The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 4th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 4th 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.        The rechargeable revolution: A better battery

This is a pretty good overview of battery technologies, however, you have to read through it to get the benefit. It boils down to this: interesting stuff on the horizon, but nothing ‘big’ which is ready for commercialization. To put it bluntly, if you think there will be commercially available batteries which meet the 2017 DoE targets, give your head shake. I’m looking at you Tesla owner.

“The mobile world depends on lithium-ion batteries — today’s ultimate rechargeable energy store. Last year, consumers bought five billion Li-ion cells to supply power-hungry laptops, cameras, mobile phones and electric cars. “It is the best battery technology anyone has ever seen,” says George Crabtree, director of the US Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), which is based at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, Illinois. But Crabtree wants to do much, much better.”


2.        Exclusive: NSA infiltrated RSA security more deeply than thought – study

The excitement of the NSA revelations has died down considerably, and I’m sure there are many reasons for that. This article shows how the agency coopted a (formerly) highly regarded standard. The naivety of the comment that “only the NSA could likely break it” is breathtaking – the NSA does not have the patent on smart people, nor are they the only ones with computer. A breakable code is breakable by anybody with the time and resources.

“Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed that the agency also aimed to subvert cryptography standards. A presidential advisory group in December said that practice should stop, though experts looking at the case of Dual Elliptic Curve have taken some comfort in concluding that only the NSA could likely break it.”


3.        Microsoft to offer Windows for free on phones, tablets

This had been rumored for some time. It is not abundantly clear to me why this would make a difference- because the system is closed source (unlike Android) Microsoft could easily withdraw the offer or change the terms of use. This would leave the vendors who developed products twisting in the wind. One thing is clear: giving the OS away does not reinforce the idea the mobile platform shows any promise of being successful.

“Microsoft Corp is to give away its Windows operating system to makers of smartphones and small tablets for consumers as it seeks to make more of an impact on those fast-growing markets and counter the massive success of Google Inc’s free Android platform. Microsoft’s move, announced at its annual developers conference in San Francisco, is an attempt to broaden the small user base of mobile versions of Windows, in the hope that more customers will end up using Microsoft’s money-making, cloud-based services such as Skype and Office.”


4.        EU votes net neutrality into law, abolishes mobile roaming charges

Good news on two fronts, if you happen to live in the EU. It is odd that after 100 years of downright stupid telecommunications regulations the EU seems to be the only place on the planet which ‘gets it’. I see no reason why running a network should somehow lend privilege to carriers and the EU seems to share that view.

“Blocking and throttling Internet traffic will become illegal in the European Union following a parliamentary vote on Thursday.Members of the European Parliament voted to close loopholes in a proposed law that some believed would have created a two-tier Internet. The so-called Telecoms Package originally described “specialized services,” which would have allowed ISPs to charge more for more data-intensive content services such as voice over IP and streaming video.” After months of negotiations, the European Parliament has today adopted my proposal to close the last remaining loopholes in the text, in order to enshrine net neutrality in European law.”


5.        Wearables: one-third of consumers abandoning devices

Frankly, I never understood why I would want to wear a watch which has to be recharged every day or so, especially when the primary use is to talk with my mobile in my pocket or tell me how far I’ve walked. Perhaps things will change if and when battery lives increase by a couple orders of magnitude or somebody finds a compelling use for them.

“The advert was blunt: a second-hand Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch for sale, priced at “£100 ONO”. For a device which cost £299 in September, surely that’s a bargain? Yet after a week advertised on the intranet of a non-technical organisation with more than 10,000 staff, it was still unsold. “Nothing hangs around our noticeboard that long,” one who saw the ad told me.”


6.        NHTSA Requires New Cars To Have Backup Cameras, Automakers Push For Cameras To Replace Side Mirrors

Given the number of fatalities associated with people backing over children, ‘backup’ cameras make perfect sense as would other vision systems. It’s worth noting that mobile phone cameras, which would be perfectly adequate for the jobs, cost less than $1, and even display systems are pretty cheap, so this likely won’t result in a boom for semiconductor companies.

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Monday proposed a rule requiring rear visibility camera technology in all new vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds, meaning all cars, SUVs and minivans as well as most small trucks and busses. The rule is expected to be finalized within the next two months, after which automakers have until May 1, 2018 to have the technology implemented.”


7.        WD ‘restoring connections’ after WEEK of MyCloud outages

Chapter 962 in the continuing saga of “why cloud services can be problematic”. You’d think a company like Western Digital would know a thing or two about cloud servers, but apparently not. Unfortunately, they have not apparently provided any information as to how this could have happened or why it is taking so long to fix – after all, the cloud may not be secure but it should be resilient.

“WD’s MyCloud has been up and down all week, with users unable to connect across the internet to their storage devices. MyCloud refers to a set of ARM-powered, single drive external storage products from WD and a way of accessing then remotely across the Internet. Its MyBook line of basic desktop NAS boxes were rebranded MyCloud in October last year. The WD2Go mobile access application was rebranded MyCloud as well. With capacious MyCloud device storage of up to 4TB, then, MyCloud was an alternative to DropBox and similar services which have smaller free capacity but higher speed data upload facilities.”


8.        The Almost Completely Open Source Laptop Goes on Sale

That is one ugly and expensive laptop! All things considered, though, the idea is a good one: provide an open computing platform and laptops are the most popular. Frankly, I’m surprised the laptop manufacturers haven’t offered even relatively open systems – I recently discovered I could only update the BIOS on my HP laptop if I reinstalled Windows!

“Andrew “bunnie” Huang and Sean “xobs” Cross want to sell you a laptop you can completely trust. Earlier this year, the two Singapore-based engineers fashioned a laptop made almost entirely from open source hardware, hardware whose designs are freely available to the world at large. They called it Project Novena. Anyone could review the designs, looking for bugs and security flaws, and at least in theory, that meant you could be confident the machine was secure from top to bottom, something that’s more desirable than ever in the post-Edward Snowden age.”


9.        Chips Face Tough Times, Says Sanghi

We warned that the semiconductor industry’s growth would slow to a crawl about 12 years ago. Pretty much that is what has happened, though stock valuations have not collapsed as I predicted. Yes, a capital intensive business which usually generates little in the way of free cash flow is going to have a tough time of it.

“The semiconductor industry’s business model “is really broken” with more belt tightening and consolidation ahead, said Steve Sanghi, the chief executive of Microchip, speaking in a candid interview from the EE Live! show floor. “We are evolving to a slower-growth industry, and even though Microchip is still growing we will eventually converge to the mean,” said Sanghi who has led the microcontroller vendor through generally increasing revenues since 1990.”


10.   Nest Halts Sales Of Protect Smoke Alarm Over Safety Concerns About ‘Wave To Dismiss’ Feature

Heck – who needs a working smoke detector? Well – I did when our GE self-cleaning oven went non-linear and set our kitchen ablaze on Monday. Frankly, I want my smoke detector to be as stupid as possible: the one thing it should do, reliably and without fail, is to go off when it detects smoke. It appears the Nest smoke detector is too clever by half.

“Nest CEO Tony Fadell has just issued a notice recommending users disable the Protect smoke alarm’s ’wave to dismiss’ feature. In testing, it was discovered that people could accidentally trigger the dismiss feature, delaying a smoke alarm. Sales of the Nest Protect have also been halted.”


11.   New discovery gives hope to spinal injury patients

There has been incremental progress in the science of nerve regrowth over the past few years. Unfortunately, this does not sound like a breakthrough with near term therapeutic application.

“Spinal cord injuries are currently irreparable. When nerve fibres in the central nervous system are damaged there is, as yet, no way of reversing this. But research we’ve been doing has led to the discovery of a mechanism for regrowing damaged nerve fibres.”


12.   Microsoft open sources more of its .Net technologies

Gee – they make Windows Mobile free and now they actually open source .Net! It makes you wonder what is going on at Microsoft (except the fact the CEO is no longer a founder). Perhaps the idea is to make .Net available on a wide variety of platforms (such as Internet of Things) which would not normally have considered it, opening those up to Windows and other proprietary Microsoft products. It will be a major undertaking to get open source community support for Microsoft strategies, however – after all these are the guys who patent troll Android device manufacturers.

“In a move few would have ever imagined coming to pass, Microsoft is open sourcing more of its .Net developer framework and programming languages. Company officials announced the move on April 3 at Microsoft’s Build 2014 developer conference. Execs also revealed they are partnering with Xamarin to create a new .Net Foundation, which will be responsible for the newly open-sourced bits.”


13.   Google reportedly wants to launch its own wireless network

It sort of seems like a logical extension of their Google Fibre strategy, however, operating as an MVNO comes with limitations. Ideally, they would want spectrum and country wide-coverage.

“Google is reportedly considering running its own wireless network. Sources tell The Information that company executives have been discussing a plan to offer wireless service in areas where it’s already installed Google Fiber high-speed internet. Details are vague, but there are hints that it’s interested in becoming a mobile virtual network operator or MVNO, buying access to a larger network at wholesale rates and reselling it to customers. Sources say that Google spoke to Verizon about the possibility in early 2014, and that it talked to Sprint about a similar possibility in early 2013, before the company was officially acquired by Softbank.”


14.   Samsung Claims Progress on the Next Wonder Material

Graphene and other nano-materials have tremendous potential, however, despite using nearly free input (carbon in this case) they are extremely expensive to make. Personally, I would not have lead with flexible displays as an application, but that’s just me.

“A group of researchers supported by Samsung Electronics said Friday that they’ve developed a technique for synthesizing graphene–an ultra-thin material of unusual strength and flexibility–that brings commercialization a step closer.”


15.   LED makers get smart to rise above price war and growth cliff

As we predicted LED prices are dropping rapidly, but they are by no means cheap (that will come). Frankly, I don’t see much value in ‘clever’ light bulbs so I doubt these will me any more than a small niche. What we really need is a low voltage wiring standard so in bulb power supplies (a major source of failure) can be simplified.

“Lighting companies like Philips and Osram are scrambling to develop more advanced technology as a price war for LED bulbs threatens to eat into profits and bring on a period of low growth as the long-life bulbs become more common. The market for light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is growing rapidly as companies, hotels and shops switch from incandescent light bulbs, which are being banned in countries around the world, to these more efficient and durable lights.”


16.   Bitcoin crackdown in China halts bank transfers for two exchanges

China is slowly turning the screws on Bitcoin, which is probably a good thing for Chinese. It might make bypassing currency restrictions a bit harder, though.

“China may be tightening the noose around Bitcoin: two exchanges dealing in the virtual currency have been forced to suspend bank transfers from customers depositing yuan to buy bitcoins.”


17.   Newegg and friends crush a patent troll

Some companies have taken an aggressive stance against patent trolls, which is probably a good thing. It is worth noting that proposed ‘loser pays’ rule would have stopped Macrosolve in its tracks long ago.

“Macrosolve is a company that got a lot of (generally negative) attention when it turned full-blown “patent troll” in 2011, suing dozens of companies (including small app development shops) over patent No. 7,822,816, which it claims covers using questionnaires on a mobile app. Now, a coalition of defendants led by Newegg and Geico Insurance has stopped Macrosolve in its tracks. Macrosolve has dismissed all remaining cases, and it has admitted that it can’t proceed to go forward with a trial that was scheduled to take place this June in East Texas.”


18.   How the Internet Is Taking Away America’s Religion

The problem with studies like these is that they treat the US as some sort of the special domain: religious affiliation was been dropping in the developed world long before the Internet became mainstream. The real question is: why has the US lagged the general trend with respect to religious affiliation (I suspect an abysmal education system and the rise of the religious right has a lot to do with it). Before hailing the Internet as being responsible for a rise in general skepticism, it is worth pointing out that the web is a hotbed for disinformation, conspiracy theories, SCAM medicine and all variety of nonsense.

“Back in 1990, about 8 per cent of the US population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 per cent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion. That raises an obvious question: how come? Why are Americans losing their faith?”


19.   Climate Change May Lead to Food Shortages, Civil Conflicts, Scientists Warn

These sort of reports make my skin crawl. No doubt a lot of thinking went in to the report, however, people are hungry because they are poor, not because the world can’t produce enough food. A single farmer, some equipment, fertilizer, and diesel fuel, can produce more food than hundreds of farmers used to be able to with horse and plough. Not only that, but farmers have the intelligence to change what they grow in order to accommodate the climatic conditions and they have always done so. So, climate change or not, the problem of hunger is political and unless there is political change the climate won’t matter.

“In particular, the report cites the effects increased temperatures and heat waves have on essential food crops — in most cases lowering productivity — and warns of food availability and price swings that could lead to civil unrest in countries that are already having problems meeting the basic needs of their citizens. Climate change has already begun to hold back wheat and maize yields, the report found.”


20.   Off the shelf, on the skin: Stick-on electronic patches for health monitoring

The folks at Zarlink Semiconductor were talking about this sort of thing 10 years ago (they had some interesting ultra-low power radio technology which is central to this application). The idea make perfect sense – if you are in a hospital, or even at risk of heart attack or stroke, such a system would keep track of heart rate, blood pressure, and raise an alarm in case of a crisis. There is no doubt this is the future.

“Engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University have demonstrated thin, soft stick-on patches that stretch and move with the skin and incorporate commercial, off-the-shelf chip-based electronics for sophisticated wireless health monitoring.”


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