The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 30th 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!
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1. Student Attacks Publishing Cartels to Make Textbooks Open Source
A while ago I read an interview in which the gangster Al Capone wondered how it was that he could deliver bootleg whisky cheaper than milk. The cost of textbooks is a scandal at all levels of education and can only be explained by collusion among publishers (with the inexplicable support of the education industry). If nobody is willing to step up and deal with the problem through legal means, the only option is piracy.
“With a new college year looming, students will soon be expected to empty their bank accounts to buy textbooks to accompany their chosen course. These expensive books are controlled and published by large companies and their approach has been likened to that of a cartel. For one student it’s all become too much and he’s now on a mission to dismantle the cartel by informing students everywhere where to download textbooks for free. The EFF are a little worried but other lawyers are offering encouragement.”
2. Pirate Bay co-founder plans Hemlis, an encrypted messaging app where ‘no one can listen in’
Certainly the sort of application which might be of interest. Mind you, it could easily be a ‘honey pot’ operation run by a security agency. Of course, if the application is open source that would tilt things in favor of legitimacy.
“In the wake of recent revelations about NSA surveillance efforts, the co-founder of The Pirate Bay has launched a drive to crowdsource funding for a new mobile messaging app — one so secure that its creators say they couldn’t turn over people’s messages even if they wanted to. Hemlis (it means “secret” in Swedish), is being developed by Peter Sunde, one of the individuals behind The Pirate Bay, along with Linus Olsson and Leif Högberg.”
3. FCC: Cable operators lost 2.5M subs from 2010 to 2012
The loss of cable subscribers may be due to technology shifts or due to the weakened economic environment, especially given the astronomical cost of cable services nowadays. That being said, I suspect the model for TV will shift gradually in favor of a client/server model and away from traditional broadcast (which is what cable essentially is).
“Comcast, Time Warner Cable and other cable operators lost about 2.5 million video subscribers between 2010 and 2012, according to the FCC’s annual video competition report. Cable operators counted 57.3 million subscribers at the end of last year, down from 59.8 million in 2010, the FCC said Monday. DirecTV Inc. grew its subscriber base by 700,000 to 19.9 million during the same period, while Dish Network remained flat at 14.1 million, the FCC said.”
4. Giant Robotic Mining Trucks Love the Australian Desert
It is not clear from the article whether the trucks are robotic or driven remotely, nonetheless this is an excellent example of what is to come and the Australian desert is the perfect proving grounds. I believe robotic vehicles will replace drivers in long haul trucking applications and eventually offer door-to-door delivery.
“In the dusty red earth of Western Australia, robot trucks haul iron ore. The trucks themselves weigh about 500 tons when loaded — they are truly massive. They operate more or less on their own, navigating mining roads connecting the sprawling Pilbara iron mines with a guidance system provided by global positioning satellites, radars and lasers. It’s part of $13 billion mining operation by Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining firms.”
5. Nissan plans to begin selling self-driving cars by 2020
There must be a robotic vehicle conference going on this week given the profusion of related stories. 2020 seems a little soon, however, I have no doubt this is the future.
“Nissan Motor Co Ltd said it will be ready to bring fully self-driving vehicles to market by 2020. The Japanese automaker said it plans to offer “multiple, commercially viable” vehicles that are capable of autonomous operation without driver input. The self-driving vehicles will be sold “at realistic prices for consumers,” the company said at a media event in Irvine, California.”
6. “thereisnofatebutwhatwemake”—Turbo-charged cracking comes to long passwords
When you type in your password, the system creates a ‘hash’ of that input and compares that hash with an internal database. This brute force system assumes the hacker has access to the hash database, which is, alas, not as rare as you might hope. Hardware hashing (where the result of the comparison is made available, but not the actual hash database which is ‘write only’) might mitigate the risk associated with this form of hacking.
“For the first time, the freely available password cracker ocl-Hashcat-plus is able to tackle passcodes with as many as 55 characters. It’s an improvement that comes as more and more people are relying on long passcodes and phrases to protect their website accounts and other online assets.”
7. Samsung and Sony make 4K TVs more affordable with huge price cuts
One might question whether a $5,500 55” 4K TV is much more salable than a $6,500 one but it wasn’t that long ago either would be a bargain price for an HDTV. Outside of conspicuous consumers it is hard to believe there is much demand for 4K TVs, especially at super-premiums. Ultimately, HD TVs will find a floor price and 4K TVs will end up not costing much more than that. It is unlikely that much in the way of content will become available in either event.
“Samsung and Sony are cutting $1,000 or more from the prices of their latest 4K TV sets, sending their prices down toward something a bit more affordable. Both companies are cutting about $1,000 from their 55-inch models, bringing Samsung’s UN55F9000 down to $4,499.99 and Sony’s XBR-55X900A down to $3,999.99. Even more is coming off of their 65-inch sets — about $1,500 — bringing Samsung’s UN65F9000 down to $5,999.99 and Sony’s XBR-65X900A down to $5499.99. According to Twice, which first reported the price cuts, Samsung’s changes went into effect on Sunday, matching cuts announced by Sony about two weeks prior.”
8. Researcher controls colleague’s motions in 1st human brain-to-brain interface
Definitely super cool stuff, however, a controlled twitch is distinct from ‘control’. We saw an example of a rat’s tail twitching a few weeks ago, and this really isn’t much better. Nonetheless, the ‘non-invasive’ angle is quite novel and exciting.
“University of Washington researchers have performed what they believe is the first non-invasive human-to-human brain interface, with one researcher able to send a brain signal via the Internet to control the hand motions of a fellow researcher. Using electrical brain recordings and a form of magnetic stimulation, Rajesh Rao sent a brain signal to Andrea Stocco on the other side of the UW campus, causing Stocco’s finger to move on a keyboard.”
9. Google considering turning self-driving cars into a ‘robo-taxi’ service
Even more on self-driving cars. Whether or not Google actually rolls this out, ‘robo-taxis’ are in the future. Think about it: a swarm of vehicles waiting for you to summon one, which can arrive at your doorstep in a couple minutes, bring you to your destination, and go away to drive somebody else when you are done. Why would you own a car if this was an option?
“Although Google’s self-driving cars have been a technological success the search-giant has had difficulty finding a method of getting the vehicles into mainstream use. However, new reports now suggest that the company is considering using their vehicles to create an autonomous ‘robo-taxi’ service. The self-driving vehicles would pick-up and drop-off passengers without human intervention, and would presumably be paired with a mobile application.”
10. Kevin Spacey: television has entered a new golden age
A fascinating speech by somebody who actually seems to sound like he knows what he is talking about. I should know – I predicted this in 1997. It is not obvious to me that he is suggesting the likes of Netflix will replace traditional TV or coexist.
“TV has entered a “third golden age”, with the small screen now home to high-quality drama including Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Homeland and Breaking Bad, one of Hollywood’s best-known stars has told the Edinburgh Television Festival. Kevin Spacey, who started out on the stage before winning Oscars for The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, said on Thursday that the medium had come into its own as an art form, eclipsing film in terms of character-driven drama.”
11. Deep microbes live long and slow
Life is, above all, adaptable, and we find it on Earth pretty much wherever we look. What is interesting about this finding is that it provides some level of support for a mechanism for panspermia: if bacteria can live in 100 million year old rock, they can make the trip from star system to star system as well, and certainly from planet to planet.
“A diverse range of life forms exists deep below Earth’s surface, scientists have concluded, but they survive at an incredibly slow pace. Long-lived bacteria, reproducing only once every 10,000 years, have been found in rocks 2.5km (1.5 miles) below the ocean floor that are as much as 100 million years old.”
12. Moore’s Law Dead by 2022, Expert Says
Maybe it’s me but he seems to be saying the earliest it’ll stop is 2020. In any event, the music has to stop sooner or later and you run into quantum limits eventually. That being said, nano-materials provide some potential for continued technological advancement, even if that is not propelled by semiconductor advances.
“Moore’s Law — the ability to pack twice as many transistors on the same sliver of silicon every two years — will come to an end as soon as 2020 at the 7nm node, said a keynoter at the Hot Chips conference here.”
13. Home 3D printers take us on a maddening journey into another dimension
A surprisingly well written article. It is completely understandable that the low cost Printrbot was a pain in the butt to use, but the performance of the Makerbot is disappointing. None of this is unusual, of course, early a technology’s lifecycle, however, the Makerbot is marketed as ‘ready for prime time.’ Eventually this will be sorted out, but a lot of people will be disappointed in the meanwhile.
“What I found as I dug in was a pit without a bottom—an absolute yawning Stygian abyss of options and tweaking and modifications and endless re-printing. To own and use a 3D printer is to become enmeshed in a constant stream of tinkering, tweaking, and upgrades. It feels a lot like owning a project car that you must continually wrench on to keep it running right. Almost from the moment I got the Printrbot out of the box and printing, I had to start the tweaking. And as a total 3D printing newb, it really soured me on the Printrbot and on the entire concept of low-cost 3D printing in general.”
14. Canada’s Wireless Wars: Bell Media Exec’s Memo to News Directors
When Canada’s telecommunications oligopoly started buying substantially all of the media in the country, they assuaged concerns by swearing they would not interfere with editorial content. Of course, such assurances are nonsense: journalists (those few who remain) know what side of the bread the butter is on and they would have short careers if they investigate or criticise any part of the oligopoly. Regardless, tacit control is apparently not enough: explicit interference shows why media should be independent by law.
“Some employees at Rogers and Bell, for instance, report being brow-beaten by managers to email a form letter in support of the companies to the government. More troubling, and a point that has not yet seen the light of day, is a chain of emails originating from Kevin Crull, the President of Bell Media – the largest media enterprise and one of the largest news organizations in the country — calling on news execs and journalists across CTV, CTV2 and local TV channels and radio stations across the country to give ample coverage to a study that suggests that the state of wireless in Canada is not as bad as its critics claim. A copy of the emails, with the names of non-executives removed, can be found here.”
15. Hippies and libertarians have become unlikely allies in a war against solar power
I don’t agree with the author’s position, but it looks like things are getting interesting. The one question I keep coming back to is this: if you need to pay 10x for solar power in order for people to install it, doesn’t that mean that electricity bill have to go up by at least 10x to pay for it or are you going to cap solar production at a couple percent of the total?
“A weird thing is happening with solar power. For years derided as a sideshow energy source that was only for environmentalists, solar is now being seen as an imminent threat to both the mainline energy industry and at least one national economy. As a result, those harmless people with the shiny panels on their rooftops are suddenly being seen as dangerous freeloaders and, in some potential bellwether cases, are being threatened with punitive taxes to dissuade them from their pursuit of self-generated power from a renewable resource: the Sun.”
16. For First Time Graphene and Metal Make Super Strong Composite
Very interesting, however, as the article mentions scaling up the process will be the real breakthrough. Nonetheless, even at high cost and small batch sizes this material would likely have use in aerospace applications.
“One of the characteristics of graphene that is often mentioned but seldom exploited is its strength compared to other materials. Its tensile strength has been measured at 130 GigaPascals, making it 200 times as strong as steel. Now researchers at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have put graphene’s tensile strength to work by using it in a composite consisting of copper and nickel. The graphene makes the copper 500 times as strong as it would be on its own and the nickel 180 times as strong.”
17. US-Made Moto X’s Cost Comparable to Asian-Assembled Smartphones, IHS Teardown Reveals
News items based on this reports carry a variety of confused and contradictory analysis regarding the findings. The objective reality is that a lot of the ‘labor’ involved in tech goods is robotic, and people are used when they are cheaper – even if the net cost advantage is minimal. The challenge in domestic manufacture is the logistics trade-off of being closer to your customers yet farther away from your suppliers.
“Conventional wisdom says it’s cheaper to produce things in Asia than in North America, which is why U.S. electronics brands have steadily outsourced nearly all their product manufacturing to companies based in the Far East during the last few decades.”
18. Wearable Robots Getting Lighter, Putting Paralyzed People Back On Their Feet
I have been tracking these developments for a number of years and it looks like manufacturers are getting close to a viable product. The prices are too high but there is no reason they won’t come down quickly.
“When Michael Gore stands, it’s a triumph of science and engineering. Eleven years ago, Gore was paralyzed from the waist down in a workplace accident, yet he rises from his wheelchair to his full 6-foot-2-inches and walks across the room with help from a lightweight wearable robot.”
19. How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class
Well, fair enough, but how do you unscramble the egg? Over history mundane low-skill labour ends up being displaced by capital investment – the market for ditch diggers is not coming back and the same goes for low skill positions in factories. Having a blue-collar background, I am no unsympathetic, however, the economy will eventually realign itself to this new reality.
“Are we in danger of losing the “race against the machine,” as the M.I.T. scholars Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in a recent book? Are we becoming enslaved to our “robot overlords,” as the journalist Kevin Drum warned in Mother Jones? Do “smart machines” threaten us with “long-term misery,” as the economists Jeffrey D. Sachs and Laurence J. Kotlikoff prophesied earlier this year? Have we reached “the end of labor,” as Noah Smith laments in The Atlantic?”
20. Sales of BlackBerry’s Q10 Keyboard Phone Fall Flat
Disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. RIM zigged when it should of zagged when HTML email came out and it pretty much missed the emergence of the Internet as a factor for consumer smartphones. This has nothing to do with touchscreen vs. QWERTY (which I prefer) but with trying to market a dying platform in an ecosystem which limits the number of platforms to 1 or 2.
“Chris Jourdan, who owns and operates 16 Wireless Zone stores in the Midwestern U.S. that sell Verizon Wireless products, said customers didn’t show up for the Q10 as expected. His stores only ordered a few of the devices per location and “the handful that sold were returned. “We saw virtually no demand for the Q10 and eventually returned most to our equipment vendor,” he said.”