The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 11th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 11th 2014

Reminder: I have moved to MailChimp for distribution in order to lower the odds of readers being spammed.

Tech news was dominated by the “Heartbleed” bug, so the quality of articles is quite low this week.


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

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1.        A rough guide to spotting Bad science

This is an excellent set of “rules of thumb” for spotting bad science and it is particularly important given the amount of bad science in the media and on the web. Of course, I rather doubt the media will pay attention as there is more interest in the exciting and wrong than the banal and right. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

2.        Apple iWatch release date, rumours & images – Apple will become “irrelevant” if it doesn’t launch iWatch within 60 days

Rather dated, but a truly appalling piece which glues together speculation, rumor, and, presumably hallucinations, to arrive at … well, frankly I couldn’t read it through it was so bad. “Smart’ watches have proved to have almost no consumer appeal and there is little reason to suspect a product, however imagined, from Apple will be any different. A hat tip to my friend Allan Brown for this article.

“Everyone is talking about Apple’s rumoured iWatch. Evidence to suggest that an iWatch release date isn’t far away flooded in throughout 2013, and, now that 2014 has arrived, speculation about the smartwatch has become an even hotter topic. Will this be the year Apple releases a wearable device?”

3.        ScienceShot: Oldest Cardiovascular System Found in Ancient Shrimplike Creature

This is pretty cool stuff, and not just because of the conclusion, but the fact 520 million year old specimens were well enough preserved that you can actually make out the inner structures.

“They were crushed. Without warning, 520 million years ago an ancient tsunami or storm trapped 50 shrimplike creatures under layer after layer of fine dirt particles and mud in the seabed that formerly covered much of southwest China. But rather than pulverize them, the powdery silt and Cambrian oceanic chemicals preserved the 6-centimeter-long animals, known as Fuxianhuia protensa, with impeccable statuesque detail.”

4.        Heartbleed

The news of the Heartbleed bug dominated the tech landscape over the past week and probably will for a few more weeks. Some have commented that this is an inherent peril with open source software but I think that misses the point: closed source means nobody but the authors and criminal hackers would check for errors and only the criminal hackers would have a financial incentive for doing so. The fact the bug was spotted is in many ways an endorsement of open source software, although, presumably, more caution will be exercised in the future.

“Basically, an attacker can grab 64K of memory from a server. The attack leaves no trace, and can be done multiple times to grab a different random 64K of memory. This means that anything in memory — SSL private keys, user keys, anything — is vulnerable. And you have to assume that it is all compromised. All of it. “Catastrophic” is the right word. On the scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11.”

5.        DNA nanobots deliver drugs in living cockroaches

This is kinda spooky stuff, especially if you happen to be a cockroach (note: all readers of the Geek’s List are welcome, regardless of phylum). Nonetheless, it seems clear that similar techniques could be used to develop highly specific drugs, at least once all the bugs are worked out so it doesn’t only work in bugs.

“It’s a computer – inside a cockroach. Nano-sized entities made of DNA that are able to perform the same kind of logic operations as a silicon-based computer have been introduced into a living animal. The DNA computers – known as origami robots because they work by folding and unfolding strands of DNA – travel around the insect’s body and interact with each other, as well as the insect’s cells. When they uncurl, they can dispense drugs carried in their folds.”

6.        Blind-tested soloists unable to tell Stradivarius violins from modern instruments

When previous tests showed that nobody could tell the difference between a Stradivarius and a modern violin the results were attacked from all sides. After all, how could so many experts have been deceived? And then there is the idea the market is always right! This time they carefully designed the study to satisfy the numerous complaints (well the coherent ones, anyhow) and arrived at the same result. It turns out that, whether or not a Stradivarius is a superior violin, humans have lousy hearing and so they can’t actually tell the difference. Oh well. Another hat tip to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“A modern instrument was the clear winner and a Stradivarius the loser in a double-blind test of old Italian and new violins, conducted at the Auditorium Coeur de Ville in Vincennes, Paris. In a follow-up to the controversial experiment conducted in Indianapolis in 2010, ten professional soloists compared the tonal qualities of twelve instruments – six by 18th-century Italian luthiers and six by contemporary makers. The results, published on 7 April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirmed those of the 2010 study, which showed a general preference for new violins and that players were unable to reliably distinguish new violins from old.”

7.        The silencing of the Deaf

Tribalism is a powerful, and in my opinion malignant, feature of humanity. We like to divide ourselves down into ‘us’ and ‘them’ however we can work it: religion, ethnicity, language, etc.. In this case we have linguistic tribalism among the profoundly deaf who perceive Deaf Culture is under threat by technology. As a parent it is hard to be sympathetic: would I rather child get implants or thrive in Deaf Culture only to be run over by a bus. It ain’t for nothing we have hearing.

“Parenting is full of big decisions. But in the first year or so of Ellie’s life, when other parents are focused on helping their kids to walk and talk, Christine and Derek had to think about an issue that many parents never even contemplate: They had to decide which culture their daughter should be a part of. Ellie could join their world, the hearing world, if she received cochlear implants. Yet implants don’t work perfectly. Everyday conversation can remain a challenge, for instance, especially when there’s a lot of background noise. What’s more, implants might cut Ellie off from a community that, some would argue, is her birthright: the Deaf world, where lack of hearing is an identity to be celebrated, not a disability to be cured.”

8.        Raspberry Pi’s Eben Upton: How We’re Turning Everyone Into DIY Hackers

Raspberry Pi has been tremendously successful and I figure this has to be a good thing – as more and more people use computers the function of the device has become so abstracted many don’t know how they work. More to the point, as the potential utility of computers has increased by orders of magnitude, that abstraction has obscured that utility ever more completely. Their new compute module ( may have even greater potential as you can more or less decide on which parts of the System On A Chip you want to use.

“I’ll never forget my first time seeing a Raspberry Pi. The tiny, credit-card sized computer is powerful enough to operate as a” home PC, a media center, a gaming console, or anything you can dream up. At only $35, it’s a bargain for tinkerers of all ages who want to try out hardware and software experiments without worrying about bricking their pricier family computers.

9.        NHMRC rule homeopathic remedies useless for human health

Reading the comments shows the problem: placebos “work” on ill-defined maladies, misdiagnosis, and things which care for themselves. People are, frankly, too stupid to rely on their own experience for these sorts of decisions and it is a pity governments let these and other SCAM remedies be sold, even in pharmacies of all places. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this article.

“AFTER a lengthy investigation the nation’s peak medical research body has delivered its verdict on homeopathic remedies — they are useless for human health. The judgement is likely to influence a crucial government review which is deciding whether the 30 per cent tax rebate for private health insurance coverage of complementary therapies should continue. Australians spend almost $4 billion a year on complementary therapies like vitamins and herbs and almost $10 million on homeopathic remedies.”

10.   Man who introduced serious ‘Heartbleed’ security flaw denies he inserted it deliberately

I feel sorry for the guy as this is not going to look good on a resume. Nonetheless, as I understand it, this sort of mistake is the most common sort exploited in a security flaw and it should have been checked every which way by other working on the project. Regardless, success has many parents while failure is an orphan so he’ll just have to wear it.

“The German software developer who introduced a security flaw into an encryption protocol used by millions of websites globally says he did not insert it deliberately as some have suggested. In what appears to be his first comments to the media since the bug was uncovered, Robin Seggelmann said how the bug made its way into live code could “be explained pretty easily.”

11.   MEP Tarand: “EU should switch to ODF standard”

I don’t know about the other proposals (having an EU Linux distribution for example) but it should be quite clear that allowing a proprietary (i.e. Microsoft) document standard locks a government, and to some extent its citizens, to the software which can use that proprietary standard. You can’t have an open government if you need expensive proprietary software to look at its documents.

“The European institutions should switch to using the Open Document Format ODF as their internal default document format, says Member of the European Parliament Indrek Tarand. Speaking at a meeting of the European Parliament’s Free Software User Group (Epfsug), last week Wednesday, MEP Tarand said: “Moving to ODF would allow real innovation, and real procurement.””

12.   Dyn discontinues free DynDNS service to clean up its DDNS network

It is now common for paid cloud services to offer a ‘free’ version in order to build membership and then to discontinue, or severely degrade, these free services once critical mass has been achieved or some financing is anticipated. DynDNS is baked in to a lot of routers and other hardware (my NAS and load-balancing router but support it) so this will cause pandemonium, especially for people who relied on people to set up their networks. There are alternatives, of course, but until a system has been developed which can’t be shut off, you should thread carefully.

“Dyn offers a whole passel of DNS-related products, but the company is most famous for its free DynDNS service: it lets users associate often dynamic IP addresses with hostnames, as long as those users “check in” once a month. It’s a boon for people wanting to slap an easily remembered, fully qualified domain name onto their home ISP connections without dropping the money to actually register a domain—and it’s vanishing on May 7, 2014.”

13.   Ultra HD Displays Are The Next Big Thing

4K TVs have dropped in price at an astonishing rate – I recently saw an ad for a 65” Samsung UHDTV for $5,000. My thesis is that, provided there is only a small price difference, yes, people will choose UHDTV, however, it is improbably they will witness 4K content, except in video games. Right now most “HD” content is nowhere near HD – being compressed to near SD quality – and cable operators would rather serve you 200 channels of crap quality and call it HD than 50 channels of HD. There might be a small market for streaming, however, you’d hit your bandwidth caps pretty quickly if you streamed real UHDTV. Of course I still wouldn’t buy one today because they haven’t figured out cabling standards yet.

“A 1080p display offers 1920- by 1080-pixel resolutions. Like the lower-resolution 720p format, 1080p and Ultra HD both provide a 16:9 aspect ratio. 1080p also has a quarter the number of pixels compared to Ultra HD. The jump from 720p to 1080p is only a factor of 2. As with 1080p, the high resolution will dominate the high end of the product spectrum, but it eventually will push its way down the food chain. Cost is the main issue, though the improved resolution is more important with larger screens.”

14.   Raising the Bar: Crossbar’s Entirely New Type of Memory

Novel memory technologies are always interesting, but it is worth noting that only a very tiny number ever make it to market (in my 35 year career I can think of only two). Nonetheless, there is a compelling need for something which picks up where Flash stops and maybe Crossbar (or Memristors) will be it. The folks at EEWeb should be taken out and shot for their near unreadable web design. To make it slightly more readable, click the ‘two squares’ (third from right) and full page (rightmost) icons.

“Crossbar is a groundbreaking memory technology company based in Santa Clara, California. The company turned heads last year when they unveiled a new category of high performance resistive RAM (RRAM) technology that can scale up to 1 terabyte on a chip the size of a postage stamp. This highly scalable technology performs around 20x faster than today’s NAND Flash memory and has 10x the endurance at half the die size. With these unparalleled specifications, Crossbar’s technology will enable the next generation of high-performing electronic devices.”

15.   Two Big Steps Toward the Quantum Computer

I’d like to say I understand this, but I don’t even though it is in a Popular Mechanics article. A couple things worth noting about quantum computer is that these systems will only be useful for figuring out very specific classes of problems (decryption being one) and, while they may have some use in scientific research, they will likely have no real commercial application.

“Two research teams, at Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany, have just announced that they have independently forged the building blocks for tomorrow’s quantum computers. As they published today in the journal Nature (1, 2), the scientists discovered a way to hook up atoms and particles of light to create a new type of switch and logic-gate‚ quantum versions of the connecting structures that link bits of data in modern computers.”

16.   Navy researchers demonstrate flight powered by fuel created from seawater

I just *had* post this item once I saw it was on Kurzeil’s site because it shows me how abjectly oblivious the guy is. Pronouncements about brains being downloaded and charts relating extinctions to an increasing pace of paradigm shift are transparent drivel, but this – this is beautiful! No kidding: if you put enough energy into a system you can get a small amount back out! What better use of a few thousand kilowatt hours (I’m probably being generous) of power than a few teaspoons of ‘clean’ hydrocarbon? Don’t they teach physics in high school anymore?

“The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) has developed a technology for simultaneously extracting carbon dioxide and hydrogen from seawater and converting the two gases to a liquid hydrocarbon fuel, as a possible replacement for petroleum-based jet fuel.”

17.   Apple demands 20 times more for a patent from Samsung ($12.49) than from Motorola ($.60)

I guess we’ll see if and when a verdict comes down (and what happens on any subsequent appeal), however, however, my read of this article reinforces the view that the legal system is beginning to despair of ‘IP litigation as strategy’ and seems to be ring fencing some of the absurd damage claims. If true, this won’t just impact Apple and other large patent trolls like Microsoft, but “IP licensing companies” in general.

“We’re approaching the end of Apple’s case-in-chief in Apple v. Samsung II. Rutgers law professor Michael Carrier has noted on Twitter that the first week of this trial did not go as well for Apple as in 2012 because it’s “not clearly winning on themes” while Samsung manages to show that the patents-in-suit are “not central”. Professor Carrier appears to feel that Apple’s case gets bogged down in detail: “The more time spent in the minutiae, the less a huge damages award or injunction for Apple seems appropriate.” He added: “And minutiae also don’t support themes from 1st trial of Apple as revolutionary innovator and Samsung as flagrant copyist.””

18.   How to Get a BMW i3 Electric Car for Just $18 a Month: Use Teslanomics

Tesla fanboys, who only rival Apple fanboys in zeal, are a sight to behold. The most recent outrage on their faith was the fact some states were requiring they obey the same rules other car vendors must. Apparently, this is an assault on the “free market” a rich comment associated with a car company which only exists due to generous subsidies and other government financial support. This is a tongue in cheek, though accurate, look at the thinking used to promote the vehicles. “Teslanomics” is used by most other “green” products, but they raised it to high art.

“Automakers are always trying to find new ways to make their cars look cheaper to buy — and Tesla is no exception. But what happens when you take other plug-in cars and use the same Tesla logic to advertise them?”

19.   Windows 8.1 Update woes pile up: Errors 80070020, 80073712, 800F081F, 80242FFF, 800F0922

People who have had OS updates go rogue tend to be pretty vocal about it. After all, it is very frustrating to upgrade a fully functional system only to have it no longer be functional at all. Therefore, it is hard to know whether this is a big problem or not. Nonetheless, you probably want to put off upgrading to 8.1 until the wailing dies down.

“Microsoft released Windows 8.1 Update a little less than 48 hours ago, and users’ cries of pain fill the air. With five weeks to go for Windows 8.1 users to install the Update so they can continue to receive Windows 8.1 patches, and almost no acknowledgment — much less fixes — of the problems, Microsoft’s repeating some old bad behavior.”

20.   Spinal stimulation helps 4 patients with paraplegia regain voluntary movement

I don’t know what to make of this: it seems like a breakthrough, but is the voluntary movement significant from the patients’ perspective or more of a novelty? I’m not being critical, I really don’t know. Regardless, perhaps more advanced stimulation techniques will lead to a more significant outcome. In either even this is probably good news for those with spinal injury.

“Four people with paraplegia are able to voluntarily move previously paralyzed muscles as a result of a novel therapy that involves electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, according to a study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. The participants, each of whom had been paralyzed for more than two years, were able to voluntarily flex their toes, ankles, and knees while the stimulator was active, and the movements were enhanced over time when combined with physical rehabilitation. Researchers involved in the study say the therapy has the potential to change the prognosis of people with paralysis even years after injury.”



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