The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 20th 2013

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 20th 2013


I am an 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


NOTE: I will be delivering a keynote address at the 19th Annual Annual SMCouncil Executive Forum on Microsystems and CMC 2013 Symposium October 16th entitled “Broadband Backwater:  Is it too late for Canadian Technology?” I believe the presentation will be posted online, however, if you wish to attend you can register at



Brian Piccioni

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1.        SSDs do die, as Linus Torvalds just discovered

Well, duh. Of course, Solid State Drives (SSDs) die, everything has a failure rate: just last night I took apart the dash of my car because the ‘AUX’ input stopped working (bad solder joint). The issue is not whether SSDs die, but whether they are more reliable than hard drives (they are) and whether they offer a significant cost/benefit trade-off (they do). One interesting thing about SSDs is that, unlike HDs, failure is rarely catastrophic, and data recovery is often possible without too much trouble. Remember – always keep backups.

“While SSDs are vastly better performers than hard disk drives and are considered more reliable for mobile devices because they have no mechanical parts to break, they do have a limited lifespan. With some early SSDs, that lifespan ended up being less than a year, depending on the quality and use of the drive.”

2.        Googlers turn Raspberry Pi into Web server that teaches you to code

Despite its closed architecture, the Raspberry Pi appears to be the winner in the ARM Open Hardware development space. The good news is, Coder is bound to be ported onto other platforms and thereby become widely available. Google’s motives for such an undertaking are unclear me, however.

“The Google Creative Lab is hoping to change that with a new open source project called “Coder,” which turns the Pi into a “personal Web server and Web-based development environment.” After installing the Coder image on a Pi’s SD card and hooking it up to your network, you’d log into it from a browser on a Windows, Mac or Linux computer connected to the same network. It works in Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, and any “relatively modern browser.””

3.        Rooftop solar panels become new enemy of U.S. firefighters

This little detail escaped my attention: does a firefighter want to spray water onto a roof with solar panels given the potential for electric shock? Would a firefighter climb onto a roof amid potentially dangerous voltages? How do you fight a fire between panels (and their supposedly robust frames) and a flammable surface? I am not even sure high voltages are present in solar panels, but if I were a firefighter I certainly wouldn’t want to find out.

“Loved by the green movement, solar panels pose a growing threat to firefighters, who may suffer electrical shocks from panels that typically cannot be turned off, said John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for Underwriters Laboratories. Even when systems are equipped with shutoffs, any light can keep panels and their wires energized, Drengenberg said.”

4.        Silicon Sees Schizophrenic Forecast

For what it is worth. After all, you don’t stay ling in the business of selling forecasts if you are pessimistic. Of course, my immediate question would be “how, exactly, do you discover growing demand for semiconductors when the large end markets for semiconductors are all maturing or declining?” Of course I have been asking that question for the last decade or so of moribund industry performance, and yet industry analysts sell their inevitably wrong forecasts for tens of thousands of dollars a copy.

“Economically, the semiconductor industry is headed for good times as the global economy pulls out of prolonged recession led by slow growth in Europe. Technologically, chip vendors are facing challenges that ultimately could undermine their business model. That was the appropriately schizophrenic forecast offered by Bill McClean, president of IC Insights, in his annual fall forecast here. “In general the trend for growth in semiconductors will improve in the next 10 years,” McClean said.”

5.        After Edward Snowden’s revelations, why trust US cloud providers?

You didn’t need Snowdon to distrust US cloud providers – it is written into the ‘Patriot Act’. In any event, local or remote storage, regardless governments, other spies, and even competitors can gain access to anything stored outside your direct control. So the message is, use the cloud for the banal, keep important stuff local.

“Outside of the United States, for example, people suddenly began to have doubts about the wisdom of entrusting their confidential data to cloud services operated by American companies on American soil. As Neelie Kroes, European Commission vice president responsible for digital affairs, put it in a speech on 4 July: “If businesses or governments think they might be spied on, they will have less reason to trust the cloud and it will be cloud providers who ultimately miss out. Why would you pay someone else to hold your commercial or other secrets, if you suspect or know they are being shared against your wishes? Front or back door – it doesn’t matter – any smart person doesn’t want the information shared at all. Customers will act rationally and providers will miss out on a great opportunity.””

6.        Is That Quantum Computer for Real? There May Finally Be a Test

I do not really understand this article, but there seems to be enough interest in D-Wave to merit its inclusion in this week’s Geeks List. The articles I have read about the computing performance of D-Wave’s system make me wonder what exactly it is, since those articles did not really benchmark against the sorts of problems quantum computers are expected to do well it. It appears that such tests exist, so, hopefully, somebody can apply them to D-Wave’s system and answer the question once and for all.

“In early May, news reports gushed that a quantum computation device had for the first time outperformed classical computers, solving certain problems thousands of times faster. The media coverage sent ripples of excitement through the technology community. A full-on quantum computer, if ever built, would revolutionize large swaths of computer science, running many algorithms dramatically faster, including one that could crack most encryption protocols in use today.”

7.        Culture is not about aesthetics. Punk rock is now enforced by law.

This is actually a pretty good analysis of why the music industry is suffering and why it will probably continue to suffer. The fact is, lots of people play musical instruments, some better than others. The “golden age” of music was simply a disconnect in the distribution system – some musicians were easy to listen to via a record or radio, while the vast majority remained inaccessible. Now everybody can be a recording ‘artist’, meaning there is an abundance of choice and no pricing power.

“Record companies complain the Internet will destroy music. Musicians complain that they can’t make a living any more. The unsympathetic public, feeling the squeeze themselves, tell them to get a proper job. The problem isn’t piracy — it’s competition.”

8.        A Jewel at the Heart of Quantum Physics

This sounds like it is potentially really, really important. As a backgrounder, Richard Feynman developed Feynman diagrams, which look like cartoons, but are, in fact, a symbolic calculus which allows the prediction of the interaction of quantum particles. I did not know that the complexity of this approach explodes, limiting their use. This development apparently allows rapid calculation of even more complex interactions, thereby providing not just a solution, but insight into the actual structure of reality. Hat tip to my friend Humphrey Brown for this article.

“Physicists have discovered a jewel-like geometric object that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions and challenges the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality. “This is completely new and very much simpler than anything that has been done before,” said Andrew Hodges, a mathematical physicist at Oxford University who has been following the work.””

9.        Google swaps out MySQL, moves to MariaDB

MySQL is a broadly used open source Structured Query Language (SQL) program, which is now controlled by Oracle. Not surprisingly, the Open Source community is distrustful of Oracle, and MariaDB (which has its roots in MySQL) provides a viable alternative. It seems clears MariaDB will substantially displace MySQL over time.

“Google is migrating its MySQL systems over to MariaDB, allowing the search company to get away from the Oracle-backed open source database. The news came out at the Extremely Large Databases (XLDB) conference in Stanford, California on Wednesday, one month after El Reg reported that Google had assigned one of its engineers to the MariaDB Foundation. News of the swap was not an official announcement by Google, it came out during a presentation by Google senior systems engineer Jeremy Cole on the general state of the MySQL ecosystem.”

10.   Researchers’ smartphone ‘microscope’ can detect a single virus, nanoparticles

An interesting project, but it is hard to fathom why they would select a smartphone for a camera: you can build a much more powerful computing engine with a much better imaging system for a lot less money than even a cheap smartphone has to offer. The real story here is not the ‘smartphone’ angle, but the fact that a combination of clever science and engineering can deliver such an instrument for minimal cost.

“Your smartphone now can see what the naked eye cannot: A single virus and bits of material less than one-thousandth of the width of a human hair. Aydogan Ozcan, a professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, and his team have created a portable smartphone attachment that can be used to perform sophisticated field testing to detect viruses and bacteria without the need for bulky and expensive microscopes and lab equipment. The device weighs less than half a pound.”

11.   GM aims at Tesla with new, long-range electric car

Of course, it is not necessarily the case that GM will bring such a product to market, but this sort of underscores the position I have held for some time: despite the breathless hysteria surrounding Tesla, there is nothing difficult in building an electric car – in the unlikely event the market takes off, once the segment has been proven as viable, the market would be flooded with entrants.

“As automakers race to make cheaper electric cars with greater battery range, General Motors is working on one that can go 200 miles per charge at a cost of about $30,000, a top company executive said. Vice President of Global Product Development Doug Parks wouldn’t say when or if such a car will be built, however.”

12.   Windows Phone: India’s second largest smartphone platform

It sounds like a success story for Windows, but, realistically, if #2 has only 5.4% market share the only message here is the staggering dominance of Android in the India market.

“The IDC Asia Pacific Mobile Phone Tracker (April-June, 2013), released in August 2013 has revealed that for the third consecutive quarter, Windows Phone is the second most widely used smartphone platform in India. With a market share of 5.4 percent, Windows Phone has maintained its lead over competing platforms – namely, Apple iOS and Blackberry.”

13.   Counter Argument: 3 Reasons We Need V2X

The auto industry tends to proceed at a glacial pace due to the large stakes involved, however, automotive technology is an area with a significant potential payoff for society. V2V and V2I are emerging markets which are worth some attention.

“In an interview with EE Times, Egil Juliussen, IHS Automotive’s principal analyst responsible for infotainment and ADAS, predicted that Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) communication “can address 75 percent plus of all accidents,” while Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) “can address most remaining accidents categories.”

14.   iPhone 5S haters: here’s how you steal a fingerprint

Though, to be fair, most mobile phones are going to be stolen or pickpocketed by common thieves who aren’t going to grab your thumbprint that easily. Mind you, every phone has a unique ID and it would be trivial to render stolen phones useless in any event.

“So, the iPhone 5S has a fingerprint scanner built into the Home button. Pretty secure, am I right? Nooo! You can steal someone’s fingerprint. For all Apple haters everywhere …”

15.   Stem cells made with near-perfect efficiency

This looks like a potentially major breakthrough, not so much because of the high level of efficiency (which should make production of stem cells much cheaper), but the development mentioned in the final paragraph where they were able to produce stem cells without inserting new genes into them. The problem with genetic programming is, if you can’t subsequently switch the novel genes of you can cause all kinds of problems down the road. No genetic reprogramming might eliminate those concerns.

“Researchers have for the first time converted cultured skin cells into stem cells with near-perfect efficiency. By removing a single protein, called Mbd3, a team at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, was able to increase the conversion rate to almost 100% — ten times that normally achieved. The discovery could clear the way for scientists to produce large volumes of stem cells on demand, hastening the development of new treatments.”

16.   $199, 4.2” computer is Intel’s first Raspberry Pi competitor

Hmm. Let’s see: it’s about 3x the size, 4 – 6x the price, is probably very power hungry, and is, fundamentally, a PC, meaning it is *very* difficult to do real world interfacing with. This is not a competitor in the embedded system market, but a relatively cheap (but not cheapest) PC compatible platform. It stands no chance of gaining measurable share in any market segment.

“With the Raspberry Pi, Arduino Due, and BeagleBone, the world is full of cheap, tiny computers that can be used by creative developers in everything from robots to space flight. One thing these platforms have in common is an ARM processor. Now they have some competition from Intel with its “MinnowBoard,” a $199 computer in the form of a 4.2″ x 4.2″ board with an Intel Atom processor.”

17.   Linux development by the numbers: Big and getting bigger

Talk to people about Linux and their eyes tend to roll – after all, on the desktop it is a pretty geeky thing. However, most people don’t realize their Android phone and/or tablet is running Linux, so the Open Source OS is actually becoming mainstream. It still might be some time before it displaces Windows on the desktop, but it’ll happen.

“Linux is growing — that we knew. Now we know how fast. In the last two years, the number of developers who collectively create Linux has increased from 1,131 with version 3.0 in July 2011 to 1,392 with version 3.10, released in June 2013, according to the Linux Foundation’s latest annual Linux development report. Also on the rise: the lines of code in the project, the number of changes accepted into each new version, and the frequency at which those changes arrive.”

18.   Ballmer calls Google a ‘monopoly’ that authorities should control

Here is a delicious irony: Microsoft, which has, through much of its history, used predatory and anti-competitive activities to build and sustain its monopoly, laments that Google is somehow a monopoly (which it might be, sort of). Remember, Microsoft is also the company which extorts a fee from Android phone manufacturers – just because.

“Microsoft unveiled its new Bing logo and design this week, and yesterday CEO Steve Ballmer opted to highlight his concerns over Google’s business practices. During a presentation at Microsoft’s financial analysts meeting, Ballmer discussed how Microsoft might generate money in consumer services. “Google does it,” he noted. “They have this incredible, amazing, dare I say monopoly that we are the only person left on the planet trying to compete with.” Asked by an analyst how Microsoft can attack Google’s dominance in search and advertising, Ballmer explained “we’re the only guys in the world trying,” with the Bing search engine.”

19.   This is how the fear of government snooping takes its toll on tech companies

It makes a lot of sense for the US government to avoid using “foreign” equipment, in particular from China, especially for secure applications. In fact, you have to wonder who ever thought this deal might go through – the NSA is, no doubt, aware that Chinese intelligence does to their gear what the NSA does to US manufactured gear. All in, the assumption has to be made that all communications are insecure, and behaving as though they were borders on being irresponsible.

“Two very different technology offerings were dropped on Thursday because of fears that the US and China might be trying to spy on the customers using them. In Baltimore, Maryland—just down the road from the headquarters of the National Security Agency in Ft. Meade—a US company called CyberPoint International lost a contract to provide a videoconferencing system to the federal government after US Customs determined that CyberPoint’s offering was in fact Chinese, substantially made by telecom equipment maker ZTE.”

20.   The U.S.’s crap infrastructure threatens the cloud

In many ways this article encapsulates what my presentation “Broadband Backwater …” (see intro) will be about: telecommunications policy in North America, and in particular in Canada, has been crafted to benefit the service providers and nobody else (certainly not the broader national interest). It turns out that Canada ranks below the US is all relevant benchmarks, and the US is mediocre – and deteriorating.

“According to the broadband testing firm NetIndex, U.S. consumer broadband speeds rank 33rd in the world, right behind the Ukraine. Personally, I pay more than $1,500 per month for 30/30MB fiber for our office. This is ridiculously expensive and slower than the average household Internet in many other countries. It’s a serious impediment to the United States maintaining its economic competitiveness — and to enabling all of us to take full advantage of the cloud, which is clearly the next phase of computing.”


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