The Geek’s Reading List – Week of December 13th 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.
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1. Federal Patent Court of Germany invalidates Microsoft FAT patent, appeals court may disagree
This could be significant if it survives appeal. Patent trolling is a bad thing, and the worst of the worst, and biggest, is Microsoft which shakes down all kinds of companies to enforce its largely bogus IP. It is a pity software patents even exist, but it is hard to imagine most of them were even granted.
“Today the Bundespatentgericht (Federal Patent Court of Germany, BPatG) held a full-day nullity (invalidation) trial at the conclusion of which Judge Vivian Sredl, who presides over the Second Nullity Senate, announced the ruling that EP0618540 on a “common name space for long and short filenames” is invalid in its entirety (including Microsoft’s proposed amendments) because the court found that all of the elements distinguishing the patented invention from the prior art (which includes a Linus Torvalds post to a mailing list) did not satisfy the technicity requirement under European patent law.”
2. Deadly blades: US offers 30-year permits for killing eagles under plan to boost wind industry
Kill an eagle and you can be charged under federal laws, unless, of course, you are an ‘alternative energy’ industry, in which case you get a pass – you know for the love of the environment (and the bottom line). Meanwhile the death of a dozen ducks (which are not protected) in an oil-sands tailings pond is headline news complete with celebrity outrage. I guess the alternative energy mega-corporations have better PR than the fossil fuel mega-corporations …
“Under pressure from the wind-power industry, the Obama administration said Friday it will allow companies to kill or injure eagles without the fear of prosecution for up to three decades. The new rule is designed to address environmental consequences that stand in the way of the nation’s wind energy rush: the dozens of bald and golden eagles being killed each year by the giant, spinning blades of wind turbines.”
3. The Sad Story of the Battery Breakthrough that Proved Too Good to Be True
Go figure: a novel battery technology which doesn’t live up to its promise. A few rules of thumb are: batteries for EVs have the most stringent requirements for cost, durability, cold start, charge time, power to weight ratio, discharge rates, etc.; and any announced novel battery technology almost certainly won’t achieve one or more of these requirements. Hat tip to my friend Rami Nasser for this article.
“We’ve previously reported on a startup, Envia Systems, that claimed its batteries could store twice as much as conventional ones—and could cut costs in half. That could have made electric cars with a couple of hundred miles of range per charge affordable. But according to court documents from a lawsuit against the company, Envia hasn’t been able to reproduce its stunning results, and as a result, it has lost its funding and a key relationship with GM, which had hoped to use the technology its electric cars (see this article from GigaOm for more on the court documents and “A Big Jump in Battery Capacity” for background on Envia).”
4. ZENN Motor Company Announces Testing Update
I have to be very careful what I write, but I have to wonder if this is the last straw for Zenn investors and EEStor. Then again, the company just raised another $3.7 million from investors, despite a press release on their website (www.zenncars.com/press_rel/10_13/ZENN-Motor-Company-Provides-Further-Update-On-Testing.pdf) stating “In the testing of the layers it purchased, ZENN has to date not been able to confirm similar results to those reported by EEStor’s testing company on the EEStor tested layers.” Mind you, if you read that test report (www.zenncars.com/press_rel/10_13/Tescom-report-Oct-11-2013.pdf) it says the tests were actually performed by EESTOR staff. Details, details. Oh, and a syphilitic monkey should be able to test a capacitor for discharge: it ain’t rocket science. Mind you the stock has bounced back a fair bit, which just shows you.
“Evans has reported that it has developed testing procedures that measure energy-in and energy-out. It has tested the procedures on known capacitors to verify reliability and accuracy of the tests. Based on these tests, Evans has advised that the EESU layers tested did not show any meaningful levels of energy discharge (energy-out). Evans did find in its testing that certain layers exhibited high resistance.”
5. “We cannot trust” Intel and Via’s chip-based crypto, FreeBSD developers say
The problem, of course is that achieving true randomness through software is near impossible. Perhaps what is needed is a semiconductor based on physical principles which cannot be hacked or gamed.
“Developers of the FreeBSD operating system will no longer allow users to trust processors manufactured by Intel and Via Technologies as the sole source of random numbers needed to generate cryptographic keys that can’t easily be cracked by government spies and other adversaries.”
6. The stats don’t lie: Windows 8.1 seriously underperforming compared to Windows 7
The funny thing is, the looming end of support for Windows XP is actually likely to increase adoption of Windows 7. Of course, Microsoft doesn’t care, at least for now: you send them the money whether you like the product or not. Eventually, of course, the chickens will come home to roost.
“Following Windows market share on NetApplications, as I do every month, it’s clear to me that Windows 8.x isn’t the hit Microsoft hoped for. There are several reasons for this, all of which I’ve discussed previously — dwindling PC sales, users dislike of touch and the Modern UI, and so on.”
7. Elsevier is taking down papers from Academia.edu
Like so many businesses academic publishing is now dominated by a small number of players, Elsevier being the largest. This is a bizarre situation: researchers need to crank out as many papers as possible to be published in ‘high impact’ journals, so they can qualify for additional (mostly taxpayer funded) research grants, whereupon taxpayer funded universities s get to pay obscene subscription rates for these high impact journals, basically because Elsevier owns the marques. This will roll over and die, eventually: all arbitrages collapse in time.
“Lots of researchers post PDFs of their own papers on their own web-sites. It’s always been so, because even though technically it’s in breach of the copyright transfer agreements that we blithely sign, everyone knows it’s right and proper. Preventing people from making their own work available would be insane, and the publisher that did it would be committing a PR gaffe of huge proportions.”
8. Microsoft might make Windows Phone and Windows RT free
That could certainly speed adoption, although free and open are two different things. It would be interesting to see Microsoft continue to shake down Android vendors with bogus IP claims while at the same time giving away a competitive product. I still rather doubt I’d own a Windows phone, though.
“SOFTWARE HOUSE Microsoft might challenge Android by making its Windows Phone and Windows RT mobile operating systems free for device makers, no doubt in a bid to increase market share.”
9. Whistler’s hydrogen buses to be scrapped, replaced by diesel
I always say politicians do political things for political reasons, and this is a perfect example. Buses cost a lot of money, and, while I doubt these will be scrapped, the program was neither rational economically or environmentally. The decision to ship “green hydrogen” from Quebec almost certainly meant that much more diesel was burnt in transporting the fuel than would ever have been used running a diesel bus network.
“Whistler’s flirtation with the hydrogen highway has come to the end of the road. The municipality accepted 20 hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses to showcase the technology in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics, but the program comes to an end in March and the buses are being replaced with diesel.”
10. Microsoft’s licence riddles give Linux and pals a free ride to virtual domination
Another sign of corporate senility: in this case the product is not the problem (as with most of Microsoft’s other products) but a Byzantine licensing scheme. Perhaps they need more engineers and fewer lawyers and marketing people.
“While researching the Register Guide to Windows Server 2012 last year, I talked to a lot of people about Microsoft virtualisation compared to the competition: users, vendors and people implementing it. The results were not quite what you might expect. Everyone acknowledges that Hyper-V 3 is a huge improvement over previous versions and that it equals or exceeds the capabilities of VMware. But most vendors said that this was irrelevant, because while VMware’s licensing scheme is clear and simple, licensing virtualised Windows is horrifically complex …”
11. U.S. Government Nastygram Shuts Down One-Man Bitcoin Mint
There are many remarkable things about the Bitcoin scam, but one of the most remarkable is the belief of its proponents (i.e. victims) that somehow governments will simply ignore it. After all, most governments reserve the exclusive right to issue currency, and they have anti-money laundering laws and tax-codes. True, some governments, such as the Swiss, are more than happy to allow people to cheat other governments, but never their own, so you can bet even they won’t tolerate Bitcoin. I like the bit about “counterfeiting bitcoins”.
“Mike Caldwell spent years turning digital currency into physical coins. That may sound like a paradox. But it’s true. He takes bitcoins — the world’s most popular digital currency — and then he mints them here in the physical world. If you added up all the bitcoins Caldwell has minted on behalf of his customers, they would be worth about $82 million.”
12. Munich open source switch ‘completed successfully’
Good to see the project finally gone done, but it took a long time. Of course, that is normal for government projects, and government IT projects seem to be the most vulnerable to delays and blown budgets. That being said, it gone done and should provide a prototype for other governments.
“Munich’s switch to open source software has been successfully completed, with the vast majority of the public administration’s users now running its own version of Linux, city officials said today. In one of the premier open source software deployments in Europe, the city migrated from Windows NT to LiMux, its own Linux distribution. LiMux incorporates a fully open source desktop infrastructure. The city also decided to use the Open Document Format (ODF) as a standard, instead of proprietary options.”
13. Blackout? No Problem For Leaf-Powered Office Building
There is something about Electric Vehicles which brings out the stupid in people. Batteries are the most expensive thing in an EV and all batteries get used up – the more you charge and discharge, the more used up they get. Now, peak shaving may save a few bucks in electricity but those car batteries get used up and, well, once the batteries are gone you might as well scrap the car. But hey – for the environment …
“Japan’s geological instability poses a real energy problem for the country–as witnessed during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster. Generating power and transmitting it to homes and businesses can be difficult following an earthquake or Tsunami, which is why several Japanese automakers have explored electric vehicle-to-building systems.”
14. Thompson, Ritchie, And Kernighan: The Fathers Of C
Unix and the c programming languages were and are extremely important to computing so this might seem like ancient history, but it is an interesting walk down memory lane. I was previously unaware that Kernighan is Canadian.
“Bell Labs was home to many technologies and inventions, but the C programming language developed there had one of the biggest impacts on embedded computing. Many people have worked on C to make it what it is today, the most used programming language around. Three stand out, though: Ken Thompson (Fig. 1) and Dennis Ritchie (Fig. 2), who created it, and Brian Kernighan (Fig. 3), who authored The C Programming Language with Ritchie.”
15. Scientists discover double meaning in genetic code
I don’t really understand the discovery and I doubt the article does justice. Some details (i.e. a second codon table) or a diagram would probably help.
“Scientists have discovered a second code hiding within DNA. This second code contains information that changes how scientists read the instructions contained in DNA and interpret mutations to make sense of health and disease.”
16. Yogaglo Patent Issued
Yoga isn’t my thing, but evidence that lunatics have taken over the US Patent Office is something which should concern us all. Seriously: the USPTO has issued a patent on filming something – I’m surprised nobody thought of this before. Oh, wait, they have, except apparently the cretins who approved the patent.
“On September 23rd, Yoga International broke the news that they (among others) had received a cease-and-desist letter from another website which also offers yoga videos for streaming (soon revealed to be YogaGlo). It turns out, that YogaGlo had filed a patent application for their method of filming online yoga classes, and that some of YI’s early content fell under the broad description in the patent application: …”
17. RAM prices will continue to climb – last year’s rock-bottom prices will probably never return
Sure – companies selling a non-differentiable commodity with perennially dropping production costs will not lower their prices in response to falling demand. It could happen. After all it is possible Bitcoin is not a fraud, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The DRAM industry goes through occasional periods of supply demand imbalance and this is just one of them.
“Two months ago, a fire at a Hynix factory created a shortage in DRAM inventory and exacerbated the gradual climb in DRAM prices. While the fire wasn’t all that severe — Hynix has sworn that its memory capacity will ramp back to full in fairly short order — its impact on the market has been significant.
18. After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought
None of this is surprising. After all, learning is hard and requires work and there are a lot of lazy people out there. Not only that, there are a lot of stupid, lazy people who think they are really smart and figure they just have to sign up for something to “learn it”. What should matter is the net benefit: 4% of a very big number can be a big number.
“Two years after a Stanford professor drew 160,000 students from around the globe to a free online course on artificial intelligence, starting what was widely viewed as a revolution in higher education, early results for such large-scale courses are disappointing, forcing a rethinking of how college instruction can best use the Internet.”
19. One in four cloud providers will be gone by 2015
Things have to be pretty bad in an industry for Gartner to say anything negative about it – usually they stoke expectations of hyper-growth to sell their expensive, but generally worthless, research. There is no reason cloud services providers should be profitable as they offer a non-differentiable service. Contracts are usually on a month to month basis and their customers have no problem at all migrating their applications from one provider to another.
“Cloud adopters face serious risk in the next two years because of the strong possibility that their provider will be acquired or forced out of business, according to Gartner. The research firm is predicting a major consolidation in cloud services and estimates that about 25% of the top 100 IT service providers in the infrastructure space won’t be around by 2015. “One in four vendors will be gone for whatever reason — acquisition, bankruptcy,” said William Maurer, a Gartner analyst. Most of the time, the changes will come through acquisition.”
20. Open source option wins WA cloud deal
Another publicly funded open source project. This ties several of this week’s articles together: Munich, Cloud Services, and Microsoft licensing. The problem with open source, besides distrust of decision makers (aided by FUD from proprietary providers) is that there are so many choices, even excluding ‘forks’, and not enough expertise available.
“The Western Australian Institute for Medical Research will today take ownership of a private cloud solution built almost entirely of open source technologies to prepare for an influx of researchers over the coming weeks.”