The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 25th 2013

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 25th 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


Brian Piccioni

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1.        D-Wave Computer’s Solution Raises More Questions

There is a fair bit of discussion regarding this company’s product. You would think that what something is, and what is does, would not normally be a subject of debate. Very curious.

“An experimental computer made by a Canadian company has proved its ability to solve increasingly complex mathematical problems. But the question remains — just how much of this calculating power is actually due to the strange properties of quantum mechanics?”

2.        Microsoft Pulls Windows RT 8.1 Update

Microsoft apparently reported better than expected results the other day. It is not clear to me the company has much to celebrate: novel licensing schemes may extract a few more dollars from existing customers but debacles such as Windows 8, 8.1 and even the 8.1 update process are not predictive of long term success.

“Microsoft took its Windows RT 8.1 update offline until further notice on Saturday, after users reported that it resulted in bricked devices and lost data.”

3.        Dutch Telcos Used Customer Metadata, Retained To Fight Terrorism, For Everyday Marketing Purposes

Who do these companies think they are, Bell Canada? (see below). Abuse of customer privacy, and cynicism by companies, is so widespread, you can’t help but wonder if there will be a backlash.

“One of the ironies of European outrage over the global surveillance conducted by the NSA and GCHQ is that in the EU, communications metadata must be kept by law anyway, although not many people there realize it. That’s a consequence of the Data Retention Directive, passed in 2006, which: requires operators to retain certain categories of data (for identifying users and details of phone calls made and emails sent, excluding the content of those communications) for a period between six months and two years and to make them available, on request, to law enforcement authorities for the purposes of investigating, detecting and prosecuting serious crime and terrorism.”

4.        Behind the ‘Bad Indian Coder’

‘Outsourcing’ software development and maintenance to low cost jurisdictions like India sounds appealing. In reality, problems often arise and these do not necessarily emerge due to a lack of skill but through mismanagement and miscommunication. Another factor which comes into play is the lack of ‘corporate memory’ associated with outsourcing as the ‘outsourced’ developer usually chance on a regular basis. I suspect it is an experiment which has run its course.

“A few years ago, American web developer John Larson wrote that outsourcing code has caused him, among other woes: real-time communication made inconvenient and response times made long by the time zone difference, a reduced sense of accountability, commitment and partnership inherent in the long distance relationship, and text like “Link will be sent to your mail for to update your Password.” sprinkled throughout public facing parts of the website, which just doesn’t give your customers the best impression of you and your business.”

5.        Windows 8.1: My Opinion Elaborated

A review of Windows 8.1. I am sure some such reviews are favorable, but I haven’t seen one.

“I want to clarify something: I’m not in the habit of blindly criticizing changes in Windows, and this was not just another generic ill-considered anti-Windows 8 rant, which are a dime-a-dozen on the Internet. If all I wanted to do was have a pot-shot at Windows 8, I could have done so over a year ago, when I was using the Release Preview version, and subsequently, when I sat down for several months and wrote the TweakGuides Tweaking Companion for Windows 8 book. I wasn’t terribly thrilled with Windows 8 at any time over that period, but I always maintained some faith that Microsoft would set things right, once they saw the widespread negative feedback translate into relatively poor sales.”

6.        Apple didn’t revolutionize power supplies: new transistors did

I have no interest in a hagiography of Steve Jobs, however, this article shows what a small amount of knowledge and/or research can do to most claims that “Apple invented …”. Honestly? They claimed the switching power supply?

“The new biography Steve Jobs contains a remarkable claim about the power supply of the Apple II and its designer Rod Holt: Instead of a conventional linear power supply, Holt built one like those used in oscilloscopes. It switched the power on and off not sixty times per second, but thousands of times; this allowed it to store the power for far less time, and thus throw off less heat. “That switching power supply was as revolutionary as the Apple II logic board was,” Jobs later said. “Rod doesn’t get a lot of credit for this in the history books but he should. Every computer now uses switching power supplies, and they all rip off Rod Holt’s design.”

7.        Extracting a Toll From a Patent ‘Troll’

One of two articles suggesting the worm continues to turn against ‘patent trolls’ in the lucrative US market. Based on the two recent debacles in court for Wi-Lan, large companies are also more willing to go to verdict when faced with a particularly weak claim. Ultimately, I believe this theme peaked a year or so ago.

“It looks as if “patent trolls” are going to lose a big one. The Supreme Court announced this month that it would hear two appeals of decisions by the federal appeals court that oversees all patent cases. In each case, the company that was sued for patent infringement won on the merits but did not prevail in having its legal fees paid by the losing party.”

8.        Taking Cities to the Next Frontier

I firmly believe in ubiquitous, inexpensive (preferably free) broadband for all citizens. This is particularly importance as governments and businesses increasingly move products and services online to reduce costs. In the US, at least, telecom companies, who have decided they own communications, have fought these sorts of initiatives vigorously in the courts.

“In August, Los Angeles, began research on a program that would make it the largest city in the country to blanket the city in free Wi-Fi. Currently, over 57 U.S. cities are providing “muni Wi-Fi” on some level. These cities hope “muni-Wi-Fi” will provide job opportunities to their underserved populations, facilitate waves of innovation, and brand the city as tech-friendly. But a single-minded focus on municipal Wi-Fi is misplaced. To maximize investments in digital infrastructure, local governments should look beyond cosmetic solutions such as municipal Wi-Fi, install a fiber-optic network, and implement a public-private model to finance the construction.”

9.        Amazing New Escalator Design

Interesting concept – so much so that you have to wonder why nobody has thought of it before. One thing that strikes me is the durability of such a design: not that I see any inherent flaws, however, it seems that escalators are forever being repaired and a durability differential (one way or the other) would likely make a major difference in total cost of ownership.

10.   Experian Sold Consumer Data to ID Theft Service

This is really too astonishing for words: a company which gathers information for ‘credit checks’ – and sells identity protection services – then allegedly resells the data to whoever wants it, including criminals, providing the money keeps coming and the police don’t start asking questions. The defense that they believed they were selling to a private investigator is laughable because they would really have no control over what happened to the data even if that counterparty was legitimate, which it clearly wasn’t.

“An identity theft service that sold Social Security and drivers license numbers — as well as bank account and credit card data on millions of Americans — purchased much of its data from Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus, according to a lengthy investigation by KrebsOnSecurity.”

11.   Microsoft Office squashes Google Apps, open source alternatives

Office doubtless leads by a wide margin, however, the statistical validity of the data is not exactly above question: Forrester surveyed Forrester clients, and there is no reason to believe Forrester clients represent a valid cross section of industry from which you can draw broad brush conclusions.

“Google may dream that Google Docs will one day rival Microsoft Office but a recent Forrester report makes it clear that’s only a dream. Especially in enterprises, Microsoft Office remains the gold standard, and Google Docs and others mere also-rans.”

12.   UK Wikipedia probe into paid-for ‘sockpuppet’ entries

‘Sock puppet’ reviews and content are a major problem on the Internet as companies have learned to manipulate whatever resources are available to them. I don’t know if this would apply to Wikipedia entries, but one way to deal with things like product reviews is to pay much more attention to the negative ones, especially if they make specific complaints.

“UK Wikipedia editors have expressed “shock and dismay” at the discovery of hundreds of user accounts set up to make paid-for entries. Paid-for advocacy and the adoption of fake “sockpuppet” identities for promotional purposes are against the free web encyclopaedia’s policies. Sue Gardner, executive editor of the Wikimedia Foundation, said “as many as several hundred” accounts were suspect.”

13.   Bell Canada To Track Web, TV Surfing Habits For Ad Purposes

You really have to admire the complete cluelessness and amorality of Canada’s communications oligopoly. The staggering disregard for their customers and a willingness to do anything – anything – to marginally raise their bottom line is breathtaking. One has to wonder, however, that is a company is undertaking massive surveillance of your activities, do they still merit the legal protection of a common carrier?

“Bell Canada plans to track customers’ web, TV viewing and calling habits in order to serve them customized ads, the company has announced on its website. In a statement on its privacy page, the company that provides TV, Internet and phone and mobile services said as of November 16, “Bell will begin using certain information about your account and network usage for select purposes” such as improving network performance, fraud detection, and serving ads that are “more relevant to you.”

14.   Power Grid Stability and Challenges to Alternative Energy Technologies

The thing with “alternative energy” is that it is largely a politically driven technology. Ultimately you end up with a highly subsidized generation infrastructure which wreaks havoc on the distribution grid and ‘traditional’ production which has to be maintained unless people are willing to tolerate regular rolling blackouts. All this brings you no further ahead in practical terms. Is the solution really to rebuild the grid, at a cost of trillions of dollars?

“The energy economy of the world is currently based upon largely nonrenewable sources, meaning that there is a finite lifetime upon our current sources of energy. In the media, much has been made about many alternative energy technologies that are meant to replace fossil and other nonrenewable fuel sources, though none have been commercially viable as a full long-term replacement for gasoline, natural gas, and coal. Aside from efficiency problems relating to the physics behind some of these devices, including hydrogen fuel cells, solar cells, and wind, there is a good deal of industrial inertia from power utilities in regard to accepting their usage on a widespread scale.”

15.   Where phone meets body

I am not entirely convinced that invasive technologies are the way to go, unless prescribed by a doctor for a specific reason. Setting aside the mind boggling privacy implications, sticking something into your body comes with risk, even if it is done for the greater glory of the Internet.

“Imagine taking a hands-free call without a headset, for example. Or feeling your temple buzz when you enter an open Wi-Fi zone. Or swallowing a pill that can report your body temperature and health back to a dedicated phone app.”

16.   The mysteriously disappearing drive: Are power outages killing your SSDs?

First I’ve heard of this and it is rather worrisome. Mind you, once a problem like this becomes an issue, solutions soon follow. I suspect that as many SSDs are in laptops (which have batteries) sudden and unexpected power failures are less likely. In any event, I have suffered several catastrophic hard drive failures for no particular reason.

“SSDs offer enormous benefits over traditional spinning discs. They’re up to an order of magnitude faster in certain operations, weigh less, and consume less power under load. They’ve become increasingly popular with enthusiasts and mainstream customers alike — but a report from the 11th Usenix Conference on File and Storage Technologies (FAST 13), given early this year, suggests most models have a fundamental problem with sudden power loss.”

17.   Finally, a bill to end patent trolling

There have been a number of attempts to cur ‘patent trolling’ in the past. Most have not made much progress due to divergent needs of ‘legitimate’ stakeholders most notably high tech companies and health sciences companies. If not for the largely dysfunctional US government, this initiative would have some promise because it skirts around the issue of the disparate needs of those industries.

“The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), has introduced a bill [PDF] that directly attacks the business model of “patent trolls.” The bill has a real chance at passing, with wide backing from leadership in both parties.”

18.   The scienciness of economics

In case you don’t get the reference, ‘scienciness’ is an allusion to Stephen Colbert’s ‘truthiness’ (something known to be true due to ‘gut feel’). I have found that, if you want to outrage an economist, simply observe that their field of study is not a science and it has never been shown to have any predictive skill. After all, a science is not defined as something with a lot of PhDs and interesting math, but something which makes testable and falsifiable claims.

“A few of you may have read this recent New York Times op-ed (hat tip Suresh Naidu) by economist Raj Chetty entitled “Yes, Economics is a Science.” In it he defends the scienciness of economics by comparing it to the field of epidemiology. Let’s focus on these three sentences in his essay, which for me are his key points …”

19.   Starship troupers

There is one field of study which may not bear any meaningful result for hundreds of years, namely the development of viable star ships. It has been observed that, if humanity can imagine it, humanity can do it, and there is no reason to believe there is an absolute obstacle to interstellar travel. Thanks to Bob Russell for the article.

“Most sci-fi waves away the problem of the colossal distances between stars by appealing to magic, in the form of some kind of faster-than-light hyperdrive, hoping readers will forgive the nonsense in favour of enjoying a good story. But there are scientists, engineers and science-fiction writers out there who like a challenge. On October 22nd a small but dedicated audience gathered at the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in London to hear some of them discuss the latest ideas about how interstellar travel might be made to work in the real world.”

20.   Toxin-Emitting Bacteria Being Evaluated as a Potential Multiple Sclerosis Trigger

We hear from time to time about new theories as to the cause and possible treatment of Multiple Sclerosis. This announcement is certainly intriguing, although a lot more work would have to be done before we’ll know where it is correct. It sure makes a lot of sense, though.

“A research team from Weill Cornell Medical College and The Rockefeller University has identified a bacterium it believes may trigger multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic, debilitating disorder that damages myelin forming cells in the brain and spinal cord. Their study, published in PLoS ONE, is the first to identify the bacterium, Clostridium (C.) perfringens type B, in humans.”

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