The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 21th 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. Apple exploring cars, medical devices to reignite growth
One thing that 20+ years being a research analyst taught me is that you can never assume any idea, no matter how blatantly stupid it may appear (and actually be – see item 15, below), nothing can stop the management of a tech company from blowing its shareholders’ money on acquisitions. So: Apple cars – why not?
“Taken together, Apple’s potential forays into automobiles and medical devices, two industries worlds away from consumer electronics, underscore the company’s deep desire to move away from iPhones and iPads and take big risks.”
2. Why It’s Getting Harder to Sue Illegal Movie Downloaders
This legal trend makes perfect sense because, at best, an IP address tells you which LAN the download occurred, not who actually did it. Indeed, with malware, it may be possible for you to hack my computer and have my computer, NAS, or whatever, downloading movies without my consent or knowledge. Interestingly, this trend also suggests that, if you are downloading movies, don’t try and secure your network.
“The company behind the Oscar-nominated film Dallas Buyers Club sued 31 people in a federal district court in Texas this month for allegedly using the legal file-sharing service BitTorrent to download the movie illegally. The lawsuit is one of thousands that have been brought by companies against BitTorrent users in recent years, in an effort to crack down on Americans who are stealing movies, music, porn, books, and software. But it could have a tough time. Recently, several federal judges have ruled that key information—computer Internet Protocol (IP) addresses— used by film studios and others to target supposed thefts is insufficient proof to proceed with the lawsuits. And copyright experts say that even though companies are still winning lots of settlements, these firms are going after fewer plaintiffs at once than they were a few years ago. This suggests that their ability to pursue large piracy cases has been hampered.”
3. Breakthrough in Superconductivity – Université de Sherbrooke Physicists Put an End to 20 Years of Debate
Not sure I entirely understand this breakthrough, but it sounds impressive. Room temperature superconductivity is a ‘Holy Grail’ of physics and could be transformative to humanity. If, as this article suggests, the scientific consensus has been wrong for the past 20 years, then, chances are, development has been misdirected. Being on the right track is far more likely to bear fruit.
“Three physicists at the Université de Sherbrooke led an international team to first direct measurement of the critical magnetic field in cuprates, the most promising materials for superconductivity. This breakthrough resolves an enigma that has baffled researchers for 20 years and clears the way for major advances. The study is published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.”
4. Keep Learning Linux—It’s The Future
Yes, Linux is the future and the present. After all, Android is extremely popular and it is Linux. Plus, Linux is popping up in a vast array of embedded applications, networking applications, etc.. Microsoft or fans may think otherwise, because the desktop is mostly Windows, but you probably own 5 Linux devices for every Windows device you use.
“Everyone’s a tech company these days. From new-school video streaming services like Netflix to old-school grocery businesses and government agencies, technology increasingly drives business productivity. At the heart of this movement is Linux, resulting in exceptional, highly paid job opportunities for Linux professionals.”
5. Slow as maple syrup: Canada ranks 54th in global Internet upload speeds
Upload speeds are less important to consumers than download speeds, but this speaks volumes about the quality of infrastructure in Canada. It is important to remember that this nation once had global leading telecommunications infrastructure before a series of profoundly stupid government policies rendered us comparable to the likes of Kenya. It is interesting that even in the 1950s the size and low population density of the country was not a barrier to excellence.
“It likely comes as no surprise that Canada is far from the top of the list of countries with the fastest upload speeds. According to a report from Ookla, a company that crowdsources data on Internet connections, Canada is ranked 54th in the world. That’s right, residents in 54 countries have Internet speeds faster than any Canadian does.We rank just below Kenya, and just above Mexico.”
6. Windows 8 UX designer on Metro: “It is the antithesis of a power user”
A bit rambling, however the article tries to explain the Windows 8 fiasco from the perspective of those who were responsible. I don’t really buy the arguments which smack more of arrogance than anything else: yes, you can separate users into advanced and consumer, but what of the vast middle ground? Is an office worker or small business person supposed to somehow invest time and effort to become an advanced user? After all, Windows 8 is so badly designed, a relatively advanced use like me can spend an hour trying to figure out how to turn the damned computer off.
“Since the first beta leak, well, since the first pre-beta image leak, Windows 8 has had a mixed reaction. Some believe that the new Metro– or Modern– interface has seriously affected their workflow, whereas some accepted the Start Screen as a welcomed addition and replacement to the cluttered almost 20 year old Start Menu. Whatever your view is on the new interface, Jacob Miller, a UX designer for Microsoft that worked on Windows 8, has shared some personal views and responses to criticisms on the /r/technology subreddit of Reddit under the username “pwnies.””
7. 3D Printing Promises to Revolutionize Defense, Aerospace Industries
Most of the 3D printing articles we see are about consumer or medical applications and most of the consumer applications are rather silly: it is hard to see significant demand for 3D printers to make chess pieces. The sort of hard core industrial applications mentioned in this article are probably more representative of where the money is going. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this article.
“New manufacturing processes, such as 3D printing, have gained worldwide attention for creating everything from entire houses to guns. While used for many novel purposes, the defense and aerospace industry is eyeing it as a way to cut costs and improve efficiency.”
8. Weight Watchers Loses Customers as Mobile Apps Lure Dieters
It had not occurred to me that these sorts of services would be impacted by the emergence of smartphones, but it makes perfect sense. You don’t need to pay Weight Watchers to get almost all of the benefits of a weight loss program, online or otherwise. The same fate awaits this company as befell Encyclopedia Britannica.
“Weight Watchers International Inc.’s disappointing profit forecast provided further evidence that new mobile applications and bracelets that track calories are hurting traditional diet companies.”
9. Do you really need a 4K smartphone screen?
Long story short: no, you don’t. You don’t even need a 4K TV and you don’t need a camera whose pixel count well exceeds the resolution of the crappy lens in your smartphone. Nonetheless, smartphone vendors will try and shill these features as breakthroughs, and I predict most consumers will largely ignore them. As I have said repeatedly in the past: expect smartphone and tablet prices to plummet over the coming year or so.
“Pretty soon the smartphone will have the same resolution as the much bigger panel (a 27-inch Dell U2711 monitor with 2,560 x 1,440 pixels). While the snappiest CPUs, more RAM, better cameras and other frills are a must for the latest handsets, the current marketing pièce de résistance is a higher-resolution screen. In four years, we’ve passed from a norm of 800 x 480 to 960 x 540 and up to 720p, 1080p and soon — likely on Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S5 — 2,560 x 1,440 Quad HD (QHD). That works out to a borderline-insane 500-plus pixels per inch (depending on screen size) and manufacturers aren’t stopping there. But is more resolution worth the extra expense if you can’t even see the difference? Well, it’s complicated.”
10. Virtual Vandalism: Firm Warns Of Connected Home Security Holes
Security, in the literal sense, is an emerging issue with the Internet of Things (IoT), and I don’t mean coopting your fridge to send spam, but potentially for your toaster to burn down the house. Given the advanced state of security research, you’d think companies like Belkin would be more careful. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this article.
“A researcher with the respected security firm IOActive says that he has found a number of serious security holes in home automation products from the firm Belkin that could allow remote attackers to use Belkin’s WeMo devices to virtually vandalize connected homes or as a stepping stone to other computers connected on a home network.”
11. Debunking four myths about Android, Google, and open-source
There has been a fair bit of coverage recently suggesting that Google has made Android proprietary, but it is hard to see how that could be the case, and even if it was, alternative Linux platforms would spring up in fairly short order, now that it has been established there is a market for such a thing. This article deconstructs the ‘closing source’ myth.
“You would think that Android relationship with Linux and open source would be fairly well understood by now. However, recent articles in the tech and general press have created confusion where none ought to exist. Let me see if I can un-muddy the waters.”
12. High-tech ‘whole body’ scan could improve treatment of bone marrow cancer
MRIs are cool, and diffusion weighted MRI, which has been around for a few decades, is particularly cool – it tracks the diffusion (spread) of certain molecules (usually water). This has been used in a variety of applications, including detecting and diagnosing the effects of stroke. This applications is interesting because it should be able to direct treatment, including, I imagine, targeting radiation treatment. I can’t help but wonder if this has broader application in cancer therapy.
“A pioneering scanning technique that can image a patient’s entire body can reveal where cancer is affecting the bones and guide doctors in their choice of treatment, new research reveals. The new type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan could improve care for a type of cancer called myeloma and reduce reliance on bone marrow biopsies, which can be painful for patients and often fail to show doctors how far the disease has spread.”
13. Google Fiber chooses nine metro areas for possible expansion
Early on, it was not abundantly obvious what the thinking behind Google Fiber was. Did they intend to scare the characteristically awful American ISPs (almost as bad as those in Canada) to providing cost effect, competitive broadband, or did they intend to make a business of it? The way things are going, I am beginning to think it is the latter. Bloated and uncompetitive US ISPs, which is most of them, should be very worried.
“Google Fiber is ready to expand, as Google has identified nine metro areas scattered around the country as possible sites of deployment, the company said. “We’ve invited 34 cities in nine metro areas across the US to work with us to explore what it would take to build a new fiber-optic network in their community,” Google said in an announcement today. “Many of these cities asked for Google Fiber in 2010 and have since continued to try to bring better Internet access to their residents.”
14. See How the CPU Works In One Lesson
I admit I did not watch this video through to the end because I know how a CPU works (I’ve designed one), but what I watched looked pretty good. Most people, including most people who fancy themselves computer literate, haven’t a clue, so even if you think you know, you might consider having a look.
15. Facebook to buy WhatsApp for $19 billion in deal shocker
Confirmation of two major themes regarding technology: 1)the market is in Dot Com Bubble II with batsh*t crazy transactions like this and the fawning praise heaped upon Facebook for this stroke of genius and 2)high tech executives are much better at enriching the shareholders of other companies than their own. After all, $19B for 2013 revenue of $20 million is 960x revenue, and the half –life of successful apps is measured in months.
“Facebook Inc will buy fast-growing mobile-messaging startup WhatsApp for $19 billion in cash and stock in a landmark deal that places the world’s largest social network closer to the heart of mobile communications and may bring younger users into the fold.”
16. Inside DuckDuckGo, Google’s Tiniest, Fiercest Competitor
DuckDuckGo is a useful search engine, however, its results are often incomplete. Regardless, I think it should be your first choice because of the absence of tracking and other privacy violations. Then, if you can’t find what you are looking for, let the diabolical fiends at Google or Bing have their way with you.
“When Gabriel Weinberg launched a search engine in 2008, plenty of people thought he was insane. How could DuckDuckGo, a tiny, Philadelphia-based startup, go up against Google? One way, he wagered, was by respecting user privacy. Six years later, we’re living in the post-Snowden era, and the idea doesn’t seem so crazy. In fact, DuckDuckGo is exploding.”
17. This Man Says He Can Speed Cell Data 1,000-Fold. Will Carriers Listen?
This sort of approach has been proposed before and it is not without its problems. The infrastructure is likely pretty costly (though, arguably better spectrum efficiency may provide more than enough offset) and you have the issue of how well the phones work in the various and variable environments they are expected to perform in in. Realistically, cells can be made very small (apartment sized) and the smaller they get the cheaper they get, so there are other ways to arrive at the same result.
“Steve Perlman is ready to give you a personal cell phone signal that follows you from place to place, a signal that’s about 1,000 times faster than what you have today because you needn’t share it with anyone else.”
18. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: You can keep using XP for another year, but do you really want to?
The thing about Windows XP is, chances are you aren’t just going to be able to install Windows 7 on your XP machine, and if you could, chances are many of your drivers and so on wouldn’t work. So, you would be replacing the entire system, possibly along with your printer and any other dated hardware you might own. Plus, you may not be able to buy Windows 7, which is being pulled off the shelves, so you will face the nightmare that is Windows 8. And don’t get me started about embedded systems (Point of Sales terminals, etc.), running Windows 8. So, all in, unless you actually want to, and can afford to, replace almost all your equipment, you are going to stick with Windows 8.
“On April 8, Microsoft will pull the plug on Windows XP SP3 when it issues the final security patch for the 11-year-old operating system. So it’s high time to switch to Windows 7, right? Probably. But it’s still going to be possible to hang on to XP for another year or so, and given the number of users still clinging to it, I’d guess a significant chunk will do so. But is that wise? Not really. Security risks are just going to keep mounting.”
19. Volvo’s ‘Roam Delivery’ Service Puts Junk In Your Trunk While You’re Not Around
A remarkably good idea, so it is hard to believe Volvo came up with it. Of course, such a system would only have appeal if it were adopted by all car makers and not just Volvo.
“We’ve all been there, waiting for UPS or FedEx or the Post Office, rescheduling important appointments because we really need to stay put and get that package. Now, Volvo has proposed a solution to this dilemma, and it’s called “Roam Delivery”.”
20. This Machine Kills Trolls How Wikipedia Robots Snuff Out Vandalism
This is a fascinating overview of how Wikipedia manages things like malicious edits. It should be fairly obvious that any system which anybody can contribute will be defaced, and the size of Wikipedia makes it impractical to manually ‘scrub’ such a system, so automation is the way to go. No doubt Google and others employ similar technology.
“Wikipedia is the encyclopedia “anyone can edit,” and as of this writing it’s had nearly 700 million edits — not all of them well-meaning. Sometimes the mischief is directed, as when The Oatmeal encouraged readers to include Thomas Edison under possible references for “douchebag,” or when Stephen Colbert sends his viewers out to alter “Wikiality” by, say, “proving,” that Warren G. Harding’s middle initial stands for “gangsta.” Mostly, though, it’s predictably uninteresting — shout-outs, profane opinions, keyboard-mashed gibberish — happening thousands of times a day over more than 4 million articles.”