represent a threat to the ‘global banking industry’.

“M-Shwari is a new banking platform that allows subscribers of Kenya’s biggest mobile network, Safaricom, to operate savings accounts, earn interest on deposits, and borrow money using their mobile phones. It expands on Kenya’s revolutionary use of sending money by mobile phone — known as M-Pesa, “mobile money” in Swahili — launched in 2007 and now widely used across the east African nation, where some 70 percent of people have mobile phones.”

9.        London Calling: Cell phone carriers pile in to M2M

On the one hand, it’s probably encouraging that carriers are starting to take Machine to Machine communications seriously on the other hand it seems likely to me that the mobile frequencies are probably not the most suitable for this type of application. After all, mobile (even voice) is relatively broadband and isochronous while M2M is, for the most part, narrow band and asynchronous. Then there is the issue of wavelengths which go through walls, etc..

“There is a race going on and it looks set to be won by the mobile phone service operators. It is the race to market for machine-to-machine communications and the Internet of Things. However, in the long-term those services may well not be operated on existing cell phone frequencies.”

10.   Disruptions: Brain Computer Interfaces Inch Closer to Mainstream

While I can see the merit of the technology for disabled people, I am pretty skeptical regarding mainstream adoption of Brain Computer Interfaces. Let’s face it: the Internet has a lot of utility and can be a tremendous tool, but the average person is not exactly a very bright bulb. Perhaps flooding the average brain with sports scores and celebrity gossip is a business model but I just don’t see it.

“But don’t expect these gestures to be necessary for long. Soon, we might interact with our smartphones and computers simply by using our minds. In a couple of years, we could be turning on the lights at home just by thinking about it, or sending an e-mail from our smartphone without even pulling the device from our pocket. Farther into the future, your robot assistant will appear by your side with a glass of lemonade simply because it knows you are thirsty.”

11.   Simple Trick Turns Commercial Polymer Into World’s Toughest Fiber

This is pretty cool –and easy to understand. The problem, I guess, is weaving fabric with slip knots built in, but, then again, they can do some pretty remarkable things with looms. One thing worth noting regarding things like armor is that, while you might be able to stop penetration, the kinetic energy is still going to be there. In other words, while I wouldn’t want a hole from a 50 calibre BMG round through my chest, the kinetic energy would probably kill me just as dead.

“Today, Nicola Pugno at the University of Trento in Italy reveals a remarkably simple trick that dramatically increases the toughness of almost any kind of fibre. Indeed, Pugno says he has used the technique to create the world’s toughest fibre. The new idea is deceptively simple–it involves no more than tying a slip knot in the fibre, creating a loop of extra fibre that can passes through the knot as it comes under tension.”

12.   Robotic Fly Takes to the Air, Briefly

This is a pretty impressive first step however, the tricky bit is bound to be the power source.  As things get smaller and lighter, air seems more like a liquid than a gas, so, in many ways, flying gets easier. However, because of air currents, which are more or less random at that scale, navigation gets trickier. It kind of puts the accomplishment of a mosquito in context, doesn’t it?

“First there were drones, then there were quadcopters. Now there’s RoboBee, which really looks more like a fly. After more than a decade of work, engineers have built an insect-sized robot that can take off, fly back and forth, land, and take off again.”

13.   The online drug marketplace Silk Road is collapsing – did hackers, government or Bitcoin kill it?

A website favored by drug dealers and ne’er-do-wells and criminals which operates exclusively using a (likely) fraudulent currency is the victim of blackmail? Whatever next?

“At 6am this morning, I got an email from one of my sleazier contacts. It simply said “looks like Silk Road has collapsed”. I fired the Tor browser you need to connect to the site and, indeed, it wasn’t there. At the time of writing, it’s still not back up. A look around on assorted forums linked to Silk Road finds lots of panic and not many hard facts. What’s clear is that the site has been crippled by a series of denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which involve flooding the site with traffic.”

14.   Study: 45 percent of Bitcoin exchanges end up closing

Just when I figured Bitcoin itself is a massive fraud, I see two more business models: 1) set up an exchange and ‘fail’ taking the customer’s money with you and, even better 2) set up an exchange and have confederates ‘steal’ the customer’s Bitcoins. A bit like lending bank robbers the safe for the weekend, no?

“A study of the Bitcoin exchange industry has found that 45 percent of exchanges fail, taking their users’ money with them. Those that survive are the ones that handle the most traffic — but they are also the exchanges that suffer the greatest number of cyber attacks.”

15.   Toyota cuts cost of hydrogen-fuel cell cars

Of course prices have come down, if for no other reason that Fuel Cell Vehicles have been more or less hand-crafted. Companies have made significant advances in cost, reliability, and performance of fuel cells as well. However, my beef has never been with the fuel cells – it’s the hydrogen. Hydrogen is expensive to produce and difficult to transport. It has also been used in prodigious quantities in industry for decades so it’s not like there is much room for a breakthrough in that regard.

“The cost of making a hydrogen fuel cell-powered car has fallen so dramatically that the same vehicle that cost about $1 million in past year can now be made for as little as $50,000 when it goes on sale in the U.S. in 2015, a top Toyota engineer says.”

16.   A City That Turns Garbage Into Energy Copes With a Shortage

If you think about it, more energy is going to go in to making some than you are ever going to get out of it by burning it. So, it’s a great thing to burn garbage (beats landfill), the energy output can only ever be a by-product and not a major source of grid electricity. I’m sure the folks in Napoli are delighted to sell their copious waste to the denizens of Oslo, and I can imagine it is the butt of a lot of jokes.

“Oslo, a recycling-friendly place where roughly half the city and most of its schools are heated by burning garbage — household trash, industrial waste, even toxic and dangerous waste from hospitals and drug arrests — has a problem: it has literally run out of garbage to burn.”

17.   Freaky Friday: Autonomous Tissue Grabbers Are On Their Way

This is pretty cool and a little scary – I have to believe ‘nanorobots’ nibbling away at your innards would make for a good science fiction story. Recovery is obviously an issue unless they are confined to external surfaces such as the digestive tract. Perhaps they could consider a self-destruct mechanism where the beasties dissolve after a while.

“Johns Hopkins engineers are testing out what they call “untethered microgrippers” as a better way to investigate hard-to-reach places. They have launched hundreds of these things, which look like miniature ninja throwing stars, inside the body of animal to retrieve tiny pieces of tissue for biopsies.”

18.   ‘Time Crystals’ Could Upend Physicists’ Theory of Time

I have no idea what this is about, however, it sounds potentially significant. I don’t think ‘perpetual motion’ in the context of the article means what it usually means but even then I am not sure. After all, electrons are in ‘perpetual motion’ around protons, but that doesn’t mean you can do much with that phenomenon.

“In February 2012, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek decided to go public with a strange and, he worried, somewhat embarrassing idea. Impossible as it seemed, Wilczek had developed an apparent proof of “time crystals” — physical structures that move in a repeating pattern, like minute hands rounding clocks, without expending energy or ever winding down. Unlike clocks or any other known objects, time crystals derive their movement not from stored energy but from a break in the symmetry of time, enabling a special form of perpetual motion.”

19.   Hollywood Studios Fuming Over BitTorrent, Cinedigm ‘Deal With the Devil’

Hollywood moguls have never been the most ethical folks in the world, so I take some pleasure in their torment. However, BitTorrent is actually a very effective distribution system and I don’t really see why they should care how what amounts to an extended trailer actually gets distributed. For Cinedigm this looks like a brilliant move, unless, of course, studios exercise their influence over theaters to blackball the company as a punishment.

“Hollywood studios are furious that BitTorrent, synonymous in the movie industry with piracy, has partnered with independent studio Cinedigm to promote “Arthur Newman,” TheWrap has learned. “It’s a deal with the devil,” one studio executive told TheWrap. “Cinedigm is being used as their pawn.”

20.   What If We Never Run Out of Oil?

This is not exactly a technology story, but it is interesting nonetheless. Te idea of mining gas hydrates has been around for some time, but I think it is unlikely it will be exploited in the current ‘cheap gas’ environment. Obviously, countries such as Japan and Korea, which lack fossil fuels, are bound to drive adoption due to the high cost of LNG. I continue to expect the spread between oil and gas prices to collapse, but it sure does seem to be taking a while.

“As the great research ship Chikyu left Shimizu in January to mine the explosive ice beneath the Philippine Sea, chances are good that not one of the scientists aboard realized they might be closing the door on Winston Churchill’s world. Their lack of knowledge is unsurprising; beyond the ranks of petroleum-industry historians, Churchill’s outsize role in the history of energy is insufficiently appreciated.”

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