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

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of December 20th 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

I apologize for the quality of articles this week. This is probably due to the holiday season.

Happy Winter Solstice!

Brian Piccioni


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’.


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1.        Grim forecast for e-waste as technology trash to top 65m tons by 2017

e-waste has become a hot button in some countries. In Ontario, for example, you can end up paying a 20% ‘levy’ (a private sector tax) for certain electronic devices, while other things chock full of electronics has no such tax, because it isn’t considered an electronic device. Then there are hypocritical companies like The Home Depot which charge for paint recycling then direct you to municipal facilities for waste paint (I am sure most people just throw paint, and e-waste, in their regular garbage). One thing outstanding about the article is the lax journalism: if you want to get facts, talk to Greenpeace – they have ‘spokespeople’ whose primarily qualification is that they are spokespeople.

“They are on our person, in our homes and in our workplaces, many of them harbouring heavy metals and toxic materials which are dangerous to people and the environment unless they are properly recycled. Yet the soaring international demand for electric and electronic products is fuelling a global rise in e-waste, which is set to reach 65.4 million tons annually by 2017.”

2.        Bitcoin plummets as China’s largest exchange blocks new deposits

Here’s a shocker: Chinese regulators seem to be more on the ball than Western ones. Of course they might know who is responsible for Bitcoin fraud, and only want to play one side of that game. Apparently rival fraudulent ‘cyber currencies’ have skyrocketed in price (value implies value), showing that idiots never learn.

“The price of bitcoin has plummeted following an announcement from China’s largest bitcoin exchange that it would no longer be accepting new yuan deposits.”

3.        The end of roaming?

An interesting solution, however, there are companies which accomplish a similar thing just by having decent international roaming charges. Needless to say, roaming charges are simply an artefact of inept regulation (see below) and they should not exist at all.

“Roaming is synonymous with steep bills for many mobile phone users travelling outside their own country. An Israeli startup, Cell Buddy, is trying to find a solution by developing a universal SIM chip that would turn any smartphone into a local one.”

4.        Canada to cap domestic wireless roaming rates

It will be interesting to see how far the government goes with reigning in Canada’s communications oligopoly. It should be a simple thing, however, the fact Rogers, Bell, and Telus also own substantially all media (newspaper, radio, TV), etc., means it is also a politically very difficult thing. I advocate breaking them up, nationalizing significant components of the businesses, or establishing a non-profit, government owned alternative, mainly because Canada’s expensive yet 3rd world communications infrastructure will negatively impact economic growth for generations.

“Canada will introduce legislation to cap roaming rates that big telecom providers charge their smaller rivals, the government said on Wednesday, aiming to breathe life into its sputtering drive to foster competition in the wireless industry.”

5.        Feeling a Bit Obsolete in the Driver’s Seat

More of an advertisement for the vehicle (and all car reviews are) but an informative overview of some of the technologies showing up in cars nowadays. It seems to me that most such technologies effectively compensate for bad drivers, and prices are going to have to come down a lot to have an impact on the behavior of enough bad drivers to make a difference.

“Infiniti’s G37 has long been the star of Nissan’s luxury brand, largely because it’s been a hands-on car. Now, girding for an autonomous future, Infiniti is trying hands-off instead.”

6.        Computers Can Be Hacked Using High-Frequency Sound

Meh – this is news? This is much how acoustic coupler modems work, except not in ultrasonic frequencies because telephone wires can’t handle them. The comments by the security expert are a tad worrisome, simply because he should know that. I would not be concerned about this in either event as your device has to be infected before this could be an issue.

“Using the microphones and speakers that come standard in many of today’s laptop computers and mobile devices, hackers can secretly transmit and receive data using high-frequency audio signals that are mostly inaudible to human ears, a new study shows.”

7.        Cable Industry Finally Admits That Data Caps Have Nothing To Do With Congestion

Of course this is true, and the same could be said about text messages, roaming charges, long distance calls, etc., etc.. These businesses are masters at screwing over consumers.

“For years, the key rationale given by broadband providers for implementing data caps was that it was the only way they could deal with “congestion.” Of course, for years, independent researchers showed that this was bogus, and there was no data crunch coming.”

8.        One charger to power nearly every laptop coming from standards group

The makes perfect sense and should have been done a long time ago. After all, desktops use universal power supplies. You might need two or three classes of charger with different maximum power outputs and compatible plugs. I think the move to universal mobile chargers has been a godsend and I don’t know why they permit Apple to exempt itself. Perhaps they might consider an “eco-levy” on their products to encourage them to conform.

“While non-Apple mobile phones are generally powered by micro-USB, allowing a charger for one device to be used with another, notebook computers still come with an assortment of chargers that are incompatible with one another. This week, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) announced “the first globally relevant Technical Specification for a single external charger for a wide range of notebook computers and laptops.””

9.        Open Hardware Repository

Open Hardware is becoming increasingly significant, however, until now there has not been a github like repository for projects.

“Welcome to the Open Hardware Repository, a place on the web for electronics designers to collaborate on open hardware designs, much in the philosophy of the free software movement.”

10.   RSA Key Extraction via Low-Bandwidth Acoustic Cryptanalysis

There must be a conference about computer decryption and sound as this is the second “hacking with sound” article to come out. I am a bit skeptical – not as much about the possibility of acoustical signatures, but the numerous permutations of systems and algorithms which would be out there. This is somewhat reminiscent of Tempest, which may or may not ever have been used for espionage in real life.

“Many computers emit a high-pitched noise during operation, due to vibration in some of their electronic components. These acoustic emanations are more than a nuisance: they can convey information about the software running on the computer and, in particular, leak sensitive information about security-related computations. In a preliminary presentation, we have shown that different RSA keys induce different sound patterns, but it was not clear how to extract individual key bits. The main problem was the very low bandwidth of the acoustic side channel (under 20 kHz using common microphones, and a few hundred kHz using ultrasound microphones), many orders of magnitude below the GHz-scale clock rates of the attacked computers.”

11.   Sources: Target Investigating Data Breach

You’d think the credit card companies would prefer large retailers not maintain a database of cards. Note that this impacted store purchasers, not online purchasers: why would a retailer want to (or be permitted to) keep valuable banking information on customers after the point the purchase has been approved. This probably is a lot deeper and more sinister than just a data breach.

“Nationwide retail giant Target is investigating a data breach potentially involving millions of customer credit and debit card records, multiple reliable sources tell KrebsOnSecurity. The sources said the breach appears to have begun on or around Black Friday 2013 — by far the busiest shopping day the year.”

12.   London leaps aboard electric bus revolution

City governments seem keen to spend money on all kinds of projects ‘just because’. For example rental bicycles which have become an expensive fiasco in Montreal and Toronto. Note the article doesn’t mention costs of electric buses, nor their expected useable life (the costs are doubtless staggeringly scale high, and the useable life a fraction of a diesel bus). Of course, it is being done for the environment, and a ribbon cutting ceremony, no doubt much more the latter than the former.

“Two electric buses have hit the streets of London as part of a trial to see if the technology is suitable for shorter routes around the capital. The 12-metre single deck buses will service Victoria, Waterloo and London Bridge stations running on routes 507 and 521 from today until August 2016.”

13.   Liquid metal printer could enable development of personal electronics

This is more a 2D printer than a 3D printer, but 3D has been all the rage for some time now. Printed circuits of the type shown have been around for several decades – this is how they make keypads in many cases though the silver based ink is silkscreened. A printer which could quickly produce a small number of circuits at a reasonable cost would be useful, but only in a limited sense. Most electronic devices have numerous ‘vias’ (holes from one side to the other) and often are comprised of multiple layers of board.

“3D printing becomes very popular in a wide range of applications, although the manufacture of electronic equipment using spatial printing techniques is still rather limited and restricted to a narrow selection of suitable materials and production methods. However, a team of engineers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Tsinghua University (Beijing, China) are working to make this technology available for personal use.”

14.   Biologically inspired: How neural networks are finally maturing

Neural networks are very useful at solving the sorts of problems brains and not computers are good at: things like pattern recognition, for example. The problem is, neural networks are essentially analog things and software can only approximated their behaviour. I believe memristors may provide the breakthrough researchers have been waiting for.

“More than two decades ago, neural networks were widely seen as the next generation of computing, one that would finally allow computers to think for themselves. Now, the ideas around the technology, loosely based on the biological knowledge of how the mammalian brain learns, are finally starting to seep into mainstream computing, thanks to improvements in hardware and refinements in software models.

15.   Why gamafication s serious business

This article touches lightly on a number of different approaches, probably because Accenture is keen to have you engage them to set something along these lines up. I would be careful about using Internet interaction to define a product – consider “Snakes on a Plane!” (a movie you may not have heard of, for good reason).

“In 2011, Volkswagen Group invited consumers in China, its largest and most important market, to help the company develop new versions of the “people’s car.” Participants were given a tool to help them easily design their new vehicle, and they were able to post their designs for others to view and to pick their favorites. The results were tracked on leaderboards so contestants and the general public could see how the competing designs were faring.”

16.   3D Printed Metal Gun Will Sell to Lucky 100

This is not the plastic hand destroyer which caused so much excitement earlier in the year, but a (mostly) 3D printed metal gun printed on a very expensive machine, then, no doubt, significantly machined using traditional techniques. I don’t see why anybody would waste so much money on a 3D printed 1911 copy when you could by a traditionally made 1911 of superior quality for a small fraction of the price.

“Solid Concepts announces a limited sale of the 1911 3D Printed metal gun that made manufacturing history last month. Only one-hundred of the 1911 3D Printed metal guns will be manufactured and sold by the company using the same file, process and engineering as the very first 3D Printed metal gun.”

17.   Energy storage devices are powering up

To be clear, these are primarily small system level storage systems and the “new materials” (in particular graphene) can be astoundingly expensive though production breakthroughs will probably occur eventually.

“Energy storage devices are key components for a successful and sustainable energy system. Some of the best materials and types right now are Lithium-ion/lithium-sulfur/lithium air cells, supercapacitors, and beyond. Research in this area has greatly improved electrode materials, enhanced electrolytes, and conceived clever designs for cell assemblies with the goal of increasing specific energy (Wh/kg) and pushing the power envelope (W/kg).”

18.   IDC: Hobbyist programmers on the rise

I find it surprising IDC would produce such a study, but it does likely reflect the rising importance of things like open source, advanced hobbyists, etc., in the technology world.

“An increasing amount of programming is being conducted by non-professional programmers, a new IDC study has found. Of the 18.5 million software developers in the world, about 7.5 million—roughly 40 percent—are “hobbyist developers,” which is what IDC calls people who write code even though it is not their primary occupation.”

19.   How to steal Bitcoin in three easy steps

The easiest way is touched on in the article: namely set up am ‘exchange’ wait for enough people to place deposits, then steal the Bitcoins. And the great thing is, it isn’t even clear that “stealing” Bitcoin, or even the Bitcoin fraud itself, is illegal. The fact that idiots are willing to exchange a number for money doesn’t mean that any part of that is illegal.

“Earlier this month, someone pulled off the largest heist in the history of Bitcoin, the virtual currency that approximates cash on the internet. The illegal drug bazaar Sheep Marketplace was plundered, either by hackers or insiders, and about $100 million worth of the currency was stolen from customers. Bitcoin heists are actually not uncommon. In June of 2011, a user named Allinvain was the victim of what is arguably the first recorded major Bitcoin theft. Allinvain awoke to find that a hacker had stolen about half a million dollars’ worth of bitcoins. “I feel like killing myself now,” he wrote at the time.”

20.   Scientists losing data at a rapid rate

I like the idea of requiring data be submitted to repositories, provided those are not owned by the sorts of corporations who own substantially all research publications (and there is no need they be). Another problem is that many researchers consider their data “proprietary” and only parcel it out to “friendly” researchers, ensuring no criticism. That these scientists manage to publish their papers without making their data available is a scandal.

“In their parents’ attic, in boxes in the garage, or stored on now-defunct floppy disks — these are just some of the inaccessible places in which scientists have admitted to keeping their old research data. Such practices mean that data are being lost to science at a rapid rate, a study has now found.”


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