The Geek’s Reading List – Week of January 17th 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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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1. Fusion instabilities lessened by unexpected effect
This sounds potentially interesting, although I admit that, before I read the article I assumed the instabilities were associated with plasma containment rather than the fuel pellet. Nonetheless, this observation may lead to a better understanding of field stability (as well as more efficient ignition) which sounds promising.
“A surprising effect created by a 19th century device called a Helmholz coil offers clues about how to achieve controlled nuclear fusion at Sandia National Laboratories’ powerful Z machine.”
2. Blackouts are ‘best possible thing’ for UK energy crisis, says Labour adviser
The UK, like many other EU countries, invested heavily in wind farms and solar power (yes – solar power in the UK!) while shutting down old generating stations and not building new ones (i.e. of a type which actually work). It was abundantly obvious this would lead to an electricity shortage unless economic growth stopped or even reversed. The chickens are coming home to roost, and the bad news is, if they started today it would still take years to fix the problem.
“The man who masterminded London’s highly successful Olympic Games has said power blackouts would be “the best possible thing” because they would force politicians to confront the looming energy crisis. Sir John Armitt, who is also advising the Labour Party on Britain’s infrastructure needs, said the country was heading towards an energy-capacity crunch because ministers had failed to ensure the construction of new power stations to take over from decommissioned nuclear and coal plants.”
3. Why Are Dead People Liking Stuff On Facebook?
On the surface, this sounds like a mistake, however, it is easier to believe these are intentional – in other words’ people’s names and faces are being used, without their permission, to flog products and it is only the obvious contractions are ever noticed. No doubt Facebook has, or soon will have, embedded in its EULA the right to do this.
“Last month, while wasting a few moments on Facebook, my pal Brendan O’Malley was surprised to see that his old friend Alex Gomez had “liked” Discover. This was surprising not only because Alex hated mega-corporations but even more so because Alex had passed away six months earlier.”
4. Stop Asking Me for My Email Address
I completely agree with the concerns expressed in the article and I generally refuse to play the game. Sometimes I fill in intentionally false information because I figure it probably costs more to weed through the garbage.
“It’s hard out there for a paranoid cybersecurity reporter. I’ve covered enough breaches, identity thefts, cybercrime and worse, to know it’s a terrible idea to hand over my personal data — even something as seemingly innocuous as my birthday or email address — to a store clerk, or a strange login page on the Internet.”
5. Samsung’s secret mission to cut Google out of its Galaxy
This does make a fair bit of sense: after all, Android is Linux, and open, and it should be easy enough to fork either Linux or Android to create “Samsung” OS. I don’t think anybody would care (except, perhaps Google), provided there would be some level of compatibility, and it should not be that hard to port applications over. The “1 million apps” issue is moot since few apps are ever downloaded, let alone used.
“Samsung made more waves this week because of Michael Bay’s meltdown than its products have, but the unsung story of CES 2014 may be Samsung’s first major move to rid itself of Android.”
6. Google stabs Wikipedia in the front
I don’t completely follow the reasoning of the article, despite my disdain for Google. In particular, the introduction of a Google service followed by decline in visits to Wikipedia. After all, we are, increasingly, living in a ‘sound bite’ culture wherein anything more than 140 characters is a burden to read. Wikipedia has a lot of information, and TD;DR (Too Long Didn’t Read) is a common refrain.
“However, since Google rolled out Knowledge Graph, something interesting happened. Visits to Wikipedia had previously risen steadily year-on-year for a decade. Towards the end of the 2012 this trend not only stalled, but went into an unprecedented decline.”
7. Google to acquire Nest for $3.2 billion in cash
Last week we noted Nest was rumored to be considering raising money at a $3B valuation, which we figured meant Nest management was delusional, or the capital markets are acting irrationally. We now know it is the latter: thermostats are trivial, Internet accessibility for a thermostat is trivial. How do I know? I have been working on such a project in my spare time for the past year and expect to switch my hydronic heating system over to it this weekend.
“Google Inc took its biggest step to go deeper into consumers’ homes, announcing a $3.2 billion deal to buy smart thermostat and smoke alarm-maker Nest Labs Inc, scooping up a promising line of products and a prized design team led by the “godfather” of the iPod.”
8. Mozilla Calls on World to Protect Firefox Browser From the NSA
This is absolutely valid reasoning (see item 14, below) – all systems should be assumed to be insecure, in particular if they are closed systems. Nobody knows where the corporate or intelligence agency backdoors are in Windows, Adobe, etc., however, there is a chance backdoors inserted into Ubuntu, Firefox, LibreOffice, and so on, would be spotted. This isn’t just paranoia about spies – bad guys (corporate and criminal) exploit backdoors as well.
“The move is one more way that the giants of the web are responding to revelations that the National Security Agency is snooping on web traffic via popular services and software. After NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. government is tapping into data collected by private companies like Google and Facebook and then private email outfit Lavabit revealed a gag order that forbade the company from the telling customers the government was requesting information about them, Eich is worried that the feds could force Mozilla into adding a backdoor into its browser.”
9. Ontario considers pilot program to test self-driving vehicles
I imagine we will be seeing an increasing number of such announcements from various governments over the coming years. Given the lack of commercially available vehicles for test it is hard to see how this could be done on a timely basis. Furthermore, if, for example, they test a particular model of Mercedes does that (or should that) inform any decision regarding a particular Ford model or other models of Mercedes? After all, it took a long time to develop standardized crash safety tests so it will probably take a long time to develop standardized national autonomous vehicle tests.
“Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation is seeking public comment on a proposal to create a pilot project testing the safety of “autonomous vehicles,” often referred to as “driverless” cars. “MTO recognizes the importance of new vehicle technology, especially if it can expand mobility options for Ontarians,” the ministry said of its proposal, posted online in late December.”
10. Why the world needs OpenStreetMap
I like this project, which is a sort of Wikipedia for maps and I believe there is some value in reminding people of it from time to time.
“Every time I tell someone about OpenStreetMap, they inevitably ask “Why not use Google Maps?” From a practical standpoint, it’s a reasonable question, but ultimately this is not just a matter of practicality, but of what kind of society we want to live in. I discussed this topic in a 2008 talk on OpenStreetMap I gave at the first MappingDC meeting. Here are many of same concepts, but expanded.”
11. How London plans to eliminate the search for a parking spot
This is an idea whose time has come and I suspect we will see broad deployment of such systems over the next few years. The idea it will ‘eliminate the search for a parking spot’ is nonsense: if parking spots are scarce almost certainly someone will happen upon the spot your mobile directs you before you get there, whereas if spots are not scarce, you don’t need the guidance. What this will do is enforce parking rules and automatically ticket cars which overstay their paid parking.
“This week, the City of Westminster, one of London’s local councils, will start embedding the first 0f 3,000 sensors into the streets. They will be in the ground by the end of March, making London the world’s first major city to adopt the long-heralded “smart parking” revolution.”
12. Children can turn off net filters, report finds
Some governments, in particular the government of the UK, seem to believe they are the morality police – enforcing (largely religious based) restrictions on what people can look at on the Internet. This is only different by degree with what goes on in places like Iran, except that most Iranians people of Iran largely know how to circumvent government censorship. Frankly I am surprised such a small portion of kids know how to turn off the filters. I assume they lied to the survey takers.
“It found that 18% of 12-15-year-olds know how to disable internet filters. aLmost half of children aged 12-15 know how to delete their browsing history and 29% can amend settings to mask their browser activity.”
13. Target point-of-sale terminals were infected with malware
This is an update to the ongoing Target data breach story, with some added thoughts: many systems, including Point of Sale systems, are based on Windows. Many Windows based systems are Windows XP based and Microsoft is ending security updates for Windows XP shortly. It is impractical or even impossible to replace all Windows XP based systems in the field, especially since the companies may no longer exist and/or the designers are no longer employed by the system vendor. Since Windows XP has many of the same vulnerabilities as Windows 7, malware developers will get a ‘how to’ guide with every (weekly) Windows 7 security update. Disaster looms.
“The CEO of retailer Target revealed Saturday in an interview that the company’s point-of-sale (PoS) systems were infected with malware, confirming what security experts suspected since the massive data breach was announced in mid-December.”
14. An Introduction To Tor, Lightbeam, and Adblock
I thought it would be topical to include this article, which goes over a number of plug-ins which help anonymise your activity, in particular from corporate data collectors. I have used Adblock for many years and still use it despite its diabolical ‘white list’ feature (which is easily disabled). I’m surprised they don’t mention Ghostery, which blocks trackers.
“In a world increasingly dominated by surveillance from marketers, tech firms, and big governments, privacy can be tough to come by these days. In an effort to help our readers gain more control over what data is exposed during their web browsing we’ve decided to cover some of the most prominent and easy to use privacy oriented programs.”
15. Computer users, not couch potatoes, will lead the way on 4K high-definition TV
I sort of agree because you are a lot closer to your computer screen than you ever get to a TV screen so you might actually notice 4K resolution. Of course, it depends on price. That being said, as for the $500 4K sets, let’s just say that not all 4K is 4K and leave it at that.
“The television industry swamped last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) with dozens of new super high-definition sets, but got in return a collective yawn from journalists, analysts and the buying public. So is the new standard, known generally as “4K,” dead on arrival, headed for the same fate as 3D TV? Not at all. It’s just going to start out as a hit with computer users, not couch potatoes.”
16. The $1,000 genome could actually be here
Gene sequencing has led to a number of very promising medical developments, in particular in the field of cancer treatment. Cancer drugs have historically been used as a ‘shotgun’ in that a particular cocktail seems to help more people with a particular cancer however the reality is cancer is almost an individual disease. The solution is to sequence the cancer and match the treatment to the specific variant. This has been cost prohibitive, and this system should have a big impact on cost.
“Lowering the cost of full gene sequencing could spur more people to pursue one and, as a result, provide researchers with the data they need to sort out the real interesting genes. Illumina, a San Diego life science tool developer, released a sequencing machine today that it says is capable of bringing the price down to $1,000.”
17. Android Developer Interest Is Catching Up To Its Market Share
It makes sense that developer interest in Android lagged iPhone for a couple reasons: iOS was out first and was a market leader for a time, in particular in developed markets, and iOS is, more or an homogenous environment whereas there is a broad range of Android vendors and hardware. Despite the challenges, as Android extends its market dominance the attractiveness of the platform to developers increases. Another fine point in its favor is that you don’t have to waste money on overpriced Apple computers to develop your application, which is unlikely to make money in either event.
“The app developer community may have finally hit an inflection point for Android. A year ago mobile developers preferred Apple’s iOS, given superior tooling and revenue opportunities. Yet, today’s developers simply can’t ignore Android’s and outsized and rapidly growing installed base. Practical wisdom would say that the tide of developer interest in Android has to shift eventually, just because it is so massive and global. New survey data from Vision Mobile and Evans Data shows that the shift developer interest may indeed be starting to gravitate to Android while still remaining strong iOS.”
18. Microsoft: Windows 9 ‘Will Launch In 2015’
This blogger’s ruminations got a fair bit of online coverage this past week. It is hard to say to whether the timeframe is correct, and, regardless, Microsoft tends to be late with its OS releases. More significant is the question of what Windows 9 will include: there was much hope Windows 8.1 would provide some relief from the idiotic touch centric paradigm of Windows 8, but these hopes were dashed.
“According to tech blogger Paul Thurrott, the world’s biggest software maker will confirm at its Build conference in April that a project titled “Threshold” will deliver a new operating system, Windows 9. It was scheduled, he said, to launch in April 2015 following an update to Windows 8.1 this year which would also include phone software improvements.”
19. The search for the lost Cray supercomputer OS
This is a rather fun story, for no other reason that a single, inexpensive chip can emulate the performance of the most advanced computer on the planet in 1976. Hopefully, historic documents like the Cray OS can be preserved for future researchers – these are, in many ways, our cultural heritage even if we do not appreciate it at the moment.
“In 1976, famed computer architect Seymour Cray released one of the most successful supercomputers ever made: the Cray-1, a stylish 5.5-ton C-shaped tower that was quickly embraced by laboratories all over the world. While it soon gave way to newer, faster Cray models that then faded away entirely in the ’90s due to huge cost and performance advances in supercomputing, its iconic shape and early success left a lasting legacy in the industry.”
20. Canada Says Bitcoin Isn’t Legal Tender
Expect to see more and more clarifications like this from national governments. After all, something is not legal tender unless it is made legal tender under the law and it is impossible to imagine any national government will make a fraudulent ‘currency’ legal tender. This does not, of course, mean it is illegal to use in exchange. Yet.
“Canadian officials have been pretty quiet in the bitcoin debate, but the government’s stance became clearer on Thursday. Canada doesn’t consider bitcoin to be legal tender, a government official said, putting a question mark over the use of the increasingly popular virtual currency here.”