The Geek’s Reading List – Week of January 24th 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. Two charts that show how crappy U.S. broadband is
This is something I am very passionate about: how a ‘digital divide’ is opening up, due mostly to inept (mostly likely corrupt) regulation. Canada and the US somehow managed to lead the world in electrification and telephony as mostly agrarian societies and yet we fall farther and farther behind in broadband by all measures.
“Despite the deployments of a few gigabit networks by Google and the spread of faster cable technology, U.S. broadband is falling behind. It’s expensive both as a monthly bill and on a per-megabit basis when compared to the rest of the world. For example, at $89 per month on average, U.S. residents pay more for broadband than residents in 57 other countries including Canada, Bulgaria, Colombia and the U.K. That’s right, the U.S. ranks 58 out of 90 countries.”
2. End of film: Paramount first studio to stop distributing film prints
Frankly, it is surprising it took so long however it took a long time to equip theatres with digital projectors. There is little positive to say about film over digital distribution, especially given the extremely high costs of prints (which places a burden on smaller studios). That being said I suspect film copies will be available for the countries where digital projectors are still rare.
“In a historic step for Hollywood, Paramount Pictures has become the first major studio to stop releasing movies on film in the United States. Paramount recently notified theater owners that the Will Ferrell comedy “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” which opened in December, would be the last movie that would it would release on 35-millimeter film.”
3. Why Obama’s NSA Reforms Won’t Solve Silicon Valley’s Trust Problem
The Snowden revelations did not cause NSA spying to pop into existence, they simply made public what the paranoid (and well informed) believed to be true for decades. The spooks don’t obey the law, and even if they did it’s hard to believe governments would reign them in (after all, you can rest assured there is a file on Obama as well). The idea firms would harden their systems against government ‘snooping’ is laughable – these are businesses, not causes.
“When Barack Obama announced his reforms of National Security Agency surveillance programs today, few people were as interested as Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Marissa Mayer, and Steve Ballmer. And the president knew it. The official order he released as he spoke — Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-28, which laid out the changes he was making — included a bow to the tech giants.”
4. Google bans Chrome extensions purchased to deliver adware
What I found interesting is the potential parallel to actual apps: while few free apps ever make money, many are downloaded, and most ‘auto-update’. What is to stop a popular app – say a free calculator – from being acquired by a malware or adware company (two side of the same coin for me) and using an update to a free app for diabolical purposes?
“Google has removed two Chrome extensions from its store due to the way they were serving ads to users. The extensions in question, Add to Feedly and Tweet This Page, both started life as useful additions to Google’s web browser, but were soon serving users pop-ups and other intrusive ads. The reason for the sudden change in behavior? In Add to Feedly’s case, at least, it was purchased from its developer and quickly began serving ads to its 30,000 users.”
5. HP brings back Windows 7 ‘by popular demand’
This is probably a smart move by HP, though the folks at Microsoft will likely try shut it down. Yes, the US website is as described but Windows 7 is not an option from the Canadian website. This is not unusual: tech vendors often treat the rest of the world as a sort of dumping ground for tech products.
“HP really wants people to buy a Windows 7 PC instead of a Windows 8 machine. The PC maker has been emailing customers over the weekend noting that “Windows 7 is back.” A new promotion, designed to entice people to select Windows 7 over Windows 8 with $150 of “savings,” has launched on HP’s website with a “back by popular demand” slogan. The move is clearly designed to position Windows 7 over Microsoft’s touch-centric Windows 8 operating system.”
6. The strange connection between the NSA and an Ontario tech firm
Not strange at all: why spend computing resources ‘cracking’ a technology when you can simply arrange a back door. One has to wonder how well this was known in Certicom and RIM and it makes you wonder if the claims of Blackberry security can be made honestly.
“And since 1995, any software developer building encryption for technology they intended to sell to the American or Canadian government has had to consult something called the Cryptographic Module Validation Program. It’s a list of algorithms blessed by the CMVP that are, according to the government agencies that publish it, “accepted by the Federal Agencies of both countries for the protection of sensitive information.” There’s only one problem. For more than six years, one of the central items listed in the CMVP – an algorithm for generating the random numbers that form the foundations of an encryption scheme – has had a glaring and well-known backdoor, a means of rendering the encryption totally ineffective.”
7. What Hard Drive Should I Buy?
This is kind of a ‘buyers guide’ to hard disk reliability, which is probably far more important t than any other factor when buying mass storage.
“My last two blog posts were about expected drive lifetimes and drive reliability. These posts were an outgrowth of the careful work that we’ve done at Backblaze to find the most cost-effective disk drives. Running a truly unlimited online backup service for only $5 per month means our cloud storage needs to be very efficient and we need to quickly figure out which drives work.”
8. BlackBerry Ltd (BBRY) Not To Launch BBM app For Windows
I found this ironic: Blackberry deciding not to support a platform based on its trifling market share. That pretty much explains Blackberry’s predicament in a nutshell.
“BlackBerry Ltd might not offer BBM app on Windows Phones citing small market. Speaking to Trusted Reviews, BlackBerry’s Senior Director of BBM Business developments, David Proulx said that the BBM could not be launched on the Windows platform due to market conditions where the operating system from Microsoft does not hold substantial share.”
9. DWave’s updated quantum optimizer gets beaten by a classical computer
You would think that if somebody sells a black block and calls it a quantum computer they would have to prove that it is a quantum computer. Oddly enough this does not appear to apply to DWave, even though a variety of tests have not shown the expected orders of magnitude speed up on certain classes of problems.
“Now, a new team of computer scientists has taken DWave’s latest creation, a 512-bit quantum optimizer, and put it through its paces on a single problem. And here, the results are pretty clear: a single classical processor handily beats the DWave machine in most circumstances.”
10. US Supreme Court: Burden of proof of infringement on patent holder
I am not a lawyer, but I thought it was usually up to the person claiming harm to show the harm. Regardless, this seems like yet another legal ruling which is less in favor of patent owners than would have been expected previously.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that it is up to the patent holder ordinarily to prove infringement in a lawsuit, a ruling that could have vast implications on the litigious technology industry.”
11. Protesters show up at the doorstep of Google self-driving car engineer
This is at the same time funny and sad. It is true that successful companies result in higher salaries and a more vibrant economy, which has inflationary effects. However, given the alternative, what is better? The comment about open pit mines in Congo, etc., suggest – to be kind – these people are not well informed. Luddites rarely are.
“Protests against tech giants and their impact on the San Francisco Bay Area economy just got personal. According to an anonymous submission on local news site Indybay, an unknown group of protesters targeted a Google engineer best known for helping to develop the company’s self-driving car.”
12. Where Bitcoin boosters are getting it wrong
A reasonably sound and balanced article on Bitcoin and cyber-currencies in general. Essentially, the summary is that the idea of a digital currency is a good one however, Bitcoin is not a good digital currency. Plus, I think the whole thing is a scam.
“… not all the payment innovations will succeed, just as not all the personal computer companies did. Launching a new payment system requires buy-in from a large number of people. There have been many failures along the way. The current Bitcoin payment network (along with the current wave of Bitcoin copycoins) has several flaws that will inhibit its growth and make it vulnerable to competition from leapfrogging technologies:”
13. Pentagon says ‘absolutely no new orders have been placed’ for BlackBerry phones
The death throes of a once great tech company are rarely pleasant, as exciting as it can make trading the stock. Blackberry shares have been on fire the past few weeks, based largely on the hypothesis that a new wielder of a magic wand is going to correct all missed opportunities. The (false) news the US DOD was buying 80,000 Blackberries added 10% or more to the value of the shares, even though, if it were true, it would mean nothing for the future of the firm.
“… Within the press release announcing the network, the DOD revealed that it already supports quite a few mobile devices, including 80,000 BlackBerry smartphones. This spurred on a raft of reports this week, with titles such as “The Pentagon Just Saved BlackBerry From Total Oblivion” and “Why the Pentagon just saved BlackBerry.” Many of these reports take the assumption that the Department of Defense just purchased 80,000 new smartphones from BlackBerry. The announcement has also been credited with pushing the company’s stock up from about $9 per share at the beginning of the week to nearly $11 per share today.”
14. Bitcloud developers plan to decentralise internet
This is an interesting project, though the payment part probably won’t work. What is really needed is a similar approach for DNS servers, especially for dynamic IP addresses. Internet of Things applications (IoT) usually have dynamic IP address and communicate over the cloud: once the vendor pulls support for the device (as a business decision, due to bankruptcy, etc), the IoT products will become useless in the current centralized model.
“An ambitious project has been launched that the developers hope could one day replace the current internet. Bitcloud aims to harness the same methods used to mine Bitcoins, to provide services currently controlled by internet service providers (ISPs) and corporations. Individuals would perform tasks such as storing, routing and providing bandwidth, in return for payment.”
15. Germany approves solar self-consumption levy
I am not clear on the ramifications of this move: it seems designed to encourage people to feed in to the grid, however, tariffs are usually structured such that it is much more cost effective to sell solar power and buy from the grid than it is to use the power yourself.
“The German cabinet approved a new charge on self-consumed solar power on Wednesday. While European policy watchers had their gaze fixed firmly on Brussels for the EU’s new 2030 climate and energy package, the new solar tax was approved in Berlin. Those using their own solar generated electricity will be required to pay a €0.044kWh (US$0.060kWh) charge. The levy will only apply to new rooftop installations above 10kWp fitted from August this year.”
16. Mass Acceptance Of Electric Cars Would Have Little Impact On US Emissions
An interesting reality check though I do not expect this will change attitudes toward these expensive, heavily subsidized, playthings. After all, when the environment is concerned what appears to matter is what sounds right, not what is true.
“What if nearly half of the cars on the road today were replaced by the electric kind, those vehicles that environmentalists and electric vehicle marketing groups claim are “90% efficient” and worth the extra cost? How much better would our emissions scenario be? It wouldn’t make much difference.”
17. Here Are 24 Countries Where Windows Phone Outsells The iPhone (And Why It Does)
This is unexpected – at least by me – however, the dominance in primarily poor countries, and at the low end, suggest that, perhaps, this is an indication that the market is shifting to low cost smartphones. However, the headline could have easily read “iPhone outsells Windows phone in 180 countries.
“Statistics may say Windows 8 is a flop but, contrary to popular opinion, Windows Phone is far from down and out in the battle for our mobile affections. In fact in many parts of the world sales are rocketing past the iPhone.”
18. Spark: Look Ma, an open source thermostat
You may recall that last week I ridiculed Google’s purchase of Nest and the valuation paid. The basis for my disdain was knowledge of how trivial the product was. I have some support via Spark.
“Spark.io has come up with an open source thermostat. “We spent about $70 on components to put this together (including $39 for the Spark Core); the wood and acrylic were free. We started working at 10am and finished at 3am, with 3.5 engineers involved (one went to bed early), and the only work we did in advance was order the electronic components.””
19. Investigating the dirty world of phishing emails
This is an interesting piece of detective work. Regardless, it is best to simply ignore such emails and, if you are keen to look at your statements, do so directly from the web browser, not by clicking a link.
“The other day I was having a quick look through my Gmail spam folder and a particular email caught my eye. “Your NatWest CreditCard Online Statement is Ready Online”. Gmail warned me about the message. That they couldn’t verify it had been sent from natwestsecure.com and disabled all images and links. I was intruiged to know what would happen if I did click the link and also exactly where they were hosting this phishing site. Was it cheap shared hosting, or even a dedicated box?”
20. SanDisk Announces Release of ULLtraDIMM, The Industry’s First Flash-Based Ultra-Low Latency Storage Device
I figure this is the future of SSDs. The SATA ‘disk’ interface is ‘backwards compatible’ with hard disk drives, and is supported but it is hardly an efficient way to access (in particular to read) solid state storage. I figure motherboard and operating systems support for DIMM style SSD will be ubiquitous within a few years.
“SanDisk Corporation … announced that its ULLtraDIMM™ Solid State Drive (SSD), the industry’s first enterprise-class, ultra-low latency, memory channel storage solution, is now shipping for qualification with select enterprise servers. The addition of flash technology on the DRAM memory channel expands the growing penetration of flash storage technology in enterprise data centers, and complements SanDisk’s existing flash-based server hardware and software storage solutions.”