The Geek’s Reading List – Week of January 31st 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. In Russia, Couriers Halt Parcel Delivery
A number of years ago I spoke with a Bangladeshi entrepreneur who told me the country had changed its laws and permitted ‘foreign made’ computers to enter the country. Needless to say, absent domestic manufacturers, the country had missed 15 years of the PC revolution. Stories like that and this one show how stupid and self-defeating governments can be – if you had any doubt.
“Russia has never been an easy country in which to deliver packages because of its vast size. The government just made it a lot harder for anyone buying things online. Russian customs officials cracked down on online shopping that gets around paying duties on items such as boots or electronics, all in demand here.”
2. Chinese Banknotes Stamped With QR Codes Breach Great Firewall
It would be pretty hard for the he government to restrict the circulation of currency, even if that currency has a code on it which bypasses content firewalls. It is just a matter of time before pound notes begin circulating in the UK with instructions about how to bypass their ‘great firewall’.
“Centuries of invaders couldn’t break the Great Wall of China, but a Chinese yuan can. Well, the “Great Firewall,” at least. A series of one yuan banknotes became a whole lot more valuable after being stamped with a quick response (QR) code — a type of matrix barcode that, when scanned by a smartphone, sends a user to a website stored in the code — that circumvents the infamous firewall.”
3. Apple’s Tim Cook: ‘There is no backdoor. The government doesn’t have access to our servers’
It is too easy to dismiss these comments as self-serving lies because that is probably what they are. Alternatively, who would expect the CEO to know everything?
“Apple isn’t colluding with the NSA to hand over user data and CEO Tim Cook wants you to know that. In fact, Cook feels so strongly about this issue of security that he’s gone on record saying the government would need “to cart [Apple’s employees] out in a box” to get access to its servers.”
4. China’s solar industry rebounds, but will boom-bust cycle repeat?
Massive Chinese government subsidies have done a lot to drive the cost of solar down while massive western government subsidies have done much to drive demand for cheap solar. Eventually the music will stop and we will discover what the true costs are (are German investors have with wind power, below).
“China’s solar panel industry is showing signs of booming again after a prolonged downturn – raising fears of another bust when the splurge of public money that is driving a spike in demand dries up. Lured by generous power tariffs and financing support to promote renewable energy, Chinese firms are racing to develop multi-billion dollar solar generating projects in the Gobi desert and barren hills of China’s vast north and northwest.”
5. Transition to Advanced Format 4K Sector Hard Drives
I was blown away to discover that sector sizes were not only 512 bytes, but fixed at all. This should not be a big deal for operating system developers as different sector sizes were the norm 30 year years ago. If you think about it, the disk drive itself should do whatever conversion is needed and let the OS just worry about the data.
“A change is coming in the hard drive industry. As storage densities have increased dramatically over the years, one of the most elemental aspects of hard drive design, the logical block format size know as a sector, has remained constant. Beginning in late 2009, accelerating in 2010 and hitting mainstream in 2011, hard drive companies are migrating away from the legacy sector size of 512 bytes to a larger, more efficient sector size of 4096 bytes, generally referred to as 4K sectors, and now referred to as the Advanced Format …”
6. Toronto Public Library goes digital with 3D printing, technology hubs
Probably a good idea as well as an effort to keep libraries relevant to the community in the Internet and ebook era.
“Want to create a unique figurine? Need a new smartphone case? Forget a pottery class or electronics store, just head to Toronto’s Reference Library. For about the cost of a Starbucks latte, you’ll be able to make customized objects like iPhone cases using one of two 3D printers that will be available as of Feb. 4. The machines are among a dozen new technologies featured in the branch’s Digital Innovation Hub, the first of three set to open in the GTA in 2014.”
7. Update on Course Accessibility for Students in Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria
You have to be impressed with the sort of official who believes it won’t take Cubans and other ‘bad’ people more than a few minutes to figure out how to mask their IP addresses and take the courses regardless of ineffectual sanctions.
“Providing access to education for everyone has always been at the core of Coursera’s mission, and it is with deep regret that we have had to make a change to our accessibility in some countries. Certain United States export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses, such as MOOC providers like Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. Under the law, certain aspects of Coursera’s course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions in sanctioned countries, with the exception of Syria (see below).”
8. BlackBerry Ltd launches FM radio for Z30, Q10, Q5 phones — a feature even iPhones don’t have
This is a rather pathetic thing to headline. Yes, iPhones do not have FM radios, and I like phones with FM radios, but I am an old person, and it is mostly old people who listen to radio. Also, I have had several phones with FM radios, so this is hardly a breakthrough.
“BlackBerry has launched a new feature that it can boast even the latest iPhones don’t have: FM radio.”
9. UK government plans switch from Microsoft Office to open source
Since ODF is supported by Microsoft Office, it is hard to see how switching document formats will change much. Moving to LibreOffice (or OpenOffice) is a good idea, Google Docs not so much: the latter is a proprietary, expensive (£33/user/year for businesses), and you can have no confidence in the security of your data.
“Ministers are looking at saving tens of millions of pounds a year by abandoning expensive software produced by firms such as Microsoft. Some £200m has been spent by the public sector on the computer giant’s Office suite alone since 2010. But the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude believes a significant proportion of that outlay could be cut by switching to software which can produce open-source files in the “open document format” (ODF), such as OpenOffice and Google Docs.”
10. Microsoft Joins Open Compute Project, Shares its Server Designs
I don’t know if being the last big vendor to the party is a dramatic move, but this is certainly a sign of where things are headed in the server business. Contract manufacturers can crank out these open systems for slightly more than the cost of the parts making them very attractive for even small businesses. It also means margins in the server business will evaporate.
“In a dramatic move that illustrates how cloud computing has altered the data center landscape, Microsoft is opening up the server and rack designs that power its vast online platforms and sharing them with the world.”
11. How I lost my $50,000 Twitter username
I did not follow all the ins and outs of the story, but it is interesting to see how easy t was for somebody to ‘get inside’ this person’s online identity.
“I had a rare Twitter username, @N. Yep, just one letter. I’ve been offered as much as $50,000 for it. People have tried to steal it. Password reset instructions are a regular sight in my email inbox. As of today, I no longer control @N. I was extorted into giving it up.”
12. Facebook Saved Over A Billion Dollars By Building Open Sourced Servers
I suspect the figure is inflated somewhat, but that being said it is hard to see why smaller firms would not adopt Open Compute servers.
“Facebook is reaping the benefits of designing its own energy efficient servers. Today at the Open Compute Summit, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that “In the last three years alone, Facebook has saved more than a billion dollars in building out our infrastructure using Open Compute designs.””
13. Apple Facing Slowing Tablet Growth as U.S. Market Gets Saturated
In my opinion, Apple’s tablets are overpriced and it is easy to believe the market for overpriced tablets is saturated. People are no longer afraid of tablets and it is easy to predict decent products priced well below $200 hitting the streets in 2014.
“Tablet shipments from Apple Inc. (AAPL) and other computer makers grew at a slowing rate in the fourth quarter, hurt by an increasingly saturated market in the U.S., according to research firm IDC.”
14. Silicon Valley Is Now Public Enemy No. 1, And We Only Have Ourselves To Blame
A thoughtful essay, but not on the subject I would have expected (i.e. stripping people of privacy, colluding with the national security state, etc.). Frankly I don’t have a problem with disrupting the taxi, hotel, or rental businesses, which are what they are because of inept regulation.
“For a region noted for its problem-solving orientation and progressive ethos, Silicon Valley has managed to anger a pretty wide swath of American society. Some of the blows have been self-inflicted, like venture capitalists who compare progressivism to Nazism or who block access to public beaches. But those issues are mere skirmishes compared to the war over increasing inequality in San Francisco and the Bay Area, which have led to attacks on private buses and stalkers of Google executives.”
15. Gone With the Wind: Weak Returns Cripple German Renewables
A cautionary tale about marketing new technology to retail investors. It seems everybody wins, except taxpayers and investors.
“Investments in renewable energy were supposed to be a sure thing, with wind park operators promising annual returns of up to 20 percent. More often than not, however, such pledges have been illusory — and many investors have lost their principal to boot.”
16. Kansas Legislature Wants To Stop Any Other Kansas Cities From Getting Google Fiber
There is something wrong with the world when competition is outlawed. In telecommunications services at least we appear to be devolving to the ‘robber baron’ era of the early 20th century: if you can’t beat them with completion, outlaw them or have them killed.
“The Kansas state legislature is currently considering a bill that would prohibit municipalities in that state from building out their own municipal broadband networks. Completely coincidentally of course we’re sure, Kansas City is home to the country’s first Google Fiber municipal network.”
17. LibreOffice upgrade targets Windows integration and power users
I haven’t poked around LibreOffice 4.2 yet, so I can’t vouch for the value of this upgrade. It is interesting to see the developers appear to recognize the need for configuration control, etc., which are needed for broad adoption by corporate and government IT.
“LibreOffice 4.2 offers two Windows-specific improvements for business users: a simplified custom install dialog to avoid potential mistakes, and the ability to centrally manage and lock-down the configuration with Group Policy Objects via Active Directory,” the Document Foundation wrote in an announcement today. “All users benefit from better integration with Windows 7 and 8, with thumbnails of open documents now grouped by application and a list of recent documents, both showing on the task bar.”
18. Here’s why Google was smart to dump Motorola for just $3 billion
I always believed Google bought Motorola for its patent portfolio, and, which the purchase price minus sales price of $9.6 billion seems like lot, you have to remember this is the company which just paid $3.5 billion for thermostats. Actually the net cost of the patents appears to be much less than the headlines suggest and I am pretty sure Google never wanted to be in the mobile phone business. That being said, one could now make a case for a similar transaction regarding Blackberry.
“On Wednesday night, Google announced it is selling off Motorola Mobility to Lenovo for just $2.91 billion, a couple of years after acquiring the business for $12.5 billion. On the surface it looks like a massive loss for Google, but after taking a deeper dive, this might actually be a great deal after all.”
19. These Thirsty Geeks Invented The ‘Internet of Things’
An amusing story, however, you can rest assured that lot of people were experimenting with online machine monitoring and control during the same era.
“Mater atrium necessitas. Surely that, or something very much like it, must have been what the four computer science students at Carnegie-Mellon University were thinking when, way back in 1982, they invented what became the first, and still the prime example of what the “Internet of Things” is. Or maybe they were just thirsty geeks having fun as only geeks know how.”
20. Microsoft doles out some tips to help you avoid the Start screen in Windows 8.1
The article referred to tells you how to stop some of the more annoying and frustrating components of Window 8. Frankly, I am surprised the post does not suggest downloading Classic Shell, which help dilute some of the aggravation created by the ‘Windows 8 Users Experience.’ Maybe Microsoft is finally getting the message.
“Today on the Windows Experience Blog, Microsoft has done something a little odd — admitted that the Start screen “can take some time to get used to”. But more than this, the blog post by Kirsten Ballweg outlines five tweaks that can be used to “make Windows 8.1 feel more familiar”. Given that the first line of the post is “Windows 8.1 looks a whole lot different than Windows 7 or Windows XP”, it appears that Microsoft is conceding that Windows 8.1 just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.”