The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 25th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 25th 2014

Another bad week for tech news, probably due to the Easter holidays.


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) Rethinking wind power

This item is over a year old but thought it was worthwhile – you can’t keep milking the cow and, yes, having a bunch of windmills close together might make for more efficient use of land, but it comes at a cost in efficiency.

“People have often thought there’s no upper bound for wind power—that it’s one of the most scalable power sources,” says Harvard applied physicist David Keith. After all, gusts and breezes don’t seem likely to “run out” on a global scale in the way oil wells might run dry. Yet the latest research in mesoscale atmospheric modeling, published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters, suggests that the generating capacity of large-scale wind farms has been overestimated.”

2) Man Compares His $42k Prosthetic Hand to a $50 3D Printed Cyborg Beast

This might say as much about the limitations of available prosthetics as the inherent merits of a particular 3D printed replacement. Still, that is a heck of a price spread and one advantage of 3D printing is that it can be very cheap to iterate a design so it is entirely possible 3D printed prosthetics will improve considerably as a result.

“Over the last several months, some of the more inspiring stories around 3D printing have had to do with the printing of prosthetic devices, particularly hands. From war torn Sudan, where 3D printing is making the lives of hundreds of injured children and young adults easier, to people here in the United States, who are saving significant amounts of money by 3D printing their own prosthetics, these stories certainly are eye openers.”

3) Make graphene in your kitchen with soap and a blender

This is, of course, a bit of a joke as the article makes clear. Nonetheless, note the comment that a 10,000 liter vat could produce 100 grams an hour – not exactly newsprint level production. Nonetheless, coming as it does on the heels of Samsung’s announcement they could produce graphene for wafer scale applications suggests progress is being made.

“First, pour some graphite powder into a blender. Add water and dishwashing liquid, and mix at high speed. Congratulations, you just made the wonder material graphene.”

4) Organ Repair, Hemostasis, and In Vivo Bonding of Medical Devices by Aqueous Solutions of Nanoparticles

This is a scientific paper, but a readable one. What the researchers have discovered is that by coating both sides of a wound with these (apparently cheap) nanoparticles, the sides of the wound absorb them and make a sort of natural Velcro. If the wound is then held together for a minute you get a complete closure: no sutures, etc..

“Herein, we demonstrate using Stöber silica or iron oxide nanoparticles that nanobridging, that is, adhesion by aqueous nanoparticle solutions, can be used in vivo in rats to achieve rapid and strong closure and healing of deep wounds in skin and liver.”

5) For world’s biggest troll, first patent case ends up in tatters

I have mentioned repeatedly that the worm may be turning in the ‘patent troll’ business. There seems to be an increasing number of adverse decisions coming out of courts at all levels. All that being said, one rule is not to take things in front of a judge unless you are pretty sure you know how things are going to turn out. You’d think Intellectual Ventures would know that.

“Intellectual Ventures (IV) is the world’s biggest patent-licensing company and boasts of having collected tens of thousands of patents since it was founded in 2000. It’s raised about $6 billion from investors over the years, and to recoup that money, it started filing lawsuits over patents a few years ago. In 2013, it launched a new salvo, filing 13 lawsuits against major US banks, including Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Capital One. The Capital One case ended last Wednesday, when a Virginia federal judge threw out the two IV patents that remained in the case.”

6) Forensic Ballistics: How Apollo 12 Helped Solve the Skydiver Meteorite Mystery

You might have seen the video of the skydiver who was “almost hit by a meteorite” which made the rounds a few weeks ago. This odds of such a thing being recorded are incredibly remote, but hey, the improbable does happen. This interesting analysis looks at the video and (spoiler alert) comes to disappointing conclusion.

“The news went viral a couple of weeks ago. A team in Norway announced that a skydiver was almost struck by a meteorite in flight over the ØstreÆra airstrip near Rena, Norway. Their evidence was this video. … If confirmed as a meteorite, this would be the first time one had ever been filmed during its “dark flight,” the portion of its trajectory after the fireball when it has gone cold and is falling essentially straight down at terminal velocity.”

7) Tapping Solar Power With Perovskites

Familiar solar cells (you know, the ones which spent most of the winter covered in snow and are now being repaired from wind damage) are made from silicon and are almost like large integrated circuits. There are significant costs to such and approach, and even though those costs have come down – thanks in large parts to manufacturing subsidies – novel materials might offer a much more cost effective alternative. One issue with perovskites which I have been unable to resolve is the question of durability, namely how long they last when exposed to sunlight. Thanks to my friend Avner Mandelman for this item.

Every now and again, a well-studied research topic explodes with new life. Long after carbon materials filled chapters of dated textbooks, for example, that field’s soul was reenergized around 1990 after buckyballs and carbon nanotubes were discovered. It happened again in that field about a half-dozen years ago when graphene took the world by storm. It’s happening now in photovoltaics.”

8) IBM Opens Chip Architecture, in Strategy of Sharing and Self-Interest

This is an interesting move by IBM, though not unprecedented – I believe Intel has opened a number of its architectures such as the fantastically useful 8051 – it is probably an effort to breath some life into a withering design. This may or may not be a long term threat to companies such as ARM if the Power architecture can be implemented as a low power solution. I don’t know the answer to that question but it is pivotal to what happens over the longer term.

IBM’s chip business needs help. So the company has opened up the technology of its Power microprocessors, inviting others to modify and manufacture Power-based designs pretty much as they see fit. This open, liberal licensing initiative is conducted under the auspices of the OpenPower Foundation, which was incorporated in December.”

9) Implant Injects DNA Into Ear, Improves Hearing

This is an interesting experiment, even though I am almost as interested in knowing how they test a guinea pig’s hearing so I can test my cats. I suspect they are completely deaf, except to my wife’s invocation to come and eat which they respond to unfailingly. The idea is that you direct local cell development to cure the very common loss of sensory hair. The problem at this early stage is that the ‘cure’ is only temporary.

Many people with profound hearing loss have been helped by devices called cochlear implants, but their hearing is still far from normal. They often have trouble distinguishing different musical pitches, for example, or hearing a conversation in a noisy room. Now, researchers have found a clever way of using cochlear implants to deliver new genes into the ear—a therapy that, in guinea pigs, dramatically improves hearing.”

10) Your T-shirt’s ringing: Printable tiny flexible cell phones for clothes?

This may be a potentially useful electronic device, however, the article barely addresses that question. I don’t know why people find it necessary to benchmark technology relative to mobile phones, because this almost certainly has no application therein, but it seems to be something you have to do to get attention.

“A new version of “spaser” technology being investigated could mean that mobile phones become so small, efficient, and flexible they could be printed on clothing.”

11) Goodbye, Net Neutrality; Hello, Net Discrimination

There is a lot of conflicting information around at the moment as to whether or not this “policy” is, in fact, policy. Given the massive amounts of money at stake for the carriers it is easy to believe they would have convinced the FCC – through bribery or other means – to permit the destruction of net neutrality. The problem is, this would have a very negative impact on the US, a country whose infrastructure is already approaching third world status. Governments often fly trial ballons to see how far they can go. Stay tuned.

“If reports in the Wall Street Journal are correct, Obama’s chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Thomas Wheeler, has proposed a new rule that is an explicit and blatant violation of this promise. In fact, it permits and encourages exactly what Obama warned against: broadband carriers acting as gatekeepers and charging Web sites a payola payment to reach customers through a “fast lane.”

12) Consumers are meh about 3D printers

I offer my traditional caveats about the value (which is close to zero) of industry research, however, this is a conclusion I agree with: I don’t think there is likely to be much of a mass market for 3D printers or at least nothing along the lines of PCs, smartphones, etc.. Few consumers have power tools or make things and I don’t see how having a 3D printer would change that. There real applications will be in industry, service centers, and so on.

“3D printing technology has yet to capture the consumer’s imagination, according to a report by Juniper Research. At the same time, killer applications with the appropriate eco-system of software, apps and materials have yet to be identified and communicated to potential users. Juniper notes that these are still very early days for the consumer offering.”

13) Tech Titans Launch ‘Core Infrastructure Initiative’ to Secure Key Open Source Components

The Heartbleed Bug arose from OpenSSL, software which is in broad commercial use but which had almost no financial support from industry, unlike, for example Linux or Firefox. Even closed source proponents such as Microsoft have a stake in a secure SSL solution because there is a good chance their software will connect to OpenSSL at the other end. Its good they are stepping up, but it would have been better if it happened two years ago.

“Industry heavyweights including Microsoft, Google, Intel, and Cisco are banding together to support and fund open source projects that make up critical elements of global information infrastructure.”

14) Apple Fixes Serious SSL Issue in OSX and iOS

Just to show that it isn’t only OpenSSL with security holes: the closed and paranoid have their problems as well.

“Apple has fixed a serious security flaw that’s present in many versions of both iOS and OSX and could allow an attacker to intercept data on SSL connections. The bug is one of many that the company fixed Tuesday in its two main operating systems, and several of the other vulnerabilities have serious consequences as well, including the ability to bypass memory protections and run arbitrary code.”

15) Talking Points: General Mills Reverses Lawsuit Change

This closes a rather amusing episode where General Mills, showing appallingly poor judgment and flat out corporate stupidity, thought they could pull a fast one on users of social media and trick them into signing away their consumer rights. Did nobody ask whether this was a good idea, let alone legally enforceable?

“It was just a few days ago that Minnesota-based General Mills quietly put up new terms on its website for anyone downloading coupons, entering any of their sweepstakes or even liking them on Facebook. The terms said anyone doing any of those things was giving up their right to sue in the case of a dispute. Instead, General Mills said any disagreement would have to be settled by arbitration.”

16) Study casts doubt on climate benefit of biofuels from corn residue

No surprise here. I haven’t seen a single study which demonstrates than any part of biofuel production ends up producing more energy than it consumes (liter of diesel in vs. equivalent out). This would obviously be the case when dealing with low energy byproduct.

“Using corn crop residue to make ethanol and other biofuels reduces soil carbon and can generate more greenhouse gases than gasoline, according to a study published today in the journal Nature Climate Change. The findings by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln team of researchers cast doubt on whether corn residue can be used to meet federal mandates to ramp up ethanol production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

17) IBM’s 3D Printer to Revolutionize Chip Prototyping

Not wanting to quibble, but 3D printing is usually additive manufacturing and this is subtractive (like a milling machine). Nonetheless, it is a pretty cool technology which may have significant application in development, as , presumably, the market for microscopic magazine covers and maps of Canada is pretty small.

“IBM Research in Zurich today unveiled a microscopic 3D printer capable of writing nanometer resolution patterns into a soft polymer, which can subsequently be transferred to silicon, III-V (gallium arsenide — GaAs), or graphene substrates. Unlike electron-beam (e-beam) lithography, the patterns can be both written and read for verification in real-time while the engineer watches under a microscope.”

18) How I learned to stop worrying and love my smartwatch

I just most consumers as being very skeptical of the outlook for smart watches. Of course, not everybody feels the same way, as this article shows. I clicked through to a review of this product ( and I have to say that there is as much chance of me buying such a thing as me wearing a hockey helmet to office. Its big, gaudy, has a short battery life, and, frankly, I don’t see a real use for it.

“For the first time, we have a smartwatch that isn’t pants. I’ve tried a load of them over the years, with the best being the Pebble (nice, niche but a bit boring) and they’ve always left me a bit flat.”

19) How to Track and Secure Your Lost or Stolen Phone, No Matter Who Made It

I thought this was a really useful article and I hope to configure my devices accordingly later today.

“But you don’t have to wait until next summer to enable security tools on your beloved smartphone. Manufacturers have provided device-tracking apps for years now, and there are a variety of services that will help wipe a smartphone’s data or prevent reactivation if a phone is lost or stolen. Here’s a brief guide to ensure that your phone — and all the data on it — is as safe as can be.”

20) Apple Sales Numbers Show iPad Fever Is Officially Cooling

I figured I had to mention this. The problem is that Apple has priced themselves out of the market. I recently purchased an Acer tablet with a quad-core processor, etc., for $199 retail. I simply can’t fathom why anybody would pay double, or more, for an iPad. This article has more insight

“For the first time, analysts, investors, and the public widely expected Apple to post a drop in iPad sales numbers during its second quarter earnings today. And the numbers didn’t lie: The public is not gobbling up iPads like they used to. Analysts projected iPad sales would reach 19.7 million, an only marginal increase from the 19.5 million iPads sold during the same time period in 2013. In fact, Apple sold 16.35 million iPads, a drop of roughly 16.4 percent since last year.”

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