The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 23rd 2013

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 23rd 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.        Microsoft CEO Ballmer to retire within 12 months

This is probably the best news for Microsoft shareholders in a long time: a failed mobile strategy which spilled over to a disastrous Windows 8 launch (a disaster which the company appears to be doubling down on) all in the context of a mature PC market. They needed a change 4 years ago …

“Microsoft Corp said on Friday that Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer would retire within the next 12 months, once it has selected a successor, sending its shares up almost 9 percent. Ballmer said in a statement that he would have timed his retirement in the middle of Microsoft’s announced transformation to a devices and services company. But he said: “We need a CEO who will be here longer term for this new direction.””

2.        How to Save the Troubled Graphene Transistor

It’s hard to see how you would classify graphene transistors as ‘troubled’ since it is a novel material: it is simply a matter of time before physicists figure out how or (or whether they can) exploit its characteristics. The devil may be in the details, of course – are special conditions (i.e. cryogenic temperatures) necessary for this to work?

“Unlike conventional semiconductors, graphene cannot be switched off, a problem that threatens to scupper its use in future generations of transistors. Now physicists think they’ve found a solution.”

3.        Printed Graphene Transistors Promise a Flexible Electronic Future

More fun and games with graphene – but doesn’t this article contradict the preceding one? You have to watch speed figures because they aren’t really what they seem to be, but still a 25 GHz transistor is a useful thing – flexible or not. Of course, cost, yield, etc., all have ot be optimized before you end up with a useful product.

“This week in the journal ACS Nano, Akinwande and University of Texas materials scientist Rodney Ruoff describe record-breaking 25-gigahertz graphene transistors printed on flexible plastic. Communications circuits have to be able to switch on and off billions of times per second—2.4 gigahertz for Bluetooth, and about 1 gigahertz for cellular communications. To really work for practical applications, the transistors in these circuits have to be rated about 10 times faster than that, says Akinwande. The University of Texas graphene transistors make the cut.”

4.        120,000 Apps in BlackBerry World (Spoiler: 47,000 Made by One Developer)

This is actually very bad news for Blackberry, and it shows the banality of reports concerning the number of apps for a particular platform. This number is so large it is clear the company in question has developed an ‘app generator’ platform and simply exploits the Blackberry user group. Not a promising context for a struggling company.

“A cursory review of BlackBerry World, the company’s app store, reveals that upward of 47,000 of the applications it offers for download are being peddled by a single developer, S4BB. There were 120,000 apps available in BlackBerry World on May 14, when BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins touted the number during his BlackBerry Live conference keynote”

5.        The Biggest-Little Revolution: 10 Single-Board Computers for Under $100

Probably only of interest to real geeks, however, there is a message here: there are many very cheap computers available with most of the power and resources of a PC 8 years ago. Almost all are built on ARM platforms, and most present a viable option for replacement of PCs in embedded applications.

6.        Power at a negative price: an insidious effect of a market model promoting renewables

What a bizarre situation! Nonetheless, this is what happens when you create an entirely artificial market, especially one where the traditionally suppliers do not have the luxury of shutting down their plants when the sun comes from behind a cloud. I guess the politics somehow makes sense, though.

“On the weekend of 15th and 16th of June, Belgium experienced 14 hours of negative electricity prices, with a three hour peak at -200 €/MWh, when the average spot market is usually around 50€/MWh. This phenomenon has never been observed in Belgium with such duration and magnitude.”

7.        Use Of Ad Blocking Is On The Rise

It is surprising the number isn’t higher, but I guess the reason (as suggested by the article) is that more people do not know how, and popular browsers (Explorer and Chrome) don’t make it easy. What you do is, switch to Firefox and install the Adblocker add-on: there is no reason to put up with all that noise.

“Last year, Niero Gonzalez, the 35-year-old founder of video gaming site Destructoid, was browsing TechCrunch and saw an article about OkCupid’s “brilliant” move to ask users with ad blocking software to donate $5 to the site. Gonzalez became curious how many of his own readers were blocking ads, so he turned to an outside company — BlockMetrics, now called PageFair — to do a site audit. “We have a savvy, techy user base, but I was still shocked by how many were using ad blockers,” says Gonzalez.”

8.        Don’t use Windows 8 due to risk of ‘back doors’, warns German government

Coincidentally, I have given up hope on Windows 8 and removed it from my Windows 8 laptop. NSA revelations had nothing to do with it, I just realized that I would Ubuntu more than Windows 8 and I wasn’t going to pay money for a Windows 7 license. Of course, thanks to Microsoft ‘security enhancements’ you can no longer dual-boot Windows 8 with another OS, so I simply reformatted the system to remove the installation. As for the NSA, etc., well, you come to expect this sort of nonsense.

“The German government has recommended that Federal Administration and other high profile public sector departments in the country do not use Windows 8 because, it warns, it contains security backdoors that cannot be controlled or trusted, and that may be easily accessible by the NSA.”

9.         Ubuntu Edge smartphone campaign ends in failure, raising less than half of $32m crowdfunding goal

The campaign seemed to get off to a promising start, however, even though I might be interested in the product, I don’t really see why I would want to help one big business create another big business, at least without equity ownership. After all – dosen’t Ubuntu have plenty of money?

“The Ubuntu Edge campaign to build a ‘next-generation’ smartphone that interfaces with a PC may be a record-breaker for raising the highest crowdfunded donation tally ever, but it’s ultimately ended in failure after closing out more than $19 million short of its ambitious $32 million target.”

10.   Maybe Not Everybody Should Learn to Code

Maybe I’m missing something or maybe he didn’t get the memo. First, a lot of programming is not exactly rocket science: after all, you don’t get hundreds of thousands of ‘aps’ written for mobile devices from a deep talent pool. Second, exposure to some programming is of value precisely because it demystifies ‘black boxes’.

“In the past few years, programming has gone mainstream, as celebrities from Chris Bosh to President Obama jump on the “everyone should learn to code” bandwagon. The idea is that teaching kids to code will make them employable and help American students keep up with their competition abroad. But this idea has generated substantial whining among programmers—including me.”

11.   Next up for WiFi

Some businesses may be lagging, however, with the proliferation of mobile devices (including tablets) it is increasingly becoming the ‘go to’ networking technology in institutions. Internet of Things (IoT) will probably add to the burden of keeping a WiFi network running smoothly in the future.

“In banking, Wi-Fi was almost a no-go because everything is so overly regulated. Wireless here is almost as critical as wired,” Devine still marvels. “It’s used for connectivity to heart pumps, defibrillators, nurse voice over IP call systems, surgery robots, remote stroke consultation systems, patient/guest access and more.”

12.   Solar Needs 32 Acres To Power 1,000 Homes

This is not exactly news: a number of years ago I read a study which suggested a real estate ratio of 1:1 for solar was about right. Of course, the devil is in the details: most 1,400 square foot houses will have less than 700 square foot of roof, and a small part of that would be pointed in the right direction, so you are really talking about more than doubling the real estate requirements for a given house. Now, that solar real estate would be remote (to lower costs and shading effects) and that would present other issues. Fundamentally, of source, it is worth nothing the sun sets with some regularity and therefore all the traditional generation infrastructure, and associated costs, would be required.

“According to the researchers, “A large fixed tilt photovoltaic (PV) plant that generates 1 gigawatt-hour per year requires, on average, 2.8 acres for the solar panels. This means that a solar power plant that provides all of the electricity for 1,000 homes would require 32 acres of land. Put another way, that’s about 1,400 square feet per home, a plot about 37 feet by 37 feet.”

13.   Ottawa watching BlackBerry carefully, wishes firm well

Ottawa did not intervene when Nortel vanished beneath the waves, so it is hard to believe they will do anything to keep Blackberry alive or out of ‘foreign’ hands. This is the natural order of things, especially tech companies – they are born, they prosper and then they die. Ultimately the company will likely be acquired, but for them the war is over.

“The Canadian government is watching smartphone maker BlackBerry Ltd carefully as it explores options including sale of the company but will not comment on its affairs, Industry Minister James Moore said on Wednesday.”

14.   Linux Hackers Rebuild Internet From Silicon Valley Garage

This sure sounds interesting, though I am not entirely convince this will ‘rebuild’ the Internet. New OSs are interesting, and the great thing about FOSS (Free Open Source Software) is that it can evolve to adapt to changing market conditions. Maybe CoreOS will be a big deal, maybe not, but, like Android, when Linux thousand flowers bloom, some come up roses.

“Inside that Palo Alto garage — the door open to the Silicon Valley summer sun, and the camping gear stacked against the wall — Polvi and his colleagues are fashioning a new computer operating system known as CoreOS. This isn’t an OS for running desktop PCs or laptops or tablets. It’s meant to run the hundreds of thousands of servers that underpin the modern internet.”

15.   Ditch Your Passwords — US Gov To Issue Secure Online IDs

The question which comes to mind is to what extent the consumers of government services are computer savvy and connected. Nonetheless, this sort of solution is bound to be a major money saver, even if it takes osme time for adoption to pick up.

“The Federal Cloud Credential Exchange (FCCX) is designed to enable individuals to securely access online services —such as health benefits, student loan information, and retirement benefit information—at multiple federal agencies without the need to use a different password or other digital identification for each service. The first federal agency to use it will be the Veterans Administration.”

16.   Most of U.S. Is Wired, but Millions Aren’t Plugged In

Apropos the prior article: there is a large group of people who won’t be connected any time soon, and these tend to be the disadvantaged. The question is: what do you do about it? Cost is certainly an issue (even a modest fee can be a major burden for the poor) and that includes the question of whether they can afford a PC or tablet. Of course, as a rural Canadian I can only dream of affordable broadband …

“The Obama administration has poured billions of dollars into expanding the reach of the Internet, and nearly 98 percent of American homes now have access to some form of high-speed broadband. But tens of millions of people are still on the sidelines of the digital revolution.”

17.   Fuel Cell Industry Ships 28,000 Units in 2012

I would not pay money for the report, but I suspect the unit count is not what people expect. In other words, there is very little chance these are for hydrogen powered vehicles – more likely these are for power backup, etc., and many of these have probably been shipped by Ballard Power in Vancouver.

“Driven by the increased worldwide focus on creating resilient, distributed energy systems, the fuel cell industry is experiencing a modest growth spurt. While the stationary sector continues to be the industry powerhouse, the transportation sector is also seeing acceleration in volume. The industry topped the $1 billion mark in revenue from the sale of fuel cell systems in 2012, according to a new report from Navigant Research, on shipments of 124 megawatts (MW), up 40 MW from 2011.”

18.   Smartphone eye exam app tested in Kenya

Now this is an interesting and useful application. One can imagine that smartphone apps could be developed which would bring a lot of medical diagnosis to rural villages – after all a big part of medicine is routine, and, in most cases, you don’t have to do much to provide a big benefit.

“A smartphone app to diagnose cataracts and other eye-related problems in people in developing countries is undergoing testing. The Portable Eye Examination Kit or Peek includes an app-based diagnosis tool and clip-on hardware to examine cataracts and retina problems, the London School of Hygiene and Tropic Medicine says on its website.”

19.   Interest in Electric Vehicles Held Back by Perceived Lack of Direct Personal Benefits

I am not entirely sure consumers are knowledgeable enough regarding electric vehicles to have an informed opinion regarding electric vehicles, especially since durability has yet to be established (and it is a parameter I am particularly skeptical of). The ratio of interested consumers is actually surprisingly low even though I have not read many articles not full of gushing praise for the product.

“A GfK study covering the USA, China, Japan, France, Spain, and Russia shows that, overall, over half (55%) of respondents have a favorable opinion of electric vehicles (EVs) and not far off half (43%) are somewhat or very open to buying one. However, almost a third (31%) are ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ open to the idea of buying one.”

20.   Don’t do it, Nokia

It may be dark paranoia to believe Elop is essentially an agent for Microsoft even if he isn’t, simply because his strategies, bizarrely aligned with those of Microsoft, seem to be precisely calibrated to devastate sales and make Nokia palatable to only a single buyer, namely Microsoft. No actual conspiracy is required if we assume assumed he shares the singularly wrong world view of the soon to be departed Balmer. It would be a pity for Nokia is a new Microsoft CEO decides that Nokia is no longer of strategic value to Microsoft, however.

“In the darker corners of my paranoid mind, I’ve always mused about the possibility that Microsoft sent its former executive Stephen Elop to intentionally sabotage Nokia so that its share price would crash, thus making it easy for Microsoft to buy it on the cheap. While this is admittedly a delusional conspiracy theory, I think it could gain at least a little legitimacy if Nokia really does go forward with its rumored plan to release a high-end tablet based on Windows RT.”


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