The Geek’s Reading List – Week of December 27th 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.
I apologize for the small number and quality of articles this week. This is probably due to the holiday season.
Happy Winter Solstice!
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. Exclusive: Secret contract tied NSA and security industry pioneer
Well, well. Not only were they compromised, they were (allegedly) corrupt as well. Of course, they now disclaim any responsibility whatsoever, and are shocked – shocked! – to discover they were aggressively promoting compromised software. Mind you NOW they are honest and trustworthy, unless of course, new facts arise. I can only hope lawyers are champing at the bit to sue them to penury.
“As a key part of a campaign to embed encryption software that it could crack into widely used computer products, the U.S. National Security Agency arranged a secret $10 million contract with RSA, one of the most influential firms in the computer security industry, Reuters has learned.”
2. Obituary for software patents
I’ll believe it when I see it: after all, the biggest patent troll by far is Microsoft, and the largest tech companies are not the victims of a broken patent system but the main beneficiaries.
“AT LAST, it seems, something is to be done about the dysfunctional way America’s patent system works. Two encouraging events over the past week suggest the patent reformers are finally being heard.”
3. Chinese Bitcoin Exchange Accused of Faking Trade Data
Whatever next? After all, if you are dealing in a fundamentally fraudulent commodity, you should at least use more customary market manipulation methods used in the legitimate markets like ‘high closing’, wash trades, talking your book, etc..
“Once China’s second-largest bitcoin exchange, OKCoin is claimed to have published unrealistically high trading volumes in the wake of the Chinese central bank imposing a ban on financial institutions handling the crypto-currency. The ban saw several exchanges halt all incoming deposits, but OKCoin’s trading data failed to show the dip experienced by fellow exchanges.”
4. Wearable Robot
This article is more of an update on an emerging technology than a report on a breakthrough. Unfortunately, I suspect these systems will be staggeringly expensive which will place them out of the reach of many patients.
“For the millions of people worldwide suffering from some form of paralysis, the only mobility option remains the same as it did centuries ago – a wheelchair. But in the US, engineers have developed a wearable robot which allows people with paralysis to stand and walk. The battery-powered ‘exoskeleton’ uses a combination of motors, sensors and the patient’s own balance and body positioning. Currently the device is used for research and rehabilitation and can only be worn with medical supervision, but engineers are now designing a model that can be used at home.”
5. A New Twist in International Relations: The Corporate Keep-My-Data-Out-of-the-U.S. Clause
This is not a new development, but, regardless, the impact on privacy would be negligible. Under the terms of the Orwellian “Patriot Act” US companies are required to comply with requests for data regardless of where that data is located, and I rather doubt I’ll see a CEO go to prison to protect the privacy of customers. Furthermore, most intelligence agencies have data sharing arrangements which means that snooping is not an NSA problem but a global one. Not that it guarantees security, but at a minimum you want to keep sensitive information off the cloud altogether.
“By now, we’ve heard from tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Cisco Systems that the National Security Agency’s spying poses a threat to their international business and, in Cisco’s case, is already hurting it. So what does that threat look like, exactly, at ground level? Some companies are apparently so concerned about the NSA snooping on their data that they’re requiring – in writing – that their technology suppliers store their data outside the U.S.”
6. Security company RSA denies knowingly installing NSA ‘back door’
Of course, they would deny it. What would you expect them to say? Like all other tech companies caught up in the NSA revelations the tactic has been deny, deny, deny, then plead for an end to the spying once the denials are no longer credible. Mind you there is no reason whatsoever to believe these companies will ever change their ways: the US government is a big customer for pretty much everything. The only hope is the use of open systems.
“The security company RSA has denied that it knowingly weakened the encryption it used in its products as part of a secret contract with the US’s National Security Agency. A report from the Reuters news agency on Friday alleged that RSA arranged a $10m contract to use a mathematically weaker formula in a number of its products, which would in effect have created a “back door” for cracking encrypted messages or communications.”
7. Novel Circuit Shrinks Laptop Chargers, Could Improve Appliance Efficiency
Laptop chargers have gotten pretty small (the Apple ones are particularly impressive) as power supplies have been designed to operate at high frequencies, which convey multiple benefits. Nonetheless, if prices appropriately (and laptop power supplies rarely are) this product would fly off the shelves.
“A startup called FINsix has developed laptop power adapters that are 75 percent smaller than their conventional counterparts. The technology employed could also be used to improve the efficiency of a wide variety of devices and appliances, including washing machines and air conditioners.”
8. How Google Is Cleaning The Web Of Comment Spam
Spammers are scum and I favor summary execution. My blog was plagued with comment spam until I realized I could moderate comments, so spam comments never see the light of day. They are pretty obvious to people because they contain web links, but I didn’t understand until now why this was the case. Google’s approach makes a lot of sense, at least until they can be hunted down like dogs.
“Over at The Awl there’s a nice little piece about how Google has set about stopping that bane of webmasters, comment spam. There’s also a nice piece from my colleague, Joshua Steimle, on the same subject but from the SEO point of view. For the technical details read either of them. The point that interests me is that Google is cleaning all this mess up by changing the incentives to spam. And as all people interested in economics know, the first thing you need to know is that incentives matter (the second is of course “opportunity costs”). By changing what it is in peoples’ own best interests to do Google is thereby changing what they actually do.”
9. As New Services Track Habits, the E-Books Are Reading You
The e-book business seems like another scam to me: pricing for many e-books is on a par with the paperback, despite zero cost of production and distribution. Sometimes, in fact, the e-book costs more. Not surprisingly, we now know companies not only know what you read with your e-book, but how you read it. I am sure this will have a positive impact on the quality of books being published. It is worth noting that whereas you read paper books, in Soviet Russia (or the Orwellian Internet era), books read you…
“Before the Internet, books were written — and published — blindly, hopefully. Sometimes they sold, usually they did not, but no one had a clue what readers did when they opened them up. Did they skip or skim? Slow down or speed up when the end was in sight? Linger over the sex scenes? A wave of start-ups is using technology to answer these questions — and help writers give readers more of what they want.”
10. Italy Approves ‘Google Tax’ on Internet Companies
It is a matter of time before countries move against parasitic companies who game the tax system. I figure moral suasion (condemning the companies by name at every opportunity) could work, however laws are probably a better measure. One such law would simply list tax cheat corporations by name and make corporate expenses associated with those companies non-deductible for income tax purposes. For example, if Google doesn’t pay a fair share of tax in Canada or Italy, corporations buying ads from Google would not get to deduct those expenses.
“Italy’s Parliament today passed a new measure on web advertising, the so-called “Google tax,” which will require Italian companies to purchase their Internet ads from locally registered companies, instead of from units based in havens such as Ireland, Luxembourg and Bermuda. The tax has stirred controversy, with some lawyers saying it probably violates European Union laws regarding non-discrimination over commercial activity and could be subject to legal challenges.”
11. SSDs Cheaper Than Hard Drives? Not In This Decade
I agree on the cheaper part, I disagree on the “hard drives will still be going strong in 2020” part. The thing is, it’s not just cheap which sells storage: SSDs are faster, use less power, and are more reliable. In an ideal world, they would be cheaper as well, but that doesn’t really matter – I recently upgraded both my laptops with 240 gigabyte SSDs. In both cases the existing hard drives (500Gb and 750 Gb) hard drives had loads of unused space despite being loaded with numerous files which had not been accessed in years.
“I regularly hear people, including many that should know better, predicting that in just a few years we’ll evict all the hard drives from our data centers as SSDs become less expensive than spinning disks. While the decline in SSD prices has been dramatic over the last year or so, I’m betting that hard drives will still be going strong in 2020.”
12. Schwann Cell Grafts Work in Rat Models of Spinal Cord Injury
This sounds like a potentially positive development along with a number of other procedures for spinal injury treatment I have read about in the recent past. Of course, aiding in limb functional recovery is different from having functional limbs – for humans, the limbs may be too weak to allow standing upright, for example. Nonetheless, any progress is good.
“A study carried out at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine for “The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis” has found that transplanting self-donated Schwann cells (SCs, the principal ensheathing cells of the nervous system) that are elongated so as to bridge scar tissue in the injured spinal cord, aids hind limb functional recovery in rats modeled with spinal cord injury.”
13. Linux is Everywhere. We show you exactly where
The article doesn’t live up to its title because it leaves out the majority of smartphones and tablets, which are based on Android, as well as much of the Internet infrastructure. Under different guises, Linux, and expertise in Linux, is become more and more important, albeit often behind the scenes.
“Linux is Everywhere. From Space Stations to Microwave Ovens, Linux powers everything.” You might have heard that a lot and have always wondered “Is that just a phrase or is it actually true?” Be assured, it is true. World’s biggest companies use Linux in one way or another but you are not going to believe unless I take names. Well, get ready for a roller coaster ride across the globe where I show you where and how Linux is used.”
14. Chromebooks charge into business market, capture 20% of commercial notebooks
I don’t trust industry research, and I am very skeptical about this figure: 20% is a lot and I would expect to see a lot of these machines being used by people if this was the case, though I haven’t. Perhaps it is dependent on how they have defined the market. I tend to think of Chromebooks as tablets with keyboards, so it is believable they would find a market niche. If that ends up being 20% or more of the commercial notebook market it would constitute a potential nightmare for Microsoft.
“Sales of Chromebooks exploded from basically nothing in 2012 to more than 20 percent of the U.S. commercial PC market, analyst firm NPD reported on Monday, while Windows PCs and Macs remained flat at best.”
15. Ultra HD televisions slow to attract consumers
Not a very good article, but 4K comes up now and then. It may be that all HDTVs end up being 4K, just as many are 3D even though the 3D function is rarely used. The problem is that little content is not likely to end up in 4K due to the production and distribution costs and the fact most people would not have a large enough set and a large enough room to put it in, to notice. After all most cable and satellite “1080p high definition” has been transcoded and downgraded such that it is nowhere near HD quality and most people don’t even notice.
“There probably aren’t huge numbers of Boxing Day shoppers scouring flyers for a deal on a 4K Ultra HD TV, the next standard of high definition video. Dec. 26 is a day for seeking out bargains and history has shown crowds of consumers will shiver for hours in the cold if it means snagging a cut-rate TV — even if it’s a low-end model made by an obscure manufacturer — for a few hundred bucks.”
16. China approves pilot to open mobile telecoms market, boost competition
It would be interesting to know the details behind this. In Europe, MVNOs’ are a real bargain, though in Canada most are just brands of the existing carriers and simply offer the illusion of competition with minimal cost advantage.
“China has approved a pilot scheme allowing private companies to piggy back on the country’s three dominant telecommunications providers to offer own-brand mobile services, opening the world’s largest mobile phone market to increased competition. Authorities have approved 11 private “virtual carriers” to resell mobile telecommunications services, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) said in a statement on its website on Thursday.”
17. A Neuroscientist’s Radical Theory of How Networks Become Conscious
It’s been a pretty slow week in tech news otherwise I wouldn’t include this silly article. The neuroscientist just says stuff about consciousness without any basis whatsoever. Even Internet transistor count (which he almost certainly has wrong) has little to do with complexity. Ultimately, thus far these sorts of theories haven’t result in much of value, besides providing jobs for academics.
“It’s a question that’s perplexed philosophers for centuries and scientists for decades: Where does consciousness come from? We know it exists, at least in ourselves. But how it arises from chemistry and electricity in our brains is an unsolved mystery. Neuroscientist Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, thinks he might know the answer. According to Koch, consciousness arises within any sufficiently complex, information-processing system. All animals, from humans on down to earthworms, are conscious; even the internet could be. That’s just the way the universe works.”
18. First time in the country, ED raids a Bitcoin seller in Ahmedabad
It is promising to see that the governments of India and China (last week) are taking steps against Bitcoin. Of course, they are probably not doing so to protect their citizens as much as to retain currency controls. It occurred to me this week that, since there is not proprietary with Bitcoin an infinite number of ‘virtual currencies’ could exist – a bit like everybody printing their own money. After all, what could go wrong with that?
“A couple of days after the Reserve Bank of India issued an advisory to public not to indulge in buying-selling of Bitcoins, the first raid in India was undertaken in Ahmedabad by Enforcement Directorate (ED) on an entity that provide platform to trade in this illegal but virtual currency.”
19. Rumor: Chinese company pays $1 million to sponsor jailbreak for Apple’s iOS 7
Makes sense – but it seems like a lot of money. Perhaps they should run a contest with a more modest reward for the first successful jailbreak. Mind you, it would be hard to do that on the QT.
“Soon after “evasi0n” — iOS 7’s first-ever untethered jailbreak — was released, the exploit’s Chinese users began reporting that Taig’s third-party storefront had replaced stalwart alternative app store Cydia on their devices. Further testing confirmed that any user whose default language was set to Chinese would have the Taig store installed, while those using other languages would still receive Cydia.”
20. Neural Net Learns Breakout Then Thrashes Human Gamers
Interesting and good fun, however, these types of games are not exactly strategy based so they are exactly the sorts of thing you’d expect a machine learning program to master.
“Today, Volodymyr Mnih and pals at DeepMind Technologies in London say they’ve created a neural network that learns how to play video games in the same way as humans: using the computer equivalent of hand-to-eye co-ordination.”