The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 21st 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. Update on Metro
The backstory to this article is that so few people are interested in a Windows 8 (Metro) that Mozilla, the folks who make the Firefox web browser, are unable to get enough people to use it on a daily basis. Firefox has a 15 to 20% market share across Windows and Linux, and the trifling uptake in Metro suggests that, whatever the appeal of Windows 8, the Metro interface had not garnered much interest, at least in browsers.
“In the months since, as the team built and tested and refined the product, we’ve been watching Metro’s adoption. From what we can see, it’s pretty flat. On any given day we have, for instance, millions of people testing pre-release versions of Firefox desktop, but we’ve never seen more than 1000 active daily users in the Metro environment.”
2. Microsoft dangles $50 carrot in front of XP users
If I had an old XP computer I was going to throw away anyway and I was in the market for a new computer, I might be tempted to take advantage of the offer, provided the featured products are worthy. Otherwise, if I was actually using an XP computer, $50 would not be enough to convince me to trash that machine, likely all my printers, etc..
“Microsoft has anted up in its attempt to convince last-minute laggards to abandon Windows XP by handing a $50 carrot to people who buy a new Windows 8.1 device. On its online Microsoft Store, the Redmond, Wash. company is giving a $50 gift card to customers who buy one of 16 Windows 8.1 notebooks, desktops, tablets or 2-in-1 hybrids. The card is good for future purchases at the e-store.”
3. Sea anemone is genetically half animal, half plant
A rather odd result: even though an anemone kinda looks like an animal/plant love child you would not expect its genetics to reflect that. Convergent evolution is not a likely explanation for this finding because usually that arises from different genetic mechanism. Very strange indeed.
“A team led by evolutionary and developmental biologist Ulrich Technau at the University of Vienna has discovered that sea anemones display a genomic landscape with a complexity of regulatory elements similar to that of fruit flies or other animal model systems. This suggests that this principle of gene regulation is already 600 million years old and dates back to the common ancestor of human, fly and sea anemone. On the other hand, sea anemones are more similar to plants rather to vertebrates or insects in their regulation of gene expression by short regulatory RNAs called microRNAs.”
4. US tech giants knew of NSA data collection, agency’s top lawyer insists
Of course the ‘tech giants’ knew of the NSA data collection because they enabled it, and any claims they make to the contrary are flat out lies. Why on earth would anybody expect them to behave otherwise? If you look at what happened to secure email providers who didn’t go along with the NSA’s programs you’d understand that, even if the large firms were morally opposed (fat chance) they would still have cooperated.
“The senior lawyer for the National Security Agency stated unequivocally on Wednesday that US technology companies were fully aware of the surveillance agency’s widespread collection of data, contradicting month of angry denials from the firms.”
5. The Netherlands paves the way for carrier-free SIM cards
People still conflate the Internet of Things with mobile services, but unless and until mobile data is literally free, almost all of that traffic will go over WiFi and from there to wired connections. (Of course, remote sensors, etc., would still require mobile data.). The interesting thing about this development is that it could allow the introduction of phones which essentially perform a real time “Dutch Auction” (I know) to find the lowest cost service for any specific phone call, text, or data download. This is an excellent idea.
“Imagine it: a world where a SIM card is fully integrated with your device; no need to swap it out when you change carriers or travel overseas. In fact, SIM cards could be easily built into any number of devices, vastly expanding the Internet of Things. This would also end carrier-locked devices, allowing customers true freedom of choice: Any device could be used with any carrier the user chooses.”
6. Why internet upload speed in Canada lags world average
A follow up on the numerous articles which demonstrate how ham-handed regulation in Canada and the US has resulted in a telecommunications infrastructure which has gone from world class to barely competitive in a couple decades. Cloud services require a high speed back channel in order to function properly so expect these to be adopted more readily outside North America. The carrier comments are amusing: no kidding that if you limit upload speeds to a small percentage of traffic then uploads will only constitute a small percentage of traffic.
“Phan has a fast internet connection for downloading in his Toronto condo, but he’s stuck in the slow lane when it comes to the other direction. His $80-a-month internet plan gives him a four-megabit-per-second upload speed – just a 10th of the download speed – and anything higher would cost significantly more. He has considered switching to the other provider available in his building, but that wouldn’t save him much time or money. Such is life in Canada, where upload connections are among the worst in the developed world.”
7. Lab-Grown Organs Are Out In The Wild, And More Are Coming Soon
I don’t know if trachea (windpipes) are, technically, an organ, but the approach is an interesting one. Trachea have more of a mechanical function than a biochemical one like, say, a liver. Still, if this technique can save lives and be extended to more complex innards, it is a breakthrough.
“In 2011, an Eritrean man named Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyen was dying from tracheal cancer. The tumor in his windpipe was, the doctors explained, too big to remove. There was no time to wait for a donor organ to show up. In years past, this might have been the end of the line for Beyen. Instead, he received a healthy new windpipe, made from his own cells.”
8. Combating bad science Metaphysicians
In the olden days, say 50 years ago before ‘publish or perish’ became the catchphrase for academia, a productive scientist would publish maybe a half dozen high quality papers in a career. As any manager knows, behavior follows the money, so now the objective is to produce as many publishable papers as possible, which is a different thing altogether. While science is self-correcting over the long term, having a vast quantity of papers which are wrong simply injects noise into a difficult enough environment. It is good to see somebody is doing something about it, but the root cause is what really needs to be addressed.
““WHY most published research findings are false” is not, as the title of an academic paper, likely to win friends in the ivory tower. But it has certainly influenced people (including journalists at The Economist). The paper it introduced was published in 2005 by John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist who was then at the University of Ioannina, in Greece, and is now at Stanford. It exposed the ways, most notably the over-interpreting of statistical significance in studies with small sample sizes, that scientific findings can end up being irreproducible—or, as a layman might put it, wrong.”
9. Flash is dead, long live OpenFL!
I don’t know enough about Adobe to say much, however, these comments parallel my experiences with Adobe PDF reader: a bloated, buggy program with limited function and which seemed to require weekly updates (the free version of Nitro Reader is a much superior alternative). I have since stripped all my computers of Adobe software (except, alas Flash player). Perhaps Adobe is producing high quality software in other markets but all signs suggest they are suffering from the same sort of corporate senility which has afflicted Microsoft.
“But even a long-time Flash booster like myself can read the signs of the time. Flash may not be dead, but it is certainly dying, and the killer is not Steve Jobs, mobile devices, or HTML5, but Adobe. They are slowly neglecting Flash to death.
10. Last Gasp For Hard Disk Drives
I remain convinced that Solid State Drives will render Hard Disk drives as quaint as floppies. Of course this is not as obvious since the cost per byte of a hard disk remains significantly below that of an SSD. I now have SSDs in all my PCs and have relegated hard drives to a NAS (Network Attached Storage) with RAID and I can’t imagine going back. Consumer and business who are comfortable with leaving their data in the clutches of a third party and who have a decent Internet connection would probably just use cloud storage for their large data.
“Drives like this could give life to new large capacity arrays with, say, 60 drives in a 3U cabinet. A 36-terabyte box like this would deliver just 18,000 IOPS, which is far below the slowest single SSD on the market. We must remember that we have been conditioned by 30 years of performance stagnation in HDDs to think only of capacity when it comes to choosing drives.”
11. Sound bite: Despite Pono’s promise, experts pan HD audio
Audiophiles are an amusing lot because they claim to hear stuff their ears can’t as this article clearly demonstrates. Of course, the audiophile market is a big one and probably the remaining profitable segment of the consumer electronics industry. Ironically, the problem with Pono will be the lack of content: will users ‘rip’ their existing CDs to the new format and will publisher support yet another standard. It seems unlikely Pono will encourage the traditional pirate distribution model, given its sponsor. It’s faster to torrent a CD you already own than to rip it yourself.
“Pono Music’s roaring success on Kickstarter, raising $4.3 million so far, shows that thousands of people believe better audio quality is worth paying for. The company — backed by star musician Neil Young and selling a $400 digital audio player along with accompanying music — promises people will hear a difference between Pono Music and ordinary music that’s “surprising and dramatic.” The company’s promise is based in part on music files that can contain more data than not only conventional MP3 files, but also compact discs.”
12. Magnetic behavior discovery could advance nuclear fusion
The saying goes that useable nuclear fusion is a decade away, and has been for the past 50 years or so. It’s easy to make fun of these sorts of announcements, however, we know that fusion works we just don’t know how to harness it – yet. There are a lot of big brains working on the problem and it is impossible to predict breakthroughs, but they will come.
“Inspired by the space physics behind solar flares and the aurora, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan and Princeton has uncovered a new kind of magnetic behavior that could help make nuclear fusion reactions easier to start.”
13. Giant 3D printer starts spitting out a house
This demonstration is not likely to ever amount to anything other than a performance art piece and a prolonged publicity campaign for the architectural firm. The use of plastics (which are usually quite flammable and toxic when burned) and the three year completion timeframe shows this clearly isn’t ready for primetime. Still the video is worth a watch.
“Till now, 3D printing has been used to create relatively small items — everything from iPhone cases to prosthetic fingers to aircraft parts and alien shoes. But none of those projects are a match for the full-size house Dutch architects have begun building in Amsterdam using a 20-foot-tall 3D printer.”
14. Why hydrogen-powered cars will drive Elon Musk crazy
Almost exactly 10 years ago I wrote an article which was highly skeptical of the ‘Hydrogen Economy’ and which resulted in a flood of criticism of me and my analysis. I stand by the conclusion of that report – unless I am mistaken there is, as yet, no hydrogen economy. That said, the issue has always been the production and distribution of hydrogen, not the engineering challenges associated with fuel cells. I remain skeptical, however, liberal application of taxpayer’s money can cause lots of things to happen, including a few hydrogen vehicles on the road. The problem is that a subsidy model ceases to function when any more than a small fraction of hydrogen (or electric) vehicles is on the road.
“Forget the Tesla Model S. Another car of the future is finally hitting the highway. After decades of development—and no small amount of skepticism—major automakers are set to start selling hydrogen fuel-cell cars in small numbers in the US. In the coming months, a hydrogen-powered version of Hyundai’s Tucson sport utility vehicle will appear in southern California showrooms. And Honda and Toyota next year will offer Californians futuristic sedans that can travel 300 miles (480 km) or more on a tank of hydrogen gas while emitting nothing more toxic than water vapor.”
15. Popcorn Time Is Hollywood’s Worst Nightmare, And It Can’t Be Stopped
“Popcorn Time” was online for a short time, made a big splash then went offline for some time, resulting in speculation it had been hounded out of existence by legal threats. Now it is back as an open source project. That and its torrent architecture could mean it will now be impossible to counter through legal action, though, of course, only time will tell.
“Imagine for a moment if Napster were cloned hundreds of times. If there were a NapsterStanford, a NapsterMIT, or a Napster for your high school completely independent from, yet just as powerful as, the original. Imagine what would have happened if Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker had released the source code, allowing any developer to essentially copy and build upon his software. Imagine if Napster were open source. The RIAA would have fought a war on a thousand fronts. And lost. Video piracy is on the verge of having its Napster moment.”
16. The First News Report on the L.A. Earthquake Was Written by a Robot
Actually the first news report was the US Geological Survey and the LA Times put a wrapper around it. This article represents the Kamikaze path newspapers are on: as an increasing amount of wire news (and, not surprisingly Wall Street equity research) is cranked out of boiler rooms in India and other low cost areas, the value of the content is falling asymptotically to zero. It may sound clever to have a piece of software put a few sentences around an automatically generated earthquake alert, but all that does is further lessen the relevance of the LA Times.
“Ken Schwencke, a journalist and programmer for the Los Angeles Times, was jolted awake at 6:25 a.m. on Monday by an earthquake. He rolled out of bed and went straight to his computer, where he found a brief story about the quake already written and waiting in the system. He glanced over the text and hit “publish.” And that’s how the LAT became the first media outlet to report on this morning’s temblor. “I think we had it up within three minutes,” Schwencke told me. If that sounds faster than humanly possible, it probably is.”
17. Behind the mask of biometric security
You have to watch the video to see how they spoof various biometric security systems and how they then develop countermeasures to that spoofing. The problem is that while the countermeasures might work, it may not be possible to apply them in the field, especially on a consumer product like a smartphone or laptop. Even so, counter countermeasures are probably rapidly created and quickly disseminated via the web.
“A European research project is studying weaknesses in biometric systems in order to make them more secure. The problem for Sébastien Marcel, researcher in biometrics, at the Idiap research institute is that “biometric systems most effective at recognising a person are also potentially the most vulnerable. Every time there is a new attack we have to develop a new counter measure. So there’s still quite a bit to do before we understand why biometric systems are vulnerable.””
18. Wireless electricity? It’s here
Here is another silly idea which pops up every few years. The strength of an electromagnetic field drops off with the square of distance and the amount of energy you can extract from a field is proportional to the effective area of your antenna. Dr. Hall might have been shocked by a glowing light bulb, but this sort of parlor trick is not new. Assuming you could create a powerful enough field to move enough energy to do anything more useful than surprize a researcher, you’d need a big antenna it would be pretty damned inefficient. Besides the “WiFi/mobile phones cause cancer” crowd would be having kittens over this sort of thing. Hat-tip to my friend Avner Mandelman for this item.
“Katie Hall was shocked the second she saw it: a light-bulb glowing in the middle of a room with no wires attached. Looking back, it was a crude experiment, she remembers: a tiny room filled with gigantic copper refrigerator coils — the kind you’d see if you cracked open the back of your freezer. She walked in and out between the coils and the bulb — and still the bulb glowed. “I said: ‘Let’s work on this. This is the future.'””
19. Samsung is getting smartphones to cure cancer while owners sleep
Power Sleep is a logical follow on to the Folding at Home project, but it might actually be more effective because people tend not to switch off their phones as they do their laptops and desktops. This means there might be, on average, more available ‘spare’ computing power from these types of devices than traditional PCs. I would suggest they modify the code to provide the option that it be working whenever the phone is connected to a charger, WiFi, and not being used.
“Considering how useful smartphones are, there’s still plenty of untapped potential. Locket has already gone some way to earn smartphone owners cash by turning their lock screens into ad space, and now a new app called Power Sleep harnesses the computational power of the devices to crunch data at a time when they’re otherwise not in use.”
20. AAA: Range of electric cars cut in cold, hot weather
Golly – chemical reactions are affected by temperature? Who knew? Seriously, though, this should be filed under “no sh*t, Sherlock”. I would be interested in knowing whether the vehicles were tested with climate control active as well. Air conditioning might be an extremely energy costly option when it is hot, but you simply can’t drive a car in the cold without heat because the windows will frost up. And where I am from, 20 degrees F is not “extreme cold”, and a lot of places don’t consider 95F that hot, either – leave a car in the sun for a few hours and you are easily pushing 100F plus. So and EV is sort of a Goldilocks vehicle: it need the conditions to be ‘just right” to get you to your destination (and back again).
“The range of electric vehicles can be greatly reduced, by up to 57% , depending on the temperature outside, auto club AAA says. The AAA Automotive Research Center in Southern California found that the average range of an electric car dropped 57% in very cold weather – at 20 degrees Fahrenheit – and by 33% in extreme heat, a temperature of 95 degrees.”