The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 14th 2013


I am an independent analyst and consultant with 20 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.        Why PRISM kills the cloud

The PRISM revelations have been the story of the week so we have several related items. We have written about the right of US officials to explore and exploit data stored in the US or under the control of US companies in the past, so the revelation of PRISM is not exactly a surprise. The idea of an “…internationally binding Bill of Digital Rights in which privacy is enshrined” is laughable: spies and national security states do not spend time worrying about legalities. Companies considering using encrypted cloud services should consider the likelihood encryption schemes have backdoors for the convenience of the espionage community. This is not paranoia: it is reality.

“The migration from desktop computing to the cloud is on every tech firm’s playlist this season, with Apple [AAPL] expected to deliver improvements to its iCloud service later today — but recent revelations regarding the US government’s PRISM surveillance technology could be the kiss of death to these future tech promises.”

2.        Why the NSA Prism Program Could Kill U.S. Tech Companies

Clearly a massive overstatement because the well informed have known about these sort of arrangements for a long time: it’s part of the Orwellian named ‘Patriot Act’ for heaven’s sake. Any spy or terrorist worth his/her salt knows how to work around this sort of thing, so, besides governments (it’s not just the US) having free access to the data of everybody and all companies, it’s pretty much a wash.

“Within 24 hours, the leak of two documents has revealed a vast network of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance operations that were authorized by FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts with the oversight of the U.S. Congress.”

3.        U.S. Agencies Said to Swap Data With Thousands of Firms

The thing with governments having free access to data is that you really can’t be sure what they are going to do with it: spies steal from governments all the time and they are rather juicy targets for hackers – especially if the government already knows the good stuff. Imagine you are a lawyer: do you want to keep your legal strategy, etc., on a cloud server somewhere?

“Thousands of technology, finance and manufacturing companies are working closely with U.S. national security agencies, providing sensitive information and in return receiving benefits that include access to classified intelligence, four people familiar with the process said. These programs, whose participants are known as trusted partners, extend far beyond what was revealed by Edward Snowden, a computer technician who did work for the National Security Agency.”

4.        Intel processor outperforms Nvidia, Qualcomm, Samsung

This is a remarkable result and potentially significant for Intel as well as its competitors. An x86 compatible processor has significant advantages over any other architecture due to the existence of a vast software library (i.e. actual software, not trivial ‘apps). One disadvantage to adopting an Intel device would be that it is likely going to be available in fewer configurations since ARM is licensed by many vendors. This means that if Intel’s engineers guess wrong, they may have a great device that misses certain features whereas there is a better chance at east on ARM licensee will have guessed right.

“The benchmarks were impressive but the real surprise was the current consumption recorded during the benchmarks; the new processor not only outperformed the competition in performance but it did so with up to half the current drain.”–Qualcomm–Samsung-ICs

5.        For the first time, a third of American adults own tablet computers

This article has some interesting data on the tablet market. If the data are correct, I would expect growth would taper off pretty quickly unless folks decide to replace a Kindle with a more capable device, for example, due to the fact the product does not appear to appeal to a broad demographic (middle-aged, well off, well-educated buyers).

“Unlike smartphones, which are most popular with younger adults ages 18-34, we see the highest rates of tablet ownership among adults in their late thirties and early forties. In fact, almost half (49%) of adults ages 35-44 now own a tablet computer, significantly more than any other age group. Adults ages 65 and older, on the other hand, are less likely to own a tablet (18%) than younger age groups.”

6.        SSDs: New King of the Data Center?

SSDs (Solid State Drives) have a number of advantages over traditional storage besides speed. Unfortunately, most SSDs come with antediluvian SATA interfaces which trace back to the era of the PC/AT. Moore’s Law more or less ensures the cost spread will drop and ‘wear’ issues will be dealt with through engineering. There is no doubt SSDs will substantially replace HDDs in most applications.

“But businesses have lagged the consumer market in adoption of SSDs, largely due to the format’s comparatively small size, high cost and the concerns of datacenter managers about long-term stability and comparatively high failure rates. That’s changing quickly, according to market researchers IDC and Gartner.”

7.        Report forecasts that LED luminaire business will reach $516M market by 2016

As usual I should note that I believe industry analyst reports to be of minimal value, however, I know that people are generally interested in forecasts. As I predicted a number of years ago, Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) will substantially replace traditional glass based lighting. LEDs use less power and last much longer than other lighting technologies, which confers considerably flexibility on the design of ‘luminaires’ (basically fixtures). This report seems to focus on streetlights which are expensive to buy and have a high cost of ownership, however, residential lighting will be a huge market.

“We estimate that LED luminaire revenue will reach $435M in 2013 and peak at $516M by 2016, fuelled by the increased need for energy efficiency. Growth will be driven firstly by tunnel lighting, and then relayed into highway, road, residential and amenity lighting applications starting in 2014”, explains Pars Mukish, Market and technology analyst, LED at Yole Développement. “By 2017, market size should decline because of a decreasing replacement market (due to LED-based systems’ higher lifetime) and also because of LED luminaire’s ASP.”–516m-ma.html

8.        The Memristor’s Fundamental Secrets Revealed

Memristors are a relatively new fundamental electric component which fills in a missing box with inductors, resistors, and capacitors. Basically, you can think of them as a resistor with memory and there are efforts to develop memory technologies which exploit them. Personally, I think the “killer app” will be in neural networks where memristors can serve as the weighting function for the dendrite/axon interface. We’ll see.

“You would expect that a new fundamental passive circuit element, first postulated a mere 42 years ago, and first identified in the wild in 2008, would be as rare as hen’s teeth. You’d be wrong. It turns out they’re as common as cat’s whiskers. Two researchers from mLabs in India, along with Prof. Leon Chua at the University of California Berkeley, who first postulated the memristor in a paper back in 1971, have discovered the simplest physical implementation for the memristor, which can be built by anyone and everyone.”

9.        About My Switch From Mac To Windows

For me this article is interesting beside it paints a rather pathetic picture of a ‘power’ user. It is written from the perspective of someone betrayed, but there is not betrayal here – a computer is a tool, not a lover or a religion. Nobody in their right mind would say this about hammers or spanners and nobody should forget that Apple (or Intel or Microsoft or Google) raison d’être is to make money, preferably as much as possible. Apple hasn’t been at the cutting edge of technology for years now – it is a marketing organization whose major effort is making you think they are innovative.

“This left me with few choices so I did the unthinkable for me. I started exploring Windows. Even now as I type that sentence, I find my hands shaking. I am not ashamed to say that I was a Mac fanboy. But times change and so do my opinions. Steve Jobs himself said only perpetually stupid people never change their mind. And just because I thought something was perfect 10 years ago doesn’t mean there’s a law that says I can’t adapt, find new products and change my mind. So I have.”

10.   Vacuum pumps made 300 times smaller and using ten times less power

A rather nifty example of MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical System), though I don’t know enough to comment on the actual utility of these devices. The thing with MEMS is that you produce them in bulk using similar lithographic techniques as are used in the semiconductor industry, though employing features a few orders of magnitude larger than state of the art ICs.

“DARPA-funded researchers recently demonstrated the world’s smallest vacuum pumps. This breakthrough technology may create new national security applications for electronics and sensors that require a vacuum: highly sensitive gas analyzers that can detect chemical or biological attack, extremely accurate laser-cooled chip-scale atomic clocks and microscale vacuum tubes.”

11.   Is 3D TV dead? ESPN 3D to shut down by end of 2013

As expected, 3D TV is fizzling. Personally, I hate it – even the name is misleading – and I can’t wait until I can go see a major release not in 3D. It probably made sense for ESPN to be out front in this, which probably explains the rather amusing mention of 4K TV. Not that we won’t all end up owning 4K TVs, it’s just we are unlikely to ever see much in the way of broadcast content due to the bandwidth penalty for a marginal improvement in picture. After all, most cable/satellite HD is HD in name only because transcoding, etc., seriously degrades the picture quality.

“3D TV programming may be dying before it ever really got off the ground: ESPN, which was one of the first major programmers to embrace the format, plans to discontinue its specialized ESPN 3D channel by year’s end. ESPN spokesperson Katina Arnold has confirmed the move via Twitter, squarely blaming low adoption as the reason for the channel’s demise.”

12.   A radically new 3d printing method

3D printing comes in a number of flavors but this is a new one to me. Thee video is cool to watch, and the temptation is to dismiss the system as being only for making weird looking spaghetti sculptures which hang off the wall. I see other applications: imagine you want to pour a concrete arch: you form with this material then layer fast setting concrete into your form. When the concrete sets up the result will be very strong and can all be done automatically.

“MATAERIAL – a brand new method of additive manufacturing. This patent-pending method allows for creating 3D objects on any given working surface independently of its inclination and smoothness, and without a need of additional support structures. Conventional methods of additive manufacturing have been affected both by gravity and printing environment: creation of 3D objects on irregular, or non-horizontal surfaces has so far been treated as impossible.”

13.   Printable ‘bionic’ ear melds electronics and biology

The technology is pretty interesting but I admit to being baffled as to why they elected to create an ear (which is associated with sounds) with radio reception.

“Using 3-D printing tools, scientists at Princeton University have created a functional ear that can “hear” radio frequencies far beyond the range of normal human capability. The researchers’ primary purpose was to explore an efficient and versatile method of merging electronics with tissue. The scientists used 3-D printing of cells and nanoparticles — with an off-the-shelf printer purchased off the Internet — followed by cell culture to combine a small coil antenna with cartilage, creating what they term a bionic ear.”

14.   Recharge Now!

This article is about Tesla, which I consider a perfect example of what is wrong with Wall Street. Here we have a company whose major claim to fame is converting subsidies and tax credits into market capitalization. A cult following has developed around the CEO of a company which makes electric vehicles, which are not that hard to make judging from the plethora of failed startups. The challenge is the battery (which Tesla nether makes nor ‘owns’) and the expectation that, through the intervention of magic, somehow costs of batteries will drop precipitously despite the absence for a reason for said price drops. Of course, cheaper batteries would make EVs cheaper to make for everybody. At least Barron’s hints at the key question: what is the resale value of a vehicle which needs a $30,000 repair (i.e. new battery) every 5 to 8 years? The answer is scrap value.

“Stubbornly costly batteries may even cause headaches when today’s Tesla’s luxury cars arrive on the used-car lot. Folks who buy $90,000 cars tend to replace them every few years, and the bid for a four-year-old Model S may prove disappointing if it’s going to need an expensive new battery in a few more years. Musk has astutely met that concern with a financing option guaranteeing resale value, but that just shifts the risk to shareholders.”

15.   Electric Bus Fast Charges in 15 Seconds

It is a pity they don’t dwell on the nature of the technology (I suspect ultra-capacitors plus lithium ion batteries), however, even so, this approach seems to make a lot of sense: if you can develop a bus with a modest range (i.e. 1km), then you only have to charge it at each bus stop, provided they are close enough together. This saves on the costly and unsightly wiring associated with urban electric busses, as well as (presumably) lowering the cost and weight of on board power storage.

“A new high-capacity flash-charging technology pioneered by ABB Group, the Swiss power and automation conglomerate, will allow electric trolleys to run without overhead power lines.”

16.   Kodak’s Problem Child

The story of Kodak should be required reading for any business student. However it wasn’t digital photography which killed Kodak – it was a nearly endless succession of appallingly stupid decisions made by management, including (but not limited to) ignoring the emergence of digital photography until it was too late. I predicted their demise in an article in 1997 and I’m not even that smart!

“At its peak, in 1996, Kodak was rated the fourth-most-valuable global brand. That year, the company had about two-thirds of the global photo market, annual revenues of $16 billion, and a market capitalization of $31 billion. At the time of its peak local employment, in 1982, the company had over 60,000 workers in Rochester, most of whom worked in Kodak Park, as it’s known to employees and locals. The campus, a private city within the city, sprawled over 120 acres with its own power plant and fire department, once stood as a monument of imaging and innovation. Today it still stands, but vastly scaled back from the days when film production was at the core of Kodak’s work.”

17.   Uber cuts ride-share prices below taxi fares

The taxi business is a weird one: on the one hand, it makes sense it be regulated, on the other hand, bizarre licensing schemes means that taxi licenses are so expensive taxi drivers cannot afford them so they end up quasi employees without benefits. It will be interesting to see whether this technology – which has its pros and cons – will triumph in the face of opposition from wealthy and influential license holders. I should not that the ‘self-driving car’ will put an end to the taxi industry because the cars will show up all by itself and take you where you want to go.

“Uber is now offering its ride-sharing service — which lets users get rides from people in their personal cars — at prices lower than taxi cabs, the company announced today. The peer-to-peer service uberX, which mimics the models of companies like Lyft and Sidecar, will now have fares in San Francisco that are 10 percent lower than taxi prices, according to Uber. San Francisco is just now seeing this competitive pricing that Uber’s other ride-share cities already have, aside from New York. UberX in Seattle, San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston are cheaper than taxis.”

18.   Researchers develop easy and effective therapy to restore sight

I can’t say that I would characterize a syringe needle to the eye as non-invasive, though it is probably less invasive, and less tricky, than a syringe needle to the retina. More effective delivery of corrective genes is probably a good thing as the micrographs show.

“Researchers at UC Berkeley have developed an easier and more effective method for inserting genes into eye cells that could greatly expand gene therapy to help restore sight to patients with blinding diseases ranging from inherited defects like retinitis pigmentosa to degenerative illnesses of old age, such as macular degeneration.  Unlike current treatments, the new procedure is quick and surgically non-invasive, and it delivers normal genes to hard-to-reach cells throughout the entire retina.”

19.   Supreme Court Says Human Genes Aren’t Patentable

This was truly a good day – and not just because it marks an (increasingly rare) moment of lucidity for the US Supreme Court. It simply made no sense that natural genes, which are simply data, should be patentable however I can see the value in allowing artificial genes to be patented. Now, the interesting question is, given the diversity of genes, if I find a critter with a natural version of your patented artificial gene, does that constitute ‘prior art.?

“The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that human genes isolated from the body can’t be patented, a victory for doctors and patients who argued that such patents nterfere with scientific research and the practice of medicine.”

20.   Peak soil: industrial civilisation is on the verge of eating itself

Fly over North America and there are vast tracts of farmland which are used for forage or practically nothing at all. The price of food is so low in the developed world that we throw out much of it uneaten. Agriculture has become so efficient that a tiny portion of the working population is employed in the industry – 100 years ago it was nearly 50% of the population. Even in poor countries, food production could be multiplied through the use of modern machinery and techniques. Fundamentally, we are awash in cheap food, a situation unparalleled in history. There is no problem and there is no cause for concerned.

“A new report says that the world will need to more than double food production over the next 40 years to feed an expanding global population. But as the world’s food needs are rapidly increasing, the planet’s capacity to produce food confronts increasing constraints from overlapping crises that, if left unchecked, could lead to billions facing hunger.”

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