The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 29th 2013
I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.
I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 10 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else
They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!
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. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!
This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
Please note that I will be hunting in rural Michigan for the next couple weeks. Although wireless Internet access is much cheaper and more available in the US than in Canada (even when it is a 1 hour drive to the nearest store), I don’t know if I will be able to produce a Geek’s List for the next couple weeks until I actually connect.
ps: Google has been sporadically flagging The Geek’s Reading List as spam/phishing. Until I resolve the problem, if you have a Gmail account and you don’t get the Geeks List when expected, please check your Spam folder and mark the list as ‘Not Spam’.
1. Bioengineer: the heart is one of the easiest organs to bioprint, we’ll do it in a decade
Possibly a bit optimistic given the state of the art however, it does make sense to have stretch goals. My understanding is that the underlying ‘skeleton’ of the heart is a very complex structure and that is a major nut to crack.
“A team of cardiovascular scientists has announced it will be able to 3D print a whole heart from the recipients’ own cells within a decade. “America put a man on the Moon in less than a decade. I said a full decade to provide some wiggle room,” Stuart K Williams told Wired.co.uk.”
2. Video: Two-seat Volocopter Completes First Flight
Quite an interesting concept, except for the fact it appears to be intended to be electrically powered. Multiple electric motors should make it more stable and safer (since you’d need to lose several motors to be in danger), however a small jet engine/generator would almost certainly provide longer flight times, and greater reliability.
“E-volo, the developer of a series of new concept helicopter derivatives the company calls volocopters, has achieved an important milestone, successfully launching its first commercially viable two-seat version, the VC200. The maiden flight occurred on November 17 inside the Dm-arena in Karlsruhe, Germany. The VC200 was remotely controlled and its 18 electrically powered rotors had no trouble lifting the aircraft off the ground. According to an E-volo press release the initial flight test “exceeded all expectations.””
3. Fed up with slow and pricey Internet, cities start demanding gigabit fiber
A tech entrepreneur recently told me “if you have Internet, you have everything – I can make my own electricity, but I can’t make my own Internet.” Broadband infrastructure today is as important as electricity and telephone service was in the 20th century, however, many governments, do not take this seriously and are doing nothing to advance their competitiveness (Canada and the US among them). Some cities are taking the lead, but these are the sort of programs which require a national plan.
“”We pay 34 times more, 34 times, not percent, 34 times more than peer cities that have already implemented fiber,” said James Benham, a software company owner and elected City Council member in College Station, Texas, which is served by Verizon and SuddenLink. “If you compare our pricing to Chattanooga and Lafayette, who have already done citywide fiber to the home, and fiber to business networks, our commercial rates per megabit are 34 times higher. Our residential rates are 15 times higher. If that was our electric rates or our water rates there would be riots in the streets.””
4. Linux Desktop’s Missed Opportunities
The expected end of support for Windows XP and the abomination which is Windows 8 presents an opportunity for Linux. Even though the remarkable success of Android may have ‘primed the pump’ for acceptance of Linux, few businesses seem keen to even consider it. Mind you the NSA revelations demonstrate the extent to which governments might be able to interfere with use of computers by foreigners, and many XP machines are located outside the US.
“I’ve always said that the two biggest benefits of running a Linux distribution over a proprietary operating system are: freedom of choice and the Linux community. Despite these advantages, Linux on the desktop needs work in one key area: seizing great opportunities. Two huge opportunities for the Linux desktop right now are the end of Windows XP support and the less than amazing reception of Windows 8 by casual users. In this article, I’ll explore why I believe Windows XP and Windows 8 are fantastic opportunities for an increase in Linux adoption.”
5. Is It The End Of The Line For The Landline?
It is hard to make the case for continued investment and maintenance of traditional landline infrastructure given declining revenues. Carriers also likely have a desire to move from a regulated to an unregulated, Internet based revenue model. Unfortunately, broadband customers tend to be most profitable in urban areas, leaving rural and small town consumers looking forward to virtual isolation from the modern, connected, world.
“America’s traditional phone system is not as dependable as it used to be. Just last month, the Federal Communications Commission told phone companies to start collecting stats on calls that fail to complete. According to one estimate, as many as 1 in 5 incoming long-distance calls simply doesn’t connect. The problem may be in the way those calls are being routed — often via the Internet, which is cheaper. It may also have something to do with the gradual decay of traditional landline infrastructure.”
6. NSA infected 50,000 computer networks with malicious software
These revelations get better and better. It is worth reiterating that any vulnerability inserted or exploited by ‘white hats’ can equally be exploited by ‘black hats’, though, in this case, figuring out who the good guys are and who the bad guys is not exactly straightforward.
“The American intelligence service – NSA – infected more than 50,000 computer networks worldwide with malicious software designed to steal sensitive information. Documents provided by former NSA-employee Edward Snowden and seen by this newspaper, prove this.”
7. Ink-Jet Printing for OLED Displays Debuts
Breakthroughs in OLED display production used to be announced with remarkable regularity, however, this looks promising. Raster (back and forth) based systems tend not to be ideal for high volume production, however.
“Organic light emitting diode (OLED) displays have richer colors, are thinner and lighter, and can be fabricated for curved, bendable, wearable, or even roll-up displays. While OLEDs come at a high price, a California startup claims to have a less expensive solution to manufacturing.”
8. Sudden Progress on Prime Number Problem Has Mathematicians Buzzing
This sounds like a real breakthrough but I am not smart enough to fully understand the ramifications. It does make you wonder if there might be an impact on cracking encryption systems, though.
“On May 13, an obscure mathematician — one whose talents had gone so unrecognized that he had worked at a Subway restaurant to make ends meet — garnered worldwide attention and accolades from the mathematics community for settling a long-standing open question about prime numbers, those numbers divisible by only one and themselves. Yitang Zhang, a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, showed that even though primes get increasingly rare as you go further out along the number line, you will never stop finding pairs of primes separated by at most 70 million. His finding was the first time anyone had managed to put a finite bound on the gaps between prime numbers, representing a major leap toward proving the centuries-old twin primes conjecture, which posits that there are infinitely many pairs of primes separated by only two (such as 11 and 13).”
9. Healthcare.gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality
This is a very interesting read, not so much because of the specifics (the Healthcare.gov fiasco) but the proudly tech ignorant mindset that led up to it – a mindset which is typical in most organizations. I have noted that “captains of industry” and government officials tend to laugh off my concerns about Canada’s abysmal and deteriorating communications infrastructure (the US is just as bad), almost certainly because they are oblivious to the long term consequences, likely for the same reasons. Hat tip to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.
“For the first couple of weeks after the launch, I assumed any difficulties in the Federal insurance market were caused by unexpected early interest, and that once the initial crush ebbed, all would be well. The sinking feeling that all would not be well started with this disillusioning paragraph about what had happened when a staff member at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the department responsible for Healthcare.gov, warned about difficulties with the site back in March.”
10. BlackBerry Ltd: Does BBM have a future as a social network?
When I saw the headline I thought it was meant as a sort of antilogy, like “military intelligence”. I admit, I don’t know much about social networking but my understanding is you have to have a growing user base to have a future as one.
“Jeff Deline, vice president of global partnerships at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., says he is banking on BBM becoming the latest social engagement tool for the company, as it seeks to connect fans with its various properties, namely the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and Toronto FC.”
11. NSA Spying Risks $35 Billion in U.S. Technology Sales
Well, the damage has been done, but it is worth noting that tech buyers don’t have much of a choice: buy US and help the NSA or buy Chinese and help Chinese security services. Meanwhile, tech companies are working their hardest to convince customers they were horrified – horrified – to discover the backdoors and other systems they installed for the NSA were actually used. What cannot be secured will be corrected via propaganda and assurances they have learned the error of their ways.
“International anger over the National Security Agency’s Internet surveillance is hurting global sales by American technology companies and setting back U.S. efforts to promote Internet freedom. Disclosures of spying abroad may cost U.S. companies as much as $35 billion in lost revenue through 2016 because of doubts about the security of information on their systems, according to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a policy research group in Washington whose board includes representatives of companies such as International Business Machines Corp. and Intel Corp.”
12. Solar silicon wafers below 20c/watt
It is impossible to separate subsidy from pricing impact in the solar business. I looked at the balance sheets of several large Chinese manufacturers, all of whom sell well below cost. These companies are bankrupt but remain in operation only because Chinese banks keep lending them money, doubtless under government direction. In other words, prices will stay low until the Chinese government stops throwing money at them. No useful pricing information can be extracted under conditions such as these.
Average silicon solar wafer manufacturing costs for vertically integrated tier 1 makers are now forecast to fall yet another 6 percent in 2014 to a record low of US$0.20 per watt (W), according to the NPD Solarbuzz Polysilicon and Wafer Supply Chain Quarterly report (editor’s note: the cost of silicon wafers made up close to half the cost of a complete solar PV panel module last year). Since 2008, solar PV wafer manufacturing costs (the combined costs of polysilicon and wafer processing) have declined more than 16 percent per year.
13. UK ordered to install 70,000 electric vehicle charging points by 2020
In for a penny, in for a pound, I guess. The EU (and UK) grids are creaking under the weight of about a decade of ‘alternative energy’ mismanagement and underinvestment, so it only makes sense lawmakers should oblige further subsidies towards what will become a catastrophic policy. If we assume they subsidize the purchase of 100 EVs (the only way even the wealthy can afford them) for every charging station that would be 7 million EVs pulling power off the grid. Makes perfect sense, I guess.
“European law-makers have passed a resolution that will compel the UK to install a network of 70,000 electric vehicle recharging points as well as hydrogen and natural gas stations by 2020. The European Parliament today endorsed a draft directive that aims to reduce dependence on oil and boost take-up of alternative fuels, so as to help achieve a 60% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from transport by 2050.”
14. ARM is Already Considering 128-bit Mobile CPU
Meh – the primary advantage of a 64 bit processor is to increase program address space, which is far more important on PCs than on mobile devices. After all, 64 bit integer calculations are rarely needed or used, at least where there is much of an advantage, against, especially on a mobile device. A 128 bit processor is pointless marketing, and little more.
“Earlier this year, Apple made headlines with its 64-bit SoC for the iPhone 5S. That SoC is now present in the iPad Air and the new iPad Mini Retina. Since the launch of the iPhone 5S, we’ve been hearing talk of a 64-bit Exynos from Samsung. Now ARM has confirmed that the chip is coming. The Korea Herald cites a senior manager at ARM as saying executives from Samsung and ARM met this week and discussed the ARM 64-bit chip expected to be used in a Samsung device next year.”
15. Microsoft Enlists Pawn Stars To Mock Google’s Chromebooks
This is a little sad – engaging “reality TV” louts on a 3rd tier network to make fun of the competitor’s products. Why stop there? Or, maybe they could spend a little less money on promotion and a little more money on making products people want to buy. Just saying.
“Microsoft’s anti-Google Scroogled campaign is showing no signs of slowing down. Its latest target is Google’s Chromebook. Microsoft has enlisted the stars of the successful reality TV series Pawn Stars to lampoon what it wants you to perceive as the Chromebook’s limitations (“It’s not a real laptop!”).”
16. Google’s Role In Woodland Child Pornography Arrest Raises Privacy Concerns
I want to go out on a limb here and declare myself entirely against child pornography. Nonetheless, you have to look at this sort of thing through a wide-angle lens. What if, for example, Google (or government) decided to troll through your images looking for evidence, say, you were gay (which is illegal in certain countries) or “radical” or atheist, or belonged to the “wrong” religion? History has shown that a surveillance society rarely follows civil bounds over time.
“A child pornography arrest helped by Google is raising privacy concerns. Federal investigators arrested a Woodland man on child pornography charges after Google found images on his computer. Google’s cyber criminal investigators are faceless servers, looking across the Internet for child pornography. Each image that’s uploaded to the Web has its own unique digital fingerprint.”
17. A Prediction: Bitcoin Is Doomed to Fail
Let’s agree that stateless, anonymous, crypto-currencies have no future in general, and conspiracy theories by loonie libertarians aren’t needed to explain why. Bitcoin, of course, is almost certainly a massive fraud and failure is predestined.
“The developers of bitcoin are trying to show that money can be successfully privatized. They will fail, because money that is not issued by governments is always doomed to failure. Money is inevitably a tool of the state. Bitcoin relies on thoroughly contemporary technology. It consists of computer-generated tokens, with sophisticated algorithms guaranteeing the anonymity, transparency and integrity of transactions. But the monetary philosophy behind this web-based phenomenon can be traced back to one of the oldest theories of money.”
18. Microsoft ready to kill Windows RT
This may explain rumors I’ve heard about special ‘employee discounts’ of 50% at distributors – you want to sell the inventory, if you can, rather than throw it in the dumpster.
“Larson-Green, who is executive vice-president of Devices and Studios at Microsoft, said that the aim of Windows RT was “our first go at creating that more closed, turnkey experience [that Apple has on the iPad]…” but that Microsoft now has three mobile operating systems: “We have the Windows Phone OS. We have Windows RT and we have full Windows. We’re not going to have three.””
19. Research ethics: 3 ways to blow the whistle
I doubt that outright fraud is a major problem in science though, when it happens, a lot of damage can be done. These cases are probably not that typical: most fraud is probably spotted by juniors who chose their career over whistle blowing – not that I blame them.
“Are more people doing wrong or are more people speaking up? Retractions of scientific papers have increased about tenfold during the past decade, with many studies crumbling in cases of high-profile research misconduct that ranges from plagiarism to image manipulation to outright data fabrication. When worries about somebody’s work reach a critical point, it falls to a peer, supervisor, junior partner or uninvolved bystander to decide whether to keep mum or step up and blow the whistle. Doing the latter comes at significant risk, and the path is rarely simple. Some make their case and move on; others never give up. And in what seems to be a growing trend, anonymous watchdogs are airing their concerns through e-mail and public forums. Here, Nature profiles three markedly different stories of individuals who acted on their suspicions. Successful or otherwise, each case offers lessons for would-be tipsters.”
20. Why you shouldn’t buy a 4K TV this year
I recently went to see a movie and, in the preshow they repeatedly ran ads for (I think) Samsung 4K TVs. The major selling point of the ad was something along the lines of imagine having your friends over to watch a hockey game in 4K! Well, you can imagine all you want, because even if you get a 4K TV, all you’ll see is the sub-HD signal distributed by the cable company. Do not buy a 4K TV, at least until the price is almost the same as an HDTV, which won’t be long.
“Ultra-High Definition (UHD) 4K televisions are sure to be on many holiday shopping wish lists this season, but industry experts say now is not the time to buy. For one, they’re still pricey: Most UHD TVs large enough to showcase their better picture quality – that is, 65-in. or larger — cost $5,000 or more. There’s also a lack of 4K content that can be viewed, and industry standards that need to be hammered out.”