The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 14th 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. Brands’ Organic Facebook Reach Has Crashed Since October: Study
I don’t actually understand what “organic reach” means, however, any readers who do understand might find this significant.
“The days of getting any free reach on Facebook may be numbered. It’s no secret that the portion of a brand’s Facebook fans who see posts that aren’t supported by ad spend is dropping. In a sales deck sent to partners last fall, the social network acknowledged what some brands had observed for more than a year — that organic distribution of posts on brand pages was declining — but it didn’t quantify the extent of the decline to be expected.”
2. Stalking trolls
The term “patent troll” is overused, and misused, because it is generally applied to whomever wants to enforce their IP, unless they happen to be Microsoft, the largest patent troll in the industry. Nonetheless, actual patent trolls, like Microsoft, do a lot of economic damage and we hope against hope something is done to fix the situation. No doubt a ‘large troll’; exemption will be added to the law.
“At last, it seems, something is to be done about the dysfunctional way America’s patent system operates. Two recent developments suggest calls for patent reform are finally being heard at the highest levels. First, in 2013, defying expectations, the House of Representatives passed (by an overwhelming majority) the Innovation Act, a bill aimed squarely at neutralising so-called patent trolls.”
3. Axion and ePower 18-Wheel Hybrid
Here’s another item on lead/carbon batteries. I don’t think they are as useable in mobile operations, but they are likely a lot more viable for grid storage than lithium ion for stationary because they are probably much cheaper and in grid storage weight and power density are not as important as cost and lifespan.
“Axion Power International’s PbC brand lead-carbon batteries are being tested on a Peterbilt 386 tractor converted to series hybrid electric operation by ePower Engine Systems of Florence, Ky. The PCB batteries’ tolerance to repeated charge cycles is enabling significant fuel efficiency gains.”
4. Canadian Broadcasters Find Clever, Nasty Way To Slow Down Digital TV Revolution
Here’s some bad news for cable TV cord-cutters: You likely won’t be able to watch your favourite TV shows (legally) online for much longer. Not so much clever as abusing a position they were granted thanks to idiotic (more likely corrupt) regulatory decisions. It should be self-evident that production, carriage, and broadcast should not owned by the same companies, but this is Canada therefore so protection of cultural industries translates to gouging and abuse of position.
“Canadian broadcasters are moving to a new model for online TV, and the first and most obvious effect is that those without a cable or satellite TV subscription will often find themselves out of luck.”
5. $2,400 “Introduction to Linux” course will be free and online this summer
You can learn Linux without an actual course, however, a well-structured course is probably a good idea, even though it is hard to believe anybody who doesn’t work for the government or a large business would pay $2,400 for one. Did people pay $2,400 to use Windows? Making it available for free can only encourage adoption.
“Earlier this week, The Linux Foundation announced that it would be working with edX, a non-profit online learning site governed by Harvard and MIT, to make its “Introduction to Linux” course free and open to all. The Linux Foundation has long offered a wide variety of training courses through its website, but those can generally cost upwards of $2,000. This introductory class, which usually costs $2,400, will be the first from the Linux Foundation to run as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). There is no limit on enrollment through edX’s platform.”
6. The Nakamoto chase is a sideshow: Here’s the real story on bitcoins
A pretty good article and I enjoyed the shot about tech-savvy libertarians. Most people I know who identify with libertarianism don’t seem to have a clue what it is about except legal drugs and smaller government. What the heck – if you can’t explain it in a Tweet, it ain’t worth knowing.
“In a piece in Bitcoin magazine, Ken Griffith provides some shocking context for the Mt. Gox affair. “MtGox is not alone,” he writes. “Forty-five percent of Bitcoin exchanges to date have failed, in most cases with their customers’ money. The digital currency industry’s track record on fiduciary responsibility is abysmal.”
7. Intel processors now get OS locked
If true, this is a pretty disturbing trend. Intel had better think twice about potentially ‘locking’ their devices to a particular OS because it will likely result in a shift towards unlocked processors, be they AMD or the numerous permutations of ARM. I would have thought they realized that the days of the Wintel market structure is waning. Perhaps Intel is afflicted from the same sort of corporate senility Microsoft is suffering from.
“In a GOLEM interview at CEBIT 2014 fair, Frank Kuypers, technical account manager at INTEL corp., proudly presented a new feature in INTEL processors, called “hooks”, beginning with the new 2014 “Merrifield” 64 bit SoC chip generation.”
8. Man makes surgical history after having his shattered face rebuilt using 3D printed parts
Another interesting medical 3D application, however, a similar approach has been used in the past to replace missing parts of the skull. Perhaps the day will come when healthy people undergo CAT scans in order to provide design files for reconstruction of various body parts in the event of disease or accident.
“The survivor of a serious motorbike crash has made surgical history after his entire face was rebuilt using 3D printed parts. Stephen Power is thought to be one of the first trauma patients in the world to have 3D printing technology used at every stage of the medical procedure to restore his looks.”
9. Putting Electronics in People
There is considerable appeal for an implant or something along these lines. Unfortunately, these devices would also be subject to misuse by hackers, insurance companies, or the government. After all who, besides criminals and terrorists would object to an implant which government agencies could access at their whim? Prior to the Snowdon/NSA revelations only a paranoid person would worry about such a thing. Not that such concerns would limit adoption, of course.
“A baby born five to 10 years from now in a developed country may get a tattoo not long after her first feeding. It would be an integrated circuit, a discreet and flexible affair, smaller than a postage stamp and probably placed on the chest. It would monitor such biometric parameters as electrocardiogram (EKG), physical activity, nutritional status, sleep duration, breathing rate, body temperature, and hydration. By the time the child is two years old, she will have generated and stored in the cloud more biometric data than has anyone alive today, says Leslie Saxon, chief of the division of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.”
10. Testing SATA Express And Why We Need Faster SSDs
I’d written a number of times about how there is an inherent mismatch between SSDs and the antediluvian SATA/ATA paradigm used to access mass storage, in particular Solid State Drives. I predict that, within 10 years or so, SATA drives will be obsolete and a SATA interface only present for backwards compatibility.
“During the hard drive era, the Serial ATA International Organization (SATA-IO) had no problems keeping up with the bandwidth requirements. The performance increases that new hard drives provided were always quite moderate because ultimately the speed of the hard drive was limited by its platter density and spindle speed. Given that increasing the spindle speed wasn’t really a viable option for mainstream drives due to power and noise issues, increasing the platter density was left as the only source of performance improvement. Increasing density is always a tough job and it’s rare that we see any sudden breakthroughs, which is why density increases have only given us small speed bumps every once in a while. Even most of today’s hard drives can’t fully saturate the SATA 1.5Gbps link, so it’s obvious that the SATA-IO didn’t have much to worry about. However, that all changed when SSDs stepped into the game.”
11. Bypassing content filters: How to see the web they don’t want you to see
This might be of some use for readers – basically a template for bypassing various schemes set up so you can’t want the Daily Show, or whatever, without, for example, Bell wetting its beak. These can also be used for nefarious reasons as well, so you can expect some degree of monitoring, and so on.
“The web is supposed to be open, but behind the scenes, content filters are often busy controlling what you see. The filters could be at your school or workplace, blocking sites such as the time-sucking YouTube from being accessed. It could be a media website that streams music and movies only to users located in specific countries. An ISP or a restrictive government could also impose content filters. International travelers are often innocent victims of these filters, when they find they can’t access their digital content from wherever they’re currently located.”
12. Microsoft offers Windows Phone OS free to Indian players
This really does sound like an act of desperation, however, if Microsoft had many licensees it would create something of a conflict. As it is, Windows Phone has very few licensees, the most notable being Nokia, which is Microsoft. Regardless of the price, it is not abundantly clear this will win many converts to the platform.
“NEW DELHI: Desperate times call for desperate measures. With Windows Phone failing to make a significant dent in the market share of Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS in the last four years, Microsoft is waiving the licence fee and offering it to at least two Indian phone makers for free.”
13. Singapore to regulate virtual currency exchanges
One can’t help but suspect that regulating Bitcoin will drive away from these jurisdictions all the legitimate, albeit criminal, users of the system and leave behind only the speculators. Unless regulation also entails bonds and capital reserve for exchanges, this won’t prevent the “oops we lost all your money” scams so prevalent in the sector.
“The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) said the intermediaries, such as virtual currency exchanges, would need to verify their customers’ identities. They will also have to report any suspicious transactions. The move makes Singapore the second country after the US to impose such measures.”
14. Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem
A real long read, but a pretty good one. The point – a waste of talent on frivolous technology – is a good one, however, it is irrelevant. The talent goes where the money is and right now frivolous technology is being funded at insane valuations. What struck me most about this article was the lifestyles and work conditions almost exactly echo those reflected during the prior dot-com bubble. It is amazing how short memories are.
“The rapid consumer-ification of tech, led by Facebook and Google, has created a deep rift between old and new, hardware and software, enterprise companies that sell to other businesses and consumer companies that sell directly to the masses. On their face, these cleavages seem to be part of the natural order. As Biswas pointed out, “There has always been a constant churn of new companies coming in, old companies dying out.” But the churn feels more problematic now, in part because it deprives the new guard as well as the old — and by extension, it deprives us all.”
15. Why robots will not be smarter than humans by 2029
I’m glad somebody else has said this, however, he left out the most important part, namely that Kurzweil has no particular expertise in the subject and, frankly, doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about. I have no idea how it is that some people become ‘go to’ experts on subjects but this one is a particular mystery. Here’s the thing: we have only a basic understanding, at a very gross level, how the brain works and comparing the brain to a computer is like comparing the Internet to a ‘series of tubes’. Don’t hold your breath.
“In the last few days we’ve seen a spate of headlines like 2029: the year when robots will have the power to outsmart their makers, all occasioned by an Observer interview with Google’s newest director of engineering Ray Kurzweil. Much as I respect Kurzweil’s achievements as an inventor, I think he is profoundly wrong.”
16. Can Science Ever Be “Settled”?
A surprisingly good read, especially the part about Global Warming, which is the source of much name calling by what I would normally refer to as skeptics (i.e. not ‘Global Warming Denier’ skeptics, but skeptics in a general sense). Claiming ‘Global Warming’ is ‘settled science’ is absurd as there is no articulated theory of global warming. As the article notes, there are many aspects of global warming which are settled science, however, I suggest that anybody who claims that a computer model represents reality should pay closer attention the next time they take a modeling course or attend an advanced calculus lecture. Because models which contain statistics or heuristics are inherently representative of those approximations and little else, all derivative conclusions are of even lesser quality. Let the name calling begin.
“Gravitation. Evolution. The Big Bang. Germ Theory. Global Warming. They’re all scientific theories, and they’re all referred to as examples of “settled science” in various circles. Yet, is that even possible? After all, one of the most important cornerstones of science is the willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom. Science advances not merely by accepting the current best explanations as a foregone conclusion, but by testing them, probing them, pushing their limits and looking for gaps. After all, what was once accepted as the consensus position is laughably inadequate in light of our present knowledge and understanding.”
17. Google Will Start Encrypting Your Searches
Yeah, no. The only time your communications are secure is when they are encrypted by a known secure, non-‘backdoored’, encryption system end to end. Google will decrypt your searches and store that data, because that is its business model. Governments will have access to your searches , cloud data, photographs, and so on, through the helpful folks at Google, Facebook, etc., because they are required to provide such access under the ‘Patriot Act’ and because they probably find in their economic interests to do so.
“Google has begun routinely encrypting Web searches conducted in China, posing a bold new challenge to that nation’s powerful system for censoring the Internet and tracking what individual users are viewing online. The company says the move is part of a global expansion of privacy technology designed to thwart surveillance by government intelligence agencies, police and hackers who, with widely available tools, can view e-mails, search queries and video chats when that content is unprotected.”
18. The Powerful Promise of a Puzzling New Microscopic Combustion Engine
That’s is a pretty exciting headline, and I’ve always been interested in tiny engines as a potential solution to battery life limits because a small volume of a chemical such as alcohol can outlast a similar battery volume by an order of magnitude. Unfortunately, as near as I can tell, this is not an engine (which converts chemical energy to mechanical energy), but an electric motor. I’m sure it has its uses, but not as many as an engine might.
“Engineers have built a powerful microscopic engine that relies on the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen. One problem: nobody knows how it works.”
19. An Airship The Size of a Football Field Could Revolutionize Travel
There must be some sort of cosmic clock which recycles bad ideas from the past. Certain bad ideas, like airships, seem to come up every decade or so, and then disappear. In the case of airships they disappear after a strong wind because large objects act as sails and lightweight large objects are necessarily very fragile.
“Airships were, at one time, the future of air travel. During the 1920s and ’30s, passengers and cargo weren’t flown, but rather, airlifted to far off destinations. In fact, DULAG, the world’s first passenger airline, operated airships that serviced more than 34,000 passengers and completed 1,500 flights prior to World War I. Fastforward to today and there are some who believe that airships are poised for a revival.”
20. Wireless Charging Revenue to Rise 40-Fold in 4 Years
Not bloody likely – even though I am not suggesting the technology will not be commonplace. The problem is this: currently, wireless chargers are around $50, which is about 5-10x the cost of an old fashion USB charger. In order for this technology to take off, it will have to drop significantly in cost, after which prices should pretty much collapse down to a bit higher than the cost of regular chargers. So, volumes will explode but pricing will collapse and the size of the industry will grow at a more modest rate.
“New products and industry partnerships are paving the way for a boom in global wireless charging technology. In the next four years, the market for wireless charging hardware used in smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices is expected to increase 40-fold, according to a March 13 report from IHS.”