The Geek’s Reading List – Week of January 3rd 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of January 3rd 2014


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 small number and quality of articles this week. This is probably due to the holiday season.

Happy New Year!

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.        PC makers plan rebellion against Windows at 2014 CES, analysts say

I don’t see how a dual boot system is, in any way, a rebellion against Windows. Yes, installing dual boot (i.e. Windows + Linux) on most Windows 8 systems is extremely difficult, but, provided Microsoft collects their tax, they could care less. What would be disturbing to Microsoft is the rise of availability and support for Linux-only (including Android) systems by mainstream vendors.

“At the mammoth Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in early January, multiple computer makers will unveil systems that simultaneously run two different operating systems, both Windows and the Android OS that powers many of the world’s tablets and smartphones, two different analysts said recently. The new devices will be called “PC Plus” machines, explained Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies.”

2.        Feds Say Just One Car Out of 100 Will Be Electric in 2040

Actually, this is probably a an optimistic projection based on unfounded expectations of improved battery technology, replacement costs, and continued extreme subsidies, which is the only reason EVs are sold in any quantity today.

“Electric vehicles are gaining a small foothold in the U.S., but according to the feds, it will remain just that — small. Fossil fuels will power the vast majority of vehicles for the next two and a half decades, with electric cars accounting for a scant 1 percent of vehicles sold in the United States in 2040, according to Uncle Sam.

3.        Electric Cars So Disruptive, Gas Cars Will Be Obsolete In 2016, Says Futurist

You’d think that, to be a futurist, you would have to know something – anything, actually – about the technology you are blathering about or even something about how technology adoption, industrial processes, batteries, or most things work. Of course, I don’t understand German, so maybe he said none of the things the article says he does.

“Many people like to think they can predict the future, but only futurists (and psychics) get paid to do it. And futurist Lars Thomsen thinks that electric cars are such a disruptive technology that they will make gasoline cars obsolete–starting in 2016, or much earlier than most other analysts suggest. Thomsen delivered a speech this past September, at the 25th International AVL Conference “Engine & Environment” in Graz, Austria, that’s contained in the clip above.”

4.        On Hacking MicroSD Cards

I found this item interesting not so much because of the hack but because I had no idea of the ‘life history’ of flash drives. By the way, one reason heavily modified 8051 processors are often used in such projects is that the architecture, which is very good, has been released into the public domain.

“In order to explain the hack, it’s necessary to understand the structure of an SD card. The information here applies to the whole family of “managed flash” devices, including microSD, SD, MMC as well as the eMMC and iNAND devices typically soldered onto the mainboards of smartphones and used to store the OS and other private user data. We also note that similar classes of vulnerabilities exist in related devices, such as USB flash drives and SSDs.”

5.        Crypto-Currency Market Capitalizations

And there you have it 65 ‘digital currencies’. No doubt the number will grow until the absurdity of it all becomes evident.

6.        How Google made Rap Genius vanish

This is an effective approach to dealing with those who game your search algorithm. I can think of a few thousand other companies who should be wiped off the Internet in a similar fashion.

“Rap Genius, the sprawling, encyclopedic online hub for rap lyric analysis and aggregation, is one of the buzziest websites around, with exuberant founders, gobs of investor cash, a celebrity fanbase, and plenty of controversy surrounding the project. While the start-up lyrics database has already butted up against licensing organizations, it now has a much bigger problem: Google.”

7.        U.S. Struggles to Keep Pace in Delivering Broadband Service

Canadians usually benchmark ourselves relative to our southern neighbours. As most Canadians are aware, our communications infrastructure lags the US considerably – which is remarkable considering how it was world leading not that long ago. The bad news is the US lags the rest of the world and is, itself, falling farther behind, so we lag the laggard.

“San Antonio is the seventh-largest city in the United States, a progressive and economically vibrant metropolis of 1.4 million people sprawled across south-central Texas. But the speed of its Internet service is no match for the Latvian capital, Riga, a city of 700,000 on the Baltic Sea.”

8.        Beyond Glass and Steel

It is a pity they don’t spend much time on the technology. The resulting structure looks like something out of a Batman movie, so I rather doubt the look will become main stream. Still, one can imagine that 3D printing interiors of large public buildings, etc. will probably end up being cheaper than sculpting them.

“The creation of two Zurich-based architects, Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger, Digital Grotesque is, according to their own project manifesto, “the first fully immersive, solid, human-scale, enclosed structure that is entirely 3D printed out of sand.” A 3D printer that probably wouldn’t fit into your living room created the entire thing using sandcorn and adhesive. The intricate room (“the Grotto”) of 172 sq. feet is enclosed within a plain cubic structure, almost as if it were a jewel inside a box — which, actually, is sort of is. The whole thing required 11 tons of sand.”

9.        I Had My DNA Picture Taken, With Varying Results

This is a surprising result, at least for me. I would have thought the results of these DNA screen would be deterministic, not haphazard. If these results are typical, the service is potentially less than useless.

“I like to plan ahead; that much I knew about myself before I plunged into exploring my genetic code. I’m a healthy 28-year-old woman, but some nasty diseases run in my family: coronary heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s and breast cancer.”

10.   Facing the Biggest Problem with Windows in 2014

Probably a good summary of the situation facing Microsoft, namely, the world has moved on and the market leader is oblivious. Of course, the fact that Microsoft stopped innovating over a decade ago, and is, apparently, oblivious as to the needs and wants of its customers, are compounding factors. You’d think they would take corrective action: in general, tech companies in this position tend to double down on the stupid – as Windows 8.1 clearly shows.

“After a disastrous Windows 8 launch in late 2012, Microsoft reorganized its entire corporate structure, sent its CEO packing, adopted a rapid release cycle, and quickly shipped a mulligan in the form of Windows 8.1 in 2013. Problem solved, right? Nope. Windows has never faced adversity like what it will face in 2014. And this coming year will prove pivotal for Microsoft’s flagship OS.”

11.   A Prayer for Archimedes

This is interesting though it appears that previous, incomplete versions of the text were known. One has to shake one’s head at the fact a monk destroyed a priceless work of knowledge in order to make a copy of a book of fairy tales.

“The owners wondered if the strange book might have some value, so they took it to Christie’s Auction House of London. And in 1998, Christie’s auctioned it off—for two million dollars. For this was not just a prayer book. The faint Greek inscriptions and accompanying diagrams were, in fact, the only surviving copies of several works by the great Greek mathematician Archimedes.”

12.   Sorry for letting them snoop? Dell apologizes for ‘inconvenience’ caused by NSA backdoor

The title is a bit misleading as the purported apology does not appear to be official. Nonetheless, it is increasingly looking as though pretty much all hardware and software vendors cooperated with the NSA and other security agencies. The denials are carefully worded and can be dismissed as misdirection. I do like Huawei’s comment at the end, though.

“Security researcher Jacob Appelbaum dropped a bombshell of sorts earlier this week when he accused American tech companies of placing government-friendly backdoors in their devices. Now Texas-based Dell Computers is offering an apology. Or to put it more accurately, Dell told an irate customer on Monday that they “regret the inconvenience” caused by selling to the public for years a number of products that the intelligence community has been able to fully compromise in complete silence up until this week.”

13.   The high-end phone market will be a chamber of horrors in 2014

It should be, though I don’t see what the app download rate has to do with it. Most apps are garbage and a more sophisticated user base simply would not waste the time downloading them. As we note below (and have noted in the past) smartphones are not hard to make so prices should plummet. It is simply a matter of time.

“Many news sites have reported perky news items about Flurry’s Christmas app download statistics. And most of them have been comprehensively out to lunch. The real news in Flurry’s numbers is not that Christmas Day app downloads once again bounced sharply from the average December day since that obviously happens every year. A truly gruesome bit of real news was buried in the exhibit that compares Christmas 2012 download volume growth to Christmas 2013: App download volume increased by 90% year-on-year back in 2012 but by just 11% in 2013.”

14.   Backdoor in wireless DSL routers lets attacker reset router, get admin

This is not (probably) yet another NSA story – probably just a lazy way of doing engineering or manufacturing test that some engineer forgot to remove or disable.

“A hacker has found a backdoor to wireless combination router/DSL modems that could allow an attacker to reset the router’s configuration and gain access to the administrative control panel. The attack, confirmed to work on several Linksys and Netgear DSL modems, exploits an open port accessible over the wireless local network.”

15.   Feds May Require Cars to Talk to Each Other to Avoid Crashes

This is a rapidly emerging technology with potentially profoundly positive ramifications. Two issues are raised: privacy/security and liability. The former should not be a problem since vehicles could simply generate a unique but random code now and then, obfuscating attempts to track them. Liability is a core issue with any electronics based automotive technology: tort lawyers waiting for a collision which “should not have happened” and befuddling a jury enough to extract a billion dollar judgement.

“Federal officials will decided in the “coming weeks” whether to require new cars to include smart technology that would alert drivers of a coming crash, even in vehicles that are two or three cars away. The vehicle-to-vehicle — or V2V — technology has undergone testing in recent years and has already been installed in some cars that are on the road. A recent study by the Government Accountability Office determined that if the gizmos were widely deployed, “V2V technologies could provide warnings to drivers in as much as 76 percent of potential multi-vehicle collisions.””

16.   How the Army’s recent successful laser test could change the future of warfare

It is interesting to see how the one superpower’s defense budget tilts more and more towards sophisticated weapons, giving them the ability to conquer almost any country, only to cede defeat within a few years to amateurs armed with AK-47s. One thing about lasers is that they can be hardened against. Still – boys love their toys and the money is good.

“In December, the U.S. Army successfully tested a vehicle-mounted laser, destroying more than 90 mortar rounds and several unmanned aerial drones. And an Army official tells Yahoo News that the test could have broad implications for the future, giving the U.S. an edge in low-cost and high-functioning defense technology.”

17.   China’s Xiaomi sells 18.7 million smartphones in 2013, up 160% from a year earlier

I don’t think I have heard of Xiaomi previously but it can be hard to keep track. It is not exactly rocket science to build a smartphone since the software (Android) is open source and all the IP is in the ICs. The future of the smartphone is the same as the feature phone: cheap, essentially disposable, and low margin. How this impacts the Apples of the world remains to be seen.

“Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi has outdone itself — by selling 18.7 million smartphones in 2013, up 160 percent from a year earlier and more than its initial target of 15 million devices. In December itself, the company sold 3.22 million smartphones.”

18.   Microsoft’s ‘Project Siena’ lets anyone create Windows 8.1 apps

The cynic in me would suggest this is a cynical plot by Microsoft to get amateurs to develop Windows 8.1 apps so Microsoft can trumpet the number of apps on its platform. First, the number of apps on a platform is a pretty misleading figure as most of the hundreds of thousands of apps are, fundamentally, web pages that get accessed a total of once per user. Second, developers tend to develop for platforms with a large user base and that does not include Windows.

“Microsoft is releasing “Project Siena” today, a Windows 8.1 app that lets you easily create your own Windows app. It’s designed as a quick tool for building Windows 8-style apps without any programming skills. It’s also a touch-friendly way to create apps from a tablet, rather than using the desktop equivalents. Although potential developers won’t get the full power of tools like Visual Studio, that’s not really the point. Siena is designed to create apps that are more document-like and highly visual, with a canvas for inserting images, buttons, shapes, videos, and more.”

19.   I Am 100% Certain That Google Chromebooks Did Not Take 21% of the Notebook Market

I covered the report of exploding market share for Chromebooks in last week’s GRL and noted my skepticism of the reported figure (though, in fairness, I assume all industry research is wrong until proved otherwise). As expected, the problem appears to be in the definition of the market. The comments on Microsoft’s Scrooggled campaign are interesting, though Microsoft has used FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) for decades. I don’t think it will work in the future, though: the attack on Office functionality is moot since most people would not miss the vast majority of Office features and hardware support is bound to rise over time.

“I don’t care what all those headlines are telling you, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Chromebooks did not account for 21% of US notebook sales this year. Anyone who tells you otherwise has no appreciation for details or fine print.”

20.   The Internet Of Things In 2014: Steady As It Goes

An interesting read for a slow week but I don’t see what credit cards and payment systems have to do with the Internet of things. All things considered, you rarely have ‘breakthrough’ moments in technology – things tend to move along until the media notices then they announce a breakthrough. After all – when was the breakthrough for WiFi, Internet, etc.?

“The Internet of Things was all the rage in 2013, so it should be even bigger in 2014, right? If you’re talking hype, then there is little doubt that the Internet of Things will continue to vie for the center of everyone’s attention. In terms of actual forward progress, don’t hold your breath for a big event.”

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