The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 13th 2013

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 13th 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.        iSpy: How the NSA Accesses Smartphone Data

This was a big story this week, and the revelation extends beyond spy v spy. If the NSA has access to stuff, anybody working for the NSA has access to stuff, including the numerous covert foreign agents who certainly work there. After all – what if Edward Snowden were working for the Chinese government, or General Electric? These revelations (and all the others) could lift the delusion of online security especially that associated with US firms. This could have significant long term business impact.

“The US intelligence agency NSA has been taking advantage of the smartphone boom. It has developed the ability to hack into iPhones, android devices and even the BlackBerry, previously believed to be particularly secure.”

2.        The signs are that 3D printing is transforming manufacturing, but not in the ways you might expect

Much of the mainstream focus on 3D printing of late has been associated with ‘personal’ systems which some believe will find their way into every home. I do not share that view: few enough people have hand power tools, let alone know how to use them to stop their toilets from running. That said, more affordable 3D printers will likely find use in certain applications, even if ‘more affordable’ means $10,000.

“EVER since 3D printing—the ability to construct solid objects by building them up, a layer at a time, in plastic or metal—hit public consciousness a couple of years ago, comment has veered towards two extremes. Fans, often in America, insist it will have a dramatic impact, undermining the economics of mass production and repatriating jobs to the West. According to the Harvard Business Review, “China will have to give up on being the mass-manufacturing powerhouse of the world.””

3.        Internet experts want security revamp after NSA revelations

What’s this? They feel betrayed because they let the NSA write the standards and have discovered (what betrayal!) that the NSA wrote the standards so they could easily crack the systems? Whatever next? How can people who are, presumably, operating at genius level in software be so fundamentally stupid about things a common street thug would understand? Fortunately, universities grind out PhDs on security and encryption and a lot of them aren’t going to find work at the NSA.

“Leading technologists said they felt betrayed that the NSA, which has contributed to some important security standards, was trying to ensure they stayed weak enough that the agency could break them. Some said they were stunned that the government would value its monitoring ability so much that it was willing to reduce everyone’s security.”

4.        The multiplexed metropolis

The tag caught my eye because I am to give a speech on this subject in October. I don’t know about ‘proving their case’ after all, The Economist is about, mostly, economist stuff, and economists have never been shown to have predictive or even utilitarian skill. Nonetheless, the article is actually about a bunch of loopy ideas (starting with well-run cities), and, no networking technology is going to fix them. However, how would cities be if telephone were service spotty, expensive, often inaccessible, and unreliable?

“Enthusiasts think that data services can change cities in this century as much as electricity did in the last one. They are a long way from proving their case.”

5.        Textbook Case of Inflation Hammering Students: Chart of the Day

Faculty do not seem overly concerned with the fact the textbooks they assign are becoming astronomically expensive despite the fact little actually changes in them. Students have a choice: pay the piper or pirate. Fortunately, piracy sites are springing up all over the place and students shouldn’t have to look far to find one. Always remember to use a secure browser, though.

“The CHART OF THE DAY shows university textbook prices surged 102 percent through July from December 2001 while the costs for recreational books declined 1.5 percent. Over the same period, the consumer price index measuring the cost of all goods and services rose 32 percent.”

6.        Bank? What bank? Orange, Visa and the changing face of Africa’s mobile money

Another in a series of articles about how the mobile revolution has impacted the economies of the poorest countries in the world. Experience with micro-credit (Gramin Bank) show the poor are generally poorly served by ‘legitimate’ financial institutions, giving rise to black markets and worse. It’s hard to run an economy with a trustworthy financial sector.

“In a bid to expand its reach into Africa — in many ways the unexplored continent for financial services —  US-based Visa has cut a deal with mobile giant Orange, bypassing the formal banking sector and taking advantage of a very African innovation. As of last month, subscribers to Orange’s mobile money system, Orange Money, in Botswana have been able to link their mobile money accounts to the Visa network, opening up access to Visa’s services even to those with no bank accounts at all.”

7.        Scientists calculate the energy required to store wind and solar power on the grid

Good to know somebody is looking into it, although I believe these types of analysis have a significant flaw, namely the impact of massively increased demand on pricing of certain commodities. For example, grid level storage would require enormous amounts of (for example) lithium, which would probably result in significantly higher prices for the batteries.

“Renewable energy holds the promise of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But there are times when solar and wind farms generate more electricity than is needed by consumers. Storing that surplus energy in batteries for later use seems like an obvious solution, but a new study from Stanford University suggests that might not always be the case.”

8.        Sneak peek: 3D-printable mini spectrometer

More of a laugh than anything else, but it does show the sorts of things the maker community gets up to. The blogger is probably hoping somebody with more expertise in the field can suggest some fixes and those will probably be forthcoming. I suspect 3D printing of optics is not the way to go regardless.

“This first spectrograph design has a 3D printed slit, and uses an inexpensive 1000-line/mm diffraction grating of the kind you can find on diffraction grating slides for classroom experiments. I read a paper a while ago on using deconvolution to post-process the data from slit spectrometers and basically sharpen the point-spread function (or PSF) to effectively increase the resolution of the instrument. Inspired by this, I decided to leave out the relay optics between slit-to-grating and from grating-to-detector to see if I could use post-processing to effectively sharpen up the overly broad PSF and have an even simpler and less expensive instrument.”

9.        All You Ever Wanted To Know About Jet Engines

10.   Intel prepares ultra-small chips for Dick Tracy-style gadgets

We’ll see if Intel’s System on a Chip efforts make any headway. It is a long overdue strategy, meaning that most foundries are all ready, willing, and able, to produce ARM based devices and so competition is steep from Intel’s perspective. Still, provided pricing, performance, and power consumption are all competitive there are good reasons to go with an x86 based platform.

“Intel is working on a new line of ultra-small and ultra-low-power microchips for wearable devices like smartwatches and bracelets, a bid by the company to make sure it will be at the crest of the next big technology wave after arriving late to the smartphone and tablet revolution.”

11.   Intel’s new Atom for tablets: how it performs

More news on Intel’s plans, this time with a bit more information on their tablet products. The telling comment for me is the observation from the end of the piece, namely that Intel is backing the wrong horse with a Windows tablet. Of course, objections to the OS could be overcome with a sufficiently low price, but low price and Windows are rarely uttered in the same breath. If Intel’s new devices are not made available in Android tablets, they could be DOA.

“Twice the speed of the previous generation – that’s the familiar cry from Intel regarding its latest Atom processor, codenamed Bay Trail. It’s the big thing coming out of this year’s mobile-focused Intel Developer Forum and so we found ourselves in Intel’s Santa Clara offices with a reference design tablet to play with.”

12.   Apple announces the iPhone 5c: 4-inch Retina display, plastic design, available in five colors starting at $99 on-contract

I don’t know what it is with people: contract pricing is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things because it is simply a marketing decision. At the end of the day what matters is the unsubsidized price, or what you actually sell it for, because somebody has to end up paying for the thing. If you have a very expensive ($549) phone, unless you have loads of room to discount, you aren’t go to be price competitive with a $399 phone, and there are plenty $199 phone going to come to market. Of course, features and hype may fill in some of that spread, but the Apple reality distortion field ain’t what it used to be.

“Available in blue, white, pink, yellow and green, the 5C will set you back $99 on a two-year contract for the 16GB version, or $199 for the 32GB (off-contract options run $549 and $649). Those looking for a bit of added protection can also opt for one of the new cases that Apple has designed to match the phone — they’ll set you back $29 apiece.”

13.   Did the FBI Lean On Microsoft for Access to Its Encryption Software?

The fun thing about ‘back doors’ is that other people can figure them out to. So, if the FBI, KGB, or whoever, place a back door in an encryption system then the other team (including criminals) can exploit it as well.

“The NSA is reportedly not the only government agency asking tech companies for help in cracking technology to access user data. Sources say the FBI has a history of requesting digital backdoors, which are generally understood as a hidden vulnerability in a program that would, in theory, let the agency peek into suspects’ computers and communications.”

14.   iPhone 5S: The 64-bit A7 chip is marketing fluff and won’t improve performance

He’s right, but the author clearly doesn’t know much about computers. Yes, a 64 bit system generally gives a greater address space but so does paging: programs aren’t usually going to run over 1 gigabyte anyway. Wider registers allow faster computation which can be advantageous in a variety of contexts. But what matters is not how fast you can calculate a cubed root: system performance matters and a smartphone will always be significantly constrained in terms of resources. The interesting thing for me about articles like these is that people are starting to think even slightly skeptically about Apple’s hype machine.

“There are two reasons to adopt a 64-bit architecture. First, there’s RAM addressing. 32-bit systems are limited to 4GB of RAM in theory and typically 2-3GB for any single application depending on OS parameters. 64-bit operating systems allow for up to 16 exabytes of memory. The push to move ARM CPUs to 64-bit architectures has been discussed almost entirely in terms of servers because that’s where the actual benefits to memory addressing are.”

15.   Robohand uses 3D printing to replace lost digits

More fun with makers and 3D printers, this time for something which people really need, namely an affordable, useable prosthesis. Still, there are many people who do without, so this would be a real boon. I wonder if somebody has looked into an affordable lens grinding machine: lots of people in the developing world can’t afford eyeglasses, which should only cost a couple dollars to make.

“After my accident, I was in pain, but wouldn’t take painkillers. I barely slept, and the more pain I had the more ideas I got,” he told The Associated Press. “Sometimes you have to chop fingers off to start thinking.” He decided to build his own hand. After seeing a video posted online of a mechanical hand made for a costume in a theater production, he reached out to its designer, Ivan Owen, in Seattle. Enter Robohand—a device that Van As and Owen invented that is made from cables, screws, 3D printing and thermoplastic.”

16.   California Bill Gives Electronic License Plates the Green Light

If you think about it, an electronic tag for vehicles makes complete sense however an e-ink plate is probably not the best approach even though it is not a completely dumb idea. For example, a tag which transmitted on impact would make it easy to catch hit and run drivers, especially is hit vehicles could capture that information. It is just a matter of time before police can simply shut down a vehicle remotely.

“While forward-thinking drivers are considering the implications of supercharging stations for their Tesla vehicles and the impending arrival of Google’s driverless cars, another, far more personal technological development is coming to roads in California. A bill allowing the use of electronic license plates passed the state’s assembly last week, and is slated to be signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.”

17.   Hackers find weaknesses in car computer systems

A reasonable counter point to increased intelligence in vehicles, though jacking in through the diagnostic port is not exactly that hard. Presumably, car manufacturers will need to employ security experts as systems evolve.

“In recent demonstrations, hackers have shown they can slam a car’s brakes at freeway speeds, jerk the steering wheel and even shut down the engine — all from their laptop computers.”

18.   Europe plans to end mobile phone roaming charges

Roaming charges are like “long distance”, namely an artificial concept which might have made sense once, but no longer has any basis in reality. Doing away with them makes perfect sense.

“The European Commission is proposing to scrap mobile phone roaming charges across Europe as part of a raft of measures to reform the telecoms market. The Commission described the reforms as “the most ambitious plan in 26 years of telecoms market reform”. It said the measures will reduce consumer charges and simplify red tape for mobile companies.”

19.   Should we trust the NIST-recommended ECC parameters?

I don’t know anything about cryptography and I can tell you with some degree of confidence that and is “No – you should not trust the cryptography recommendations of an organization which has an interest in being able to break your codes.” And the reason is not just that you don’t want the NSA to read your tweets (legal strategies, proprietary know how, etc.) it is because the NSA is not, in fact, uniquely capable of figuring this stuff out: there are other smart people in the world, and, given the information the code has a weakness (presumed by the ‘recommendations’) then they can reverse engineer it.

“Recent articles in the media, based upon Snowden documents, have suggested that the NSA has actively tried to enable surveillance by embedding weaknesses in commercially-deployed technology — including at least one NIST standard. The NIST FIPS 186-3 standard provides recommended parameters for curves that can be used for elliptic curve cryptography. These recommended parameters are widely used; it is widely presumed that they are a reasonable choice.”

20.   No format war as 4K Blu-ray discs spin closer

Prices of 4KTVs are coming down rapidly, but limited availability of content means that any 4KTV is just an expensive conversation piece. The recently announced upgrade of HDMI plus a viable disc format could change that. Of course, most people would hardly recognize a difference, and, even as it stands, most HD content distributed by cable and satellite is anything but HD. So, we’ll all end up with 4KTVs eventually but it won’t change the industry.

“Brushing-off fears that consumers are now more interested in streaming from the likes of Netflix and Lovefilm than in collecting optical discs, Marty Gordon, Philips’ Vice President for Alliances & Communications and spokesman for the BDA, promised an announcement of an ‘enhanced’ Blu-ray format ‘soon’”


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