The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 28th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 28th 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

Brian Piccioni


PS: Google has been sporadically flagging The Geek’s Reading List as spam/phishing. Until I resolve the problem, if you have a Gmail account and you don’t get the Geeks List when expected, please check your Spam folder and mark the list as ‘Not Spam’.

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1.        ATM operators eye Linux as alternative to Windows XP

I doubt ATM machines are more than a rounding error for Microsoft’s revenues however the issue is critical for the ATM vendors. ATMs do not need constant hardware upgrades, but they do need stable and secure software. Current versions of Linux support even very old hardware, unlike Windows, so eventually shifting to a more consistent, secure, and stable, software platform would make complete sense.

“Some financial services companies are looking to migrate their ATM fleets from Windows to Linux in a bid to have better control over hardware and software upgrade cycles. Pushing them in that direction apparently is Microsoft’s decision to end support for Windows XP on April 8, said David Tente, executive director, USA, of the ATM Industry Association (ATMIA).”

2.        New strategy would drop college textbook costs to zero

Any parent knows the cost of University textbooks is obscene, and there is little value for money. At the undergraduate level in particular in most courses, little changes on the decadal level to justify the annual new editions which simply destroy the resale value of textbooks. The exact argument could be made for public schools, of course. Eventually this highly profitable industry will be disintermediated and implode. Here are two articles which shows some efforts in that regard.

“This semester, the University System of Maryland is exploring ways to bring that cost to zero with “open-source” electronic textbooks — the latest experiment in changing the way students in Maryland and across the nation are taught. Unlike electronic versions of textbooks sold by publishers, open-source textbooks are made up of materials gathered from various sources and are not protected by copyright. They are often designed to be interactive, with links to source material and multimedia elements. The materials are licensed openly, so anyone with an Internet connection can access them.”,0,6567208.story


3.        28nm – The Last Node of Moore’s Law

This article makes a pretty good case and, regardless, it seems to be a fair bet the era of Moore’s Law is drawing to a close. This does not, of course, mean that component costs will plateau or even rise – what will happens is the rate of improvement will slow down and performance/price will move to single digit percentage annual improvement.

“We have been hearing about the imminent demise of Moore’s Law quite a lot recently. Most of these predictions have been targeting the 7nm node and 2020 as the end-point. But we need to recognize that, in fact, 28nm is actually the last node of Moore’s Law.”

4.        Jimmy Wales rants at holistic healers petitioning Wikipedia

Calling the kettle black hardly qualifies as a rant if you ask me. After all, you are either going to have an online encyclopedia or a useless pile of misinformation – which is often the case with ‘controversial’ topics in Wikipedia. As the saying goes, you have a right to your own opinions, not your own facts and until a single well designed and repeatable experiment can show this nonsense actually works, we can assume the facts show it does not. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this article.

“Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has issued a sharp response to petitioners calling for his site to “allow for true scientific discourse” on holistic healing. The petition, currently running on the site, claims that much of the information on Wikipedia relating to holistic approaches to healing is “biased, misleading, out of date, or just plain wrong”. It has attracted almost 8,000 supporters at the time of publication.”

5.        Notch cancels Minecraft Oculus Rift deal: “Facebook creeps me out”

The geniuses who run Facebook have decided investors in a Kickstarter project could use $2B more than their own shareholders, so they decided to buy it. Virtual Reality visors are not new, and I’d be surprised if there was anything novel or non-replicable in the Oculus Rift version thereof. Unfortunately there had been a lot of proposed support by game developers and enthusiasts for this VR product, and most are apoplectic over the sale.

“The Facebook purchase announced today has made him cancel plans for the deal. “I definitely want to be a part of VR, but I will not work with Facebook,” he writes. “Their motives are too unclear and shifting, and they haven’t historically been a stable platform. There’s nothing about their history that makes me trust them, and that makes them seem creepy to me. And I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.”

6.        IRS Decision To Tax Bitcoin As Property May Slow Efforts To Widen Its Use In Retail

This is an interesting development on many levels. It does not “legitimize” Bitcoin as a currency, however, it would place an enormous burden on any vendor who accepts Bitcoin in payment because they would have to mark to market and account for every conversion to real money in the same manner as a sale of shares. Not coincidentally, infringement of tax laws are easier to prosecute than criminal laws which may be one reason behind this decision. Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion, not murder.

“It’s a good-news/bad-news day for folks who have heavily invested in the Bitcoin virtual currency, after the IRS declared that will tax Bitcoins as property. On the one hand, that means that people who are profiting from their investment in Bitcoin will pay the lower taxes associated with capital gains, rather than the much higher taxes levied on foreign currency gains. On the other hand, it could mean an awful lot of record-keeping that may make it a hassle to use Bitcoins for everyday transactions like one would use a debit card.”

7.        Apps in car dashboards aim to make vehicles smarter

I figure the “connected car” is inevitable, however, such capabilities present a huge problem of distracted driving. What I don’t understand is the appeal – for car companies or consumers – of an Apple solution: after all, Apple is a closed system and, to the extent the product would have an appeal it would be only to existing Apple customers. So would an Android user I be interested in a vehicle with Apple connectivity? Well, perhaps, though not willing to pay for it because it would limited utility.

“Drivers can use the Audible car app to download and listen to audio books in the car and the Kaliki car app reads news items. Pandora, TuneIn Radio, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Rhapsody, Stitcher, Slacker Radio, and iTunes Radio are among the many apps that stream music in vehicles.”

8.        Neurosurgeons successfully implant 3D printed skull

(Not for the squeamish) More fun and games with 3D printing in the operating room. I am very curious as to the plastic they used and the method they used to form it. There are biocompatible plastics but I am unaware of any which can be 3D printed. It is possible they used a multistep process where they 3D printed a sample then molded a compatible version of that. Presumably, the woman’s scalp was reattached. Cool stuff.

“A 22-year-old woman from the Netherlands who suffers from a chronic bone disorder — which has increased the thickness of her skull from 1.5cm to 5cm, causing reduced eyesight and severe headaches — has had the top section of her skull removed and replaced with a 3D printed implant.”

9.        In rare move, banks sue Target’s security auditor

So, companies are required to be audited for compliance, but the auditors claim they cannot be held responsible if those same certified customers are breached because they obviously we not compliant, even though they passed the audit. This will have one of two outcomes: either the auditors will be held blameless because of weasel words in a contract, or if held partially responsible those weasel words will be introduced into the next generation of contracts. You have to wonder what incentive a security auditor would have to do thorough audit if they have no responsibility for the quality of said audit?

“Two banks that claim to have suffered losses from the recent data breach at Target have sued Trustwave Holdings Inc., the company that was responsible for validating Target’s compliance with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard. In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Chicago, Trustmark National Bank and Green Bank N.A, sued both Target and Trustwave for not doing enough to protect customer payment card data. The lawsuit, which seeks class action status, accused both companies of negligence, deceptive practices, negligent misrepresentation and other misdeeds.”

10.   Who needs operating systems anymore? Not you.

I am not sure I agree with the reasoning however I have argued in the past that the OS is becoming less and less important to buying decisions for a variety of reasons. This is especially the case with mobile devices, which tend to have limited utility due to inherent size and user interface constraints. Similarly, cloud based applications are best designed with an OS agnostic interface for compatibility reason. This does not, of course, mean the OS will disappear, just become less visible. Ultimately, the tail will cease wagging the dog.

“I started working with technology in the late 1970s. Along the way, I’ve worked with IBM’s mainframe OS/360, Unix on DEC PDP-11, and that ancestor of all PC operating systems, CP/M-80. Operating systems ruled your user experience; you had to care about which one you used. But more and more, we aren’t going to care.”

11.   Microsoft admits reading Hotmail inbox of blogger

This is a tempest in a teapot – if you are using Hotmail or Gmail, you should probably assume those companies (Microsoft of Google) have the right to access your stuff, for no other reason than to investigate potential misuse of the service. Regardless, you have to be a special class of idiot to use Microsoft services to trade Microsoft secrets with Microsoft employees.

“On Thursday, the firm acknowledged it read the anonymous blogger’s emails in order to identify an employee it suspected of leaking information. Microsoft owns Hotmail, a free email service now called John Frank, deputy general counsel for Microsoft, said it took “extraordinary actions in this case”. While the search was technically legal, he added Microsoft would consult outside counsel in the future.”

12.   Meet the manic miner who wants to mint 10% of all new bitcoins

Ah, the power of faith. This guy claims to have millions tied up in this operation and that it has “It’s paid itself off [in bitcoins] many times over already.” Now, call me a skeptic, but if I had a machine which produced actual gold would I rent that machine out and take 10% of the gold or would I run it flat out and keep 100% of the gold? The answer, of course, depends on what I figured gold was worth.

“In a couple of large buildings near the Columbia River in Eastern Washington, where hydroelectricity is cheap and plentiful, Dave Carlson oversees what he says is one of the largest Bitcoin mining operations on the planet. At any given time, Carlson’s goal is to account for seven to 10 percent of the entire world’s Bitcoin mining as measured by processing or hashing power, he said. At the moment, he’s slightly below that target but doesn’t expect to remain below it for very long. The operations are fueled by thousands of mining rigs containing more than 1.4 million BitFury mining chips, while Raspberry Pis loaded with custom software direct traffic on each rig.”

13.   Russian Officials Dump iPads for Samsung Tablets Over Spy Fears

Not that the Samsung tablets are necessarily more secure, of course, however, Android is an open system and iOS is very much closed. Therefore Russian programmers can, at least, vet the security of the Android platform and enhance it if necessary. Furthermore, Apple, Microsoft, and cloud services providers have the ability to disconnect, disable, and wipe the hardware of unworthy customers. Given recent tensions this is an intelligent move by the Russians and should be echoed by any other government worried about falling from favor with the US.

“Russian government officials have swapped their iPads for Samsung tablets to ensure tighter security, the telecoms minister told news agencies on Wednesday. Journalists spotted that ministers at a cabinet meeting were no longer using Apple tablets, and minister Nikolai Nikiforov confirmed the changeover “took place not so long ago.” He said the ministers’ new Samsungs were “specially protected devices that can be used to work with confidential information.” “Some of the information at government meetings is confidential in nature and these devices fully meet these demands and have gone through the strictest system of certification.””

14.   Homeopathic remedies recalled for containing real medicine

Homeopathic remedies are the most amusing ‘natural’ health scams because they consist of pure water. (Strictly speaking, a magic ingredient diluted with water to the same ratio as a jug of milk in the volume of the Milky Way galaxy). Unfortunately, you can slap pretty much any label on any concoction provided you call it homeopathic or ‘natural’ and make no specific health claims. Some analysis have shown that some such remedies do not even contain the crap they are supposed to contain. In this case, by accident, the remedy actually contained an active ingredient and thus must be recalled. What irony.

“Terra-Medica creates a range of homeopathic capsules, suppositories and ointments under clinical-sounding brand names including Pleo-Fort, Pleo-Quent and Pleo-EX. The FDA has found that 56 lots of the drugs may contain penicillin or derivatives of penicillin, which may have been produced during fermentation. This is a problem, because Terra-Medica says that its products don’t contain antibiotics.”

15.   UN Backtracks: Will Global Warming Really Trigger Mass Extinctions?

The problem with predictions about specific things on short times scales: you can be shown to be wrong. As a general rule I have found that second order effects are much harder to anticipate than first order, and tertiary effects almost impossible. Heck – it’s even hard with billiard balls. In summary life adapts, models are crude, and reality is very, very, complex. I get the sense from the scientists they believe they don’t really need evidence to support their hypothesis, which is disturbing.

“Global warming is said to be threatening thousands of animal and plant species with extinction. That, at least, is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been predicting for years. But the UN climate body now says it is no longer so certain. The second part of the IPCC’s new assessment report is due to be presented next Monday in Yokohama, Japan. On the one hand, a classified draft of the report notes that a further “increased extinction risk for a substantial number of species during and beyond the 21st century” is to be expected. On the other hand, the IPCC admits that there is no evidence climate change has led to even a single species becoming extinct thus far.”

16.   Genetic mugshot recreates faces from nothing but DNA

Well, good luck with that. They might eventually be able to produce a generic face with, more or less, the right skin tone, etc., but I would be astounded if they could ever produce something better that the laughably poor sketches which are passed about. I have always suspected those sketches simply provide an excuse for a cop to ‘bring somebody in’, but even eyewitness testimony is nearly entirely unreliable, so how valid could the sketches be?

“A MURDER has been committed, and all the cops have to go on is a trace of DNA left at the scene. It doesn’t match any profile in databases of known criminals, and the trail goes cold. But what if the police could issue a wanted poster based on a realistic “photofit” likeness built from that DNA?”

17.   Lens-Free Camera Sees Things Differently

There have been some interesting developments in optical systems over the past few years, though many are not ready for primetime. Using traditional curved surfaces it is very hard to make a small, useable lens. This article discusses a novel approach but it dwells more on the capabilities than limitations of this technique. For example, a miniature camera might be very useful in medical applications, but what if the image has to be a meter away to be in focus?

“Patrick Gill is excited to show me a small, fuzzy-looking picture of the Mona Lisa, printed in black and white on a piece of paper. It’s not much to look at, literally, but it’s unmistakably her, with long dark hair and that mysterious smile. More intriguing than the low-resolution image of da Vinci’s masterpiece, though, is how the picture was created: with a lens-free camera that, at 200 micrometers across, is smaller than a pencil point.”

18.   FACTUM: A “profound first” for additive manufacturing

I found this this article pretty had to understand, but it discusses a 3D printing system which is capable of producing small parts in a manner which might be competitive with injection molding or machining. That is easy to say, but it might be hard to do as many small parts are not injection molded one at a time, but by the dozens, which brings costs down a lot. Then there is the suitability of the materials to the particular application. Nonetheless, it is early stage so they have lots of time to work things out.

“Additive manufacturing through advanced polymer sintering at high speeds is being explored by University of Sheffield spin-out FaraPack Polymers, as it investigates laser sintering for low-volume applications and high-speed sintering (HSS) for low and high volumes. The team is working alongside industry partners and with Loughborough University – which owns the patents for HSS – to exploit this manufacturing process with the aim to deliver a validated supply chain and a range of example products that show the time-saving, part properties and cost benefits of choosing this technique for high-volume orders.”

19.   Microsoft unveils Office for iPad, free for reading and presenting

This was covered with tremendous excitement on the Internet and, for the life of me, I don’t see why. The iPad is basically a large iPhone, and Office for iPhone has been available for some time so this is not exactly a technological breakthrough or some sort of defining event. Perhaps some executives who have an iPad and an Office 365 subscription will be happy because they won’t have to bring their laptop on business trips but I rather doubt this will have an impact on Microsoft’s sales. Furthermore, in the not so distant future, LibreOffice for Android should be released, which is expected to be a full feature, free office package for the increasingly popular Android platform. You can edit your Office documents on that.

“After years and years of rumors, Office for iPad is finally here. At a press event in San Francisco this morning, Microsoft Office general manager Julia White has unveiled the company’s latest mobile Office app. While Office for iPad was originally rumored for a release in 2012 and 2013, it’s available as three separate applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) in Apple’s App Store today.”

20.   Senate panel plans to make losers pay for frivolous patent lawsuits

The rare application of ‘loser pays’ is one reason the US is so incredibly litigious. That and the fact they have so many lawyers. Under current rules the threat of patent litigation represents an asymmetrical risk/reward gambit for patent holder because, worst case, they bear their own costs, which might even be accepted on a contingency basis by their attorneys. The alleged infringer, on the other hand, faces costs plus the prospect of an expensive and potentially disruptive judgment. If the patent owner faced the prospect of paying his expenses plus those of the other side (which may include multiple parties), most cases would proceed only if there was a high degree of confidence in victory.

“U.S. senators seeking to curb frivolous patent litigation plan to add a “loser pays” amendment into a bill that many believe has a good chance of becoming law, a leading lawmaker said on Thursday. The change would require parties that lose lawsuits to cover winners’ legal bills, and is expected to deter prolonged, frivolous and vexatious litigation. Such measures have been pushed by big technology companies such as Google Inc and Apple Inc.”


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