The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 30th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 30th 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

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1) New Middleware Technology Quadruples SSD Speed

Solid State Drives (SSDs) are a huge improvement in all regards over Hard Disk Drives, however, there is room for improvement. Write times tend to be considerably slower than read times, though you always write more data than you read in any event. There is probably much room for further improvement, in particular in the computer interface. This announcement suggests a different algorithm might speed up existing technologies and the good news is it should be easy to implement. One thing to note is that the results are simulated and a typically much more modest (25-50%) improvement, which is still significant.

“A Japanese research team developed a technology to drastically improve the writing speed, power efficiency and cycling capability (product life) of a storage device based on NAND flash memory (SSD).”

2) After Google bought Nest, it removed one of the company’s biggest competitors from search results

Rather hard to know or understand the facts in this case. It may be a coincidence that the delisting came shortly after the Nest purchase, however, I had never heard of Vivint prior to today while Nest was well known so it is hard to believe the company was “one of (Nest’s) biggest competitors” and home automation is different from overpriced web connected thermostats and unreliable fire alarms. That being said Google is running a business and there is nothing fair or not arbitrary about the advertising business. As the saying goes “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” and Google owns the biggest online advertising business and they now own Nest, so don’t expect a level playing field.

“In the middle of January, Vivint, the Utah based home automation company that also produces smart thermostats, found itself with a surprising new rival. Google bought Nest and by virtue of acquisition Vivint was suddenly competing head to head with the Silicon Valley search giant. But Vivint — which was purchased by Blackstone in 2012 — certainly didn’t expect what happened next. Just two weeks later, Vivint was delisted from Google’s search results.”

3) Fossil avatars are transforming palaeontology

Over the past few years I have been ruminating about the challenges of designing a robot which could remove the matrix (not the fossil stuff) around a fossil. Such a machine could work 24/7 and probably be much more efficient and faster than a human technician (there is considerable latitude when you are thinking about a problem in a field you fundamentally don’t understand. These visualization techniques, combined with 3D printing, may provide an even better solution.

“New techniques for visualizing fossils are transforming our understanding of evolutionary history according to a paper published by leading palaeontologists at the University of Bristol. Palaeontology has traditionally proceeded slowly, with individual scientists labouring for years or even decades over the interpretation of single fossils which they have gradually recovered from entombing rock, sand grain by sand grain, using all manner of dental drills and needles.”

4) Are Tesla’s Plans for a Giant Battery Factory Realistic?

Forbes is highly skeptical of the hype surrounding EVs and Tesla in particular, as am I. Like most “alternative energy” type solutions these are driven by subsidy and legislation rather than actually providing value for money. Exploiting and helping craft such policies appears to be a major talent of Elon Musk. Getting back to EVs, their major weakness has been, and remains, the battery packs which are both extremely expensive ($10K – $30K) and short lived. There is absolutely no reason to suspect they will get much cheaper and the lifespan is determined by the chemistry, which isn’t changing. Lots of hopes are pegged on Musk’s plans for a battery ‘megafactory’ despite a complete lack of evidence to support those hopes. The article contains comments from experts in the field citing what are, bluntly, well known facts in the battery business.

Tesla Motors Inc. plans to build one of the world’s largest factories of any kind in the U.S. But it wouldn’t build its electric cars there—it would make the batteries to power them. The plant, slated for completion by 2020 at a cost of as much as $5 billion, would be able to turn out more lithium-ion batteries than all the battery factories in the world today. Tesla plans to break ground in June, though the site is still uncertain, and expects to start producing batteries at the plant by 2017. It says the scale will help drive the cost of batteries down, in turn helping to make a mass-market, all-electric car possible.”

5) Understanding SaaS: Why the Pundits Have It Wrong

An unusually good article looking at the business dynamics of Saas (Software as a Service) and why this model merits different metrics when considering valuation. Of course, the problem is that valuation multiples tend to be derived from the most successful businesses, however only a small set of businesses (let alone SaaS businesses) are going to be successful. In other words, the business model may offer the potential for superior cash flows if successful, but investors have to be cognizant of the fact that many will not have a compelling product offering, let alone one which works with SaaS.

“Tune into any cable network stock market channel and the airwaves resonate with one consistent theme: SaaS companies are simply too expensive. In fact, we might even be in a bubble! The argument goes as follows — high revenue growth coupled with lack of profits means these businesses are fundamentally broken. Just as we saw in 1999-2000, investors’ willingness to pay for growth at any cost will end and many SaaS companies will be left behind.”

6) HIV can cut and paste in the human genome

Many diseases are a result of a malfunctioning gene – either inherited or as a result of a mutation after birth. The problem is that editing the gene or even supplementing its function (say with another copy) is easier to say than to do. You have to get inside a cell, then inside the nucleus, cut out the ‘bad’ copy (or the bad part of the gene) and replace with a good copy. These researchers claim to have solved the problem. Of course, this technique would have to be pretty reliable otherwise it could introduce new problems into cells and kill the patient. Still, it is very promising work.

“For the first time researchers have succeeded in altering HIV virus particles so that they can simultaneously, as it were, ‘cut and paste’ in our genome via biological processes. Developed at the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University, the technology makes it possible to repair genomes in a new way.”

7) ProtonMail: ‘NSA-Proof’ End-to-End Encrypted Email Service

Subsequent to the lid being blown off NSA surveillance (which knowledgeable people assumed was going on in any event) there has emerged a number of ‘NSA proof’ applications and products. It is safe to assume that any ‘NSA proof’ hardware or commercial product is most likely either a ‘honeypot’ or that the system will be compromised through collaboration (NSA’s favorite technique). Open source solutions such as these have the potential for being actually secure since they are open to analysis, critique, and improvement.

“The Edward Snowden revelations triggered a large-scale movement worldwide towards deploying encryption across the Internet for secure services, which is something the government agencies like NSA and GCHQ have targeted repeatedly, as exemplified by abruptly shutting down Lavabit, a Texas-based Encrypted Email Service. In response, a group of young developers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has launched a new email service which offers end-to-end encryption and securing communications that could put an end to government snooping and will keep away our personal data from prying eyes.”

8) Man to 3D Print His Own Home in His Own Home

There is considerable appeal to the prospect of the lone inventor working in his garage and changing the world. In the case of open-source derived solutions this is actually possible so the inventor should not be dismissed as a kook (though there are plenty of those out there). Robotically constructed houses are coming, probably sooner rather than later. I figure the foundation and exterior walls are the likely to be the first parts which will be built this way. One challenge will be the development of building codes: not that robots will be an issue but the materials and structural components will be novel and this will require considerable effort to get approvals.

“… Andrey Rudenko is in the process of testing his own 3D construction process from the confines of his Minnesotan home. Rudenko, a contractor with a background in architecture and engineering, is currently at the experimentation stage of his project. He’s spent the last year building a 3D concrete printer in his two-car garage, gradually scaling up his project to the point where he can print a two-story home.”

9) Samsung Is Building an Oculus Rift Competitor: Report

Well, Oculus Rift competitor is a bit of a misstatement since Oculus Rift is not on the market yet. Plus, VR goggles have been around for some time, so maybe its better to say Samsung is coming out with a VR headset it hopes will be commercially successful, unlike most other such product launches. Those folks at Samsung are pretty cocky to think they can take on a few kids who have no prior engineering or manufacturing expertise.

Given Samsung’s propensity to compete in virtually every conceivable product category, this isn’t too surprising: The company is working on its own version of the Oculus Rift and plans to unveil it this year. Samsung has even shipped prototypes of the device to some developers already, according to a report in Engadget. Rather than being a PC or game console peripheral, Samsung’s headset links to a Galaxy phone to create its virtual environment. It’s a demanding device, though: The consumer version will require the power of next-generation flagship processors, the report states.”

10) Facebook Microphone Update To Store Data: Social Media Giant Confirms New Feature Will Aggregate Information

Just to be clear I do not, and never will, have anything to do with Facebook. Still this is damned creepy, and quite possibly a violation of the law in certain jurisdictions. Lets say you are dopey enough to install this app and agree – knowingly or otherwise – to Facebook eves dropping on you. I don’t get it, I don’t understand it, but that is your decision. Now, lets say you call me or you talk to me (nothing limits this disgusting ‘feature’ to when you are using your phone. Now, that means Facebook is now tapping my conversations without a warrant and without my permission which is illegal in a lot of places. I can easily imaging that future business meetings start with a demand people remove their phones from the room. Between Google Glass and Facebook is punching people in the face going to be the only way of saying ‘respect my privacy’?

“On the same day that Facebook touted sweeping new efforts to protect users’ privacy, the company confirmed that it plans to save data captured by smartphone microphones, potentially enabling the social media giant to listen in on private conversations.”

11) Kantar Survey: Android Up Again, iOS Down Again In U.S.

It should be obvious that as smartphone and tablet pricing declines, almost all the associated unit sales will be directed to Android (or potentially other open source mobile operating systems which may emerge). iOS has thus far only been available on premium priced products which are now increasingly behind the curve technologically. Apple could break with recent tradition and introduce products with specifications which support their premium brand position though, admittedly, you can only go so far in that regard as users have plenty of functionality as it is so this seems unlikely. Alternatively, the company might try and introduce price competitive models which would then jeopardize margins and their brand. Stay tuned.

“Android’s share of smartphones sold to U.S. end users rose 7.3 percentage points to 59.1 percent during the three months ending April compared with the year-ago period, a Kantar Worldpanel ComTech survey found. Apple’s iOS share fell 6.8 percentage points to 34.6 percent.”

12) The mechanics of the iCloud “hack” and how iOS devices are being held to ransom

Speaking of Apple, a few months ago I carried a story about a guy whose iCloud account was hacked (it was really easy to do) resulting in the destruction of most of his online life and much of his data. Seriously: don’t keep your backups all in one place. Now there is a new spin on the iCloud hack and it is ransomware. For reasons which are not clear to me this appears to have taken place only in Australia but you can be sure word has gotten out among hackers and it will spread.

“Oh boy. What we’re looking at is an iPhone that has been remotely locked by “Oleg Pliss”. What we’re looking at is a modern incarnation of ransomware executed via Apple’s iCloud and impacting devices using the “Find my iPhone” feature. Perplexingly, this is predominantly impacting Aussie iCloud users and to date, there’s no clear reason why, rather we have 23 pages of reported hacks and general speculation on the Apple Support Community website.”

13) Google made a self-driving car, and it doesn’t have a steering wheel

I am a big believer in the self-driving care, which I figure will transform society. It makes some sens that a purpose built vehicle would be better than an adapted people driven car, however, not having ‘dual mode’ operation will put serious limitations on where such a vehicle could go. Nonetheless, one can imagine that a machine such as this would find use in densely populated urban areas. I am rather leery of the EV angle for the same reasons I am cautious about EVs in general: batteries are damned expensive and short lived. It is possible those disadvantages would be offset by other advantages of a self-driving car, however.

“Google today announced its own design for self-driving cars, which will drive people around without a steering wheel or pedals. It’s the latest project from Google X, the company’s skunkworks group headed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.”

14) How Statisticians Found Air France Flight 447 Two Years After It Crashed Into Atlantic

The futile search for the missing Malaysian flight is not exactly unprecedented (though the lack of a trace of wreckage, bodies, etc. is highly unusual). AF 447 disappeared almost five years ago and it took a couple years to recover that wreckage. This is the story of how it was discovered. Mind you – they at least had a general idea as to where the plane went down and the misdirection, lies, and false leads associated with the recent disaster where not a factor in AF 447.

“In the early morning hours of June 1, 2009, Air France Flight AF 447, with 228 passengers and crew aboard, disappeared during stormy weather over the Atlantic while on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.” So begin Lawrence Stone and colleagues from Metron Scientific Solutions in Reston, Virginia, in describing their role in the discovery of the wreckage almost two years after the loss of the aircraft.”

15) Root backdoor found in surveillance gear used by law enforcement

Just to show it isn’t just NSA who spies on people, weakens security, implements backdoors, etc., however, they tend to be a lot more nuanced. One could attribute this ‘feature’ to flat out incompetence but its presence in a product used by law enforcement makes that unlikely, in my view.

“In a scathing advisory published Wednesday, the researchers recommended people stop using the Nice Recording eXpress voice-recording package. It is one of several software offerings provided by Ra’anana, Israel-based Nice Systems, a company that markets itself as providing “mission-critical lawful interception solutions to support the fight against organized crime, drug trafficking and terrorist activities.” The advisory warned that critical weaknesses in the software expose users to attacks that compromise investigations and the security of the agency networks.”

16) High smartphone patent royalties undermine industry profitability: report

As you might have expected all those crap patents do end up costing money and ultimately those costs are passed ot consumers. Some of the numbers seem a bit high inless the major patent trolls like Microsoft scale their blackmail down as the sales price of the product goes down.

“A study into royalty demands for smartphones has found the payments are currently so high that they undermine the profitability of the industry and stifle innovation. The paper [PDF] is written by two lawyers from US intellectual property firm WilmerHale in Washington along with one of Intel’s top legal officers, Ann Armstrong, in her personal capacity. It draws on publicly available information and captures royalty demands as well as actual payments.”,high-smartphone-patent-royalties-undermine-industry-profitability-report.aspx

17) Kids with wheels: Should the unlicensed be allowed to ‘drive’ autonomous cars?

These are the results of an Internet service so they should be taken with a large block of salt. Most likely, the answers probably reflect as much about expectations regarding the capabilities of driverless cars rather than an informed consideration of the safety of such vehicles as they are likely to be within 10 years. Eventually it will be possible for young children, etc., to ride in them just as we permit them to ride elevators. That will probably be 20 years from now, however.

“Earlier this month, when we asked people about your general thoughts on autonomous cars, we found that one of the main advantages of autonomous cars is that those who are not licensed to drive will be able to get to places more conveniently. This led us to wonder more about who should be able to drive an autonomous car.”

18) Scientists Report Finding Reliable Way to Teleport Data

Poor Einstein: they like to use his comment which was, in fact an incredibly prescient prediction about the implications of quantum theory. Despite the musing about secure communcations networks (you can always bribe somebody at the other end) these experiments are more likely to be of interest to quantum theorist than to have any practical application.

“Scientists in the Netherlands have moved a step closer to overriding one of Albert Einstein’s most famous objections to the implications of quantum mechanics, which he described as “spooky action at a distance.” In a paper published on Thursday in the journal Science, physicists at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at the Delft University of Technology reported that they were able to reliably teleport information between two quantum bits separated by three meters, or about 10 feet.”

19) The Willy Report: proof of massive fraudulent trading activity at Mt. Gox, and how it has affected the price of Bitcoin

Whats this? Fraud at a Bitcoin exchange? Whatever next? And market manipulation may have caused the value of Bitcoin to multiply 10x in a month? I’m shocked, shocked I tell you! Next they’ll claim a Swiss bank was used to launder the proceeds! Good thing this unregulated ‘market’ for intangibles is now clean and completely free of such shenanigans!

“Somewhere in December 2013, a number of traders including myself began noticing suspicious bot behavior on Mt. Gox. Basically, a random number between 10 and 20 bitcoin would be bought every 5-10 minutes, non-stop, for at least a month on end until the end of January. The bot was dubbed “Willy” at some point, which is the name I’ll continue to use here. Since Willy was buying in such a recognizable pattern, I figured it would be easy to find in the Mt. Gox trading logs that were leaked about two months ago (there’s a torrent of the data here).”

20) Microsoft demos breakthrough in real-time translated conversations

This is very impressive technology and the demo is very cool. Other articles suggest University of Toronto researchers were deeply involved in the development. I suspect comparisons to Start Trek’s “Universal Translator” (or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Babelfish) are more than a tad premature. Voice recognition itself is an evolving field and the nuance needed for translation is more than simply a another layer of challenge. Thanks to my friend Avner Mandelman for bringing this development to my attention.

“Skype Translator results from decades of work by the industry, years of work by our researchers, and now is being developed jointly by the Skype and Microsoft Translator teams. The demo showed near real-time audio translation from English to German and vice versa, combining Skype voice and IM technologies with Microsoft Translator, and neural network-based speech recognition. Skype Translator is a great example of why Microsoft invests in basic research. We’ve invested in speech recognition, automatic translation and machine learning technologies for more than a decade, and now they’re emerging as important components in this more personal computing era. You can learn more about the research behind this initiative here.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 23rd 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 23rd 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

Click to Subscribe

Click to Unsubscribe


1) Fine Line Seen in U.S. Spying on Companies

The hypocrisy of the US indicting Chinese for hacking computers for commercial gain is particularly stark within the context of the Snowden revelations. Of course the whole thing is just a publicity stunt as the accused will never face a trial unless they are dumb enough to visit the US. Presumably a clever legal mind can differentiate between the NSA spying on Petrobas for commercial gain and the Red Army spying on Alcoa. I can’t.

“The National Security Agency has never said what it was seeking when it invaded the computers of Petrobras, Brazil’s huge national oil company, but angry Brazilians have guesses: the company’s troves of data on Brazil’s offshore oil reserves, or perhaps its plans for allocating licenses for exploration to foreign companies.”

2) Driverless cars could cripple law enforcement budgets

A bit silly, but here you have it: no speeding will mean less income for police departments. Then again, less speeding and fewer collisions also mean you will have less for the police to do so you can get buy with fewer of them. Its a bit like complaining that antibiotics made life difficult for gravediggers.

“Approximately 41 million people receive speeding tickets in the U.S. every year, paying out more than $6.2 billion per year, according to statistics from the U.S. Highway Patrol published at That translates to an estimate $300,000 in speeding ticket revenue per U.S. police officer every year.”

3) Facebook Reaps Billions from Your Data: It’s Time to Unplug

Some interesting stats and thoughts regarding Facebook. I don’t really see the solutions offered as solutions, however.

“Facebook’s entire business is based upon selling the “largest database of people ever built” to potential advertisers. It’s how the site reaped US$2.27 billion of the total $2.5 billion of its total profit in the first three months of 2014, according to its latest public report. It’s why, according to an analysis by Mashable and Statista, each global average user now has the value of $2 per quarter. A US American or Canadian is worth a bit more, at $5.85 per user. Europeans about $2.44. The individual user is the product.”

4) How to lie, cheat and steal like Snapchat — all the way to the bank

The article provides a summary on how Snapchat abused its costumers only to get tapped on the wrist with a wet noodle. The lesson should be clear: the relationship between corporations and consumers is highly asymmetrical under the law – they can steal from you, but you can’t steal from them.

“Two weeks ago the Federal Trade Commission announced a settlement agreement with Snapchat, formally acknowledging the app lied about user privacy and security, and took user data without consent. The settlement amounts to little more than the “private” photo-sharing app being told to stop lying, and to submit privacy reports to the FTC every six months for 20 years.”

5) Internet ‘Do Not Track’ system is in shatters

Not surprising, actually. Self regulation and voluntary programs are just smokescreens to provide the appearance of action or concern without actually doing anything about it. If you want a small amount of privacy run Firefox (or Iceweasel) with Adblocker and/or Ghostery.

“Chalk up another victory for corporate surveillance: Five years after advocates came up with an easy way to let you browse the Web with just a little privacy, the Do Not Track system is in tatters and that pair of boots you looked at online last month is still stalking you from website to website.”

6) The Real Cost of Transporting Data Wholesale Across the Internet

The paragraph below pretty much summarizes the article, which is pretty incoherent and poorly written (hey – its a slow week). The idea is this: why don’t consumers benefit from the dramatic reductions in cost over the past 15 years? There are many reasons for this: not all the costs of running an ISP are associated with bandwidth. More to the point is that fact than a non-competitive, unregulated market means ISP can gouge and they do.

“Transporting data wholesale across the Internet has come down in cost dramatically since 1998. At one point, Internet transit prices were at $1,200 per Mbps, but in 2013 the prices were at $1.57 per Mbps. Fifteen years is a long time in the technology world, so these numbers may not seem overly unexpected. However, predictions for 2014 place the price at $0.94 per Mbps and at $0.63 Mbps in 2015. At these low prices, you might expect Internet service providers (ISPs) to be struggling to come out ahead, yet they are flourishing and reporting record profits.”

7) Nest founder: No Google ads for you, Nest buyers

Good luck with that. Google didn’t spend money so it could supply overpriced thermostats to consumers. Setting aside for a moment the fact there is no rocket science behind Nest, Google presumably wants your data and, if they can to advertise to you (though the impact of a 2” square display would probably be pretty minimal. Whatever Fadell has to say about it is moot.

“Nest is being run independently from the rest of Google, with a separate management team, brand and culture,” Fadell said. “For example, Nest has a paid-for business model, while Google has generally had an ads-supported business model. We have nothing against ads — after all Nest does lots of advertising. We just don’t think ads are right for the Nest user experience.”

8) Data mining your children

Ah, the private sector and the education of children. What could go wrong? Frankly, this is rather creepy, especially since you can easily ignore the pleas it is being done to further education.

“The NSA has nothing on the ed tech startup known as Knewton. The data analytics firm has peered into the brains of more than 4 million students across the country. By monitoring every mouse click, every keystroke, every split-second hesitation as children work through digital textbooks, Knewton is able to find out not just what individual kids know, but how they think. It can tell who has trouble focusing on science before lunch — and who will struggle with fractions next Thursday.”

9) With Surface Pro, Microsoft Is Trying To Recreate The PC Market

I wonder if Microsoft would come out ahead by simply burning money rather than going through the process of designing an horrendously overpriced tablet with unimpressive specs for a laptop. Why would anybody want to pay top dollar for a Surface Pro when they can get a couple of tablets and a couple of laptops for more or less the same amount of money?

“In professional sports, a “tweener” is a player who’s not quite large, strong or fast enough to be a star. A tweener can be a good player, but his—because the term usually refers to men—in-between stature makes it difficult to find the right position and generally makes for an awkward fit on the team. The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is a tweener.”

10) Why I’m sending back Google Glass

I figure wearing Google Glass is like carry a sign which says “please punch me in the face because I might be recording you”, but then that is just me. These sorts of display/computer gizmos probably have some utility in particular applications like repair and maintenance but I find it hard to believe they will become mainstream.

“As a longtime user of Google products, I had been awaiting this opportunity ever since I didn’t make it into the ranks of Glass pioneers last year. The ability to integrate a heads-up display with my Google+, Google Play and Google Maps accounts was promising indeed, so I was thrilled to receive my package. After three weeks of usage, I have changed my mind. Please find enclosed a charcoal-gray Glass Explorer Edition package. I anticipate my refund.”

11) Silicon Valley to Get a Cellular Network, Just for Things

I don’t think it is a cellular network, however, the idea of a purpose built network for Internet of Things (IoT) is probably a good one given the costs of using existing wireless technologies which are expensive in terms of the interface and power usage. The problem with SigFox’s system is that it seems to be a proprietary, meaning your products will be wedded to the company. Networking technologies tend to do better when they are open standards based.

“San Francisco is set to get a new cellular network later this year, but it won’t help fix the city’s spotty mobile-phone coverage. This wireless network is exclusively for things. The French company SigFox says it picked the Bay Area to demonstrate a wireless network intended to make it cheap and practical to link anything to the Internet, from smoke detectors to dog collars, bicycle locks, and water pipes.”

12) Secrets, lies and Snowden’s email: why I was forced to shut down Lavabit

The interesting thing about Lavabit is that it was a completely legitimate service which happened to be exploited by Snowden as he reached out to journalists. The owner’s ordeal is rather telling, especially as he related being convicted in a secret trial he was not a party to, then being denied appeal because he didn’t raise certain issues at the secret trial he did not attend because it was secret. Kaftka would have been impressed.

“My company, Lavabit, provided email services to 410,000 people – including Edward Snowden, according to news reports – and thrived by offering features specifically designed to protect the privacy and security of its customers. I had no choice but to consent to the installation of their device, which would hand the US government access to all of the messages – to and from all of my customers – as they travelled between their email accounts other providers on the Internet.”

13) Robots Are Strong: The Sci-Fi Myth of Robotic Competence

Indeed – robots are not as sophisticated as the ones in science fiction, however, neither are they sophisticated enough to decide that a motorcyclist wearing a helmet is more likely to survive a crash than one without, so the question of ‘robot ethics’ is, for the meantime, science fiction.

“Last week, I created a minor disturbance in the Internet, with a not-so-simple question—should a robotic car sacrifice its owner’s life, in order to spare two strangers?”

14) California bill would safeguard consumers’ rights to criticize firms online

As EULAs get longer and longer lawyers are inserting clauses restricting freedom of speech and other rights. General Mills backed down after people read through its ‘terms of use’ and discovered the company had inserted wording which took away their rights simply by printing a coupon ( This California initiative is a step in the right direction, however what you really need are laws which make it impossible to sign away your rights.

“There has been a lot of attention lately on consumers’ legal rights when reviewing products online. In 2013, we followed the saga of a patient trying to sue his dentist after the medical professional tried to censor negative online reviews. And last week, a similar pro-consumer ruling came down against toy-maker KlearGear after it sued a customer for less-than-positive feedback on”

15) In Letter to Obama, Cisco CEO Complains About NSA Allegations

Geez. Talk about crocodile tears. It seems pretty obvious that large US tech companies eagerly cooperated with the NSA – after all, the US government is a large tech customer. The real horror is that the shenanigans were exposed, necessitating damage control. I believe the protests by these companies is nothing more than that and these schemes will continue to be used.

“Failure to restore and repair that trust, Chambers said, could threaten the evolution of the Internet itself and lead to its fragmentation. The letter follows a May 13 blog post by Cisco General Counsel Mark Chandler saying the NSA had “overreached.” Chandler said that Cisco does not cooperate with any government, including the U.S. government, to “weaken our products.””

16) Don’t Diss Cheap Smartphones. They’re About to Change Everything

Smartphone pricing should drop to the $100 level (unlocked), but probably not much lower. There are those who continue to believe this will not impact margins in the business because people will, for example, continue to buy iPhones due to brand loyalty and/or as a fashion statement. That’s as may be, but there comes a time when fashion works against you as well.

“We’re rushing headlong into the era of cheap cell phones. The peace dividends of the smartphone wars mean you can buy a pretty amazing piece of hardware for what many people spend on lattes each month. That Alcatel has 4G, a quadcore processor, a 13-megapixel camera, and it plays 1080P video. It runs Android 4.2, which isn’t completely current but isn’t totally out of date either, and you can grab one for as little as $80 without a contract. That $129 Moto E ($79 if you get a contract, which you shouldn’t) runs Android 4.4.2, sports a Gorilla Glass screen, has an all-day battery and is even water resistant.”

17) Fiat CEO: Please don’t buy our electric car

The electric cars currently on the market only exist because of massive subsidies and California regulations requiring “Zero Emission Vehicles” and/or ZEV “credits” to comprise a certain percentage of each company’s fleet. Tesla’s “success” such as it is, is essentially due to regulation and little else. Large companies like Fiat are forced to put their own uneconomic EV on the road or buy ZEV credits from Tesla. The problem with situations such as these is only works provided a small portion vehicle are EV, otherwise governments have to pull the subsidies. And don’t get me started about the problems with batteries.

“In what must be a first for the head of a multinational car manufacturer, the CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has requested that potential buyers of the Fiat 500e electric car look elsewhere. Speaking at a conference in Washington yesterday, Sergio Marchionne revealed that Fiat was making a huge loss on each of the electric vehicles sold, and he’s fed up of losing money.”

18) Sentient robots? Not possible if you do the maths

On the one hand (see item 13) we have the idea robots are – or are not – clever enough to kill us in order to save two other people while on the other hand you have articles such as these which claim sentient machines might be impossible. Frankly, the fact we already have examples of sentient animals means you can, indeed, make a sentient machine. Its just a question of time.

“So long, robot pals – and robot overlords. Sentient machines may never exist, according to a variation on a leading mathematical model of how our brains create consciousness. Over the past decade, Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues have developed a mathematical framework for consciousness that has become one of the most influential theories in the field. According to their model, the ability to integrate information is a key property of consciousness. They argue that in conscious minds, integrated information cannot be reduced into smaller components. “

19) LG Will Take The ‘Smart’ Out Of Your Smart TV If You Don’t Agree To Share Your Viewing And Search Data With Third Parties

Here we have another example of stupid EULA tricks: a software update is rolled out to TVs in the field and you have a choice of either agreeing to an EULA or losing a considerable amount of functionality. I can see why this would convince me to never buy an LG TV, but you have to wonder when this nonsense will end.

“Because I will not agree to LG’s Privacy Policy, I can now no longer access/use any of of the TV’s network based programs: Iplayer, Skype, 3D etc. As of the 7th May following a software update to our less than two year old LG TV. I was confronted with a message asking me to read and agree with a couple of important new documents. So like a good little citizen I read and agreed with the first doc regarding use of said TV. but having read the Privacy Doc I was not best pleased with the companies assumption that I would simply agree to their sharing all our intimate viewing details (plus what ever else they can see)with all and sundry. “

20) Google offers best argument for broadband competition

This is a pretty good read which summarizes how the issues associated with Netflix and ISPs are somewhat different than at least I understood. The idea of an “Internet fast lane” or non-net-neutrality is a separate issue. Fundamentally the problem is that there are numerous regulatory barriers to competition in the provision of Internet service, at least in North America. Whether these barriers are natural or due to bad regulation (or corruption) the fact is the large communications companies have simply exploited their dominant position which was established when the market was regulated leaving consumers with the worst of both worlds.

“Net neutrality isn’t the only thing needed to keep the Internet open and free. Competition may in fact be the best way to ensure that consumers get the best quality access to the Internet. Jeffrey Burgan, director of network engineering for Google Fiber, explained in a blog post Wednesday why Google doesn’t charge companies like Netflix or Akamai for connecting directly with its own broadband network to exchange traffic. And in so doing, he laid out the perfect argument for how best to protect the Internet and make sure consumers get a high-quality Internet experience.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 9th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 7th 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


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1) Symantec Develops New Attack on Cyberhacking

I figure Symantec is trying to differentiate itself from competitors and upsell various services. Nonetheless, claiming that anti-virus only stops 45% of attacks seems a little counterproductive especially if anti-virus is your major revenue source. Even so I doubt the figure: a 55% success rate would rapidly translate to all computers being infected. At the end of the day, of course, the main problem with anti-virus is that it is supposed to protect against what amounts to badly written Operating Systems. Why would I assume an anti-virus company is going to write code which is more secure than that in the OS?

“Symantec Corp. SYMC +4.57% invented commercial antivirus software to protect computers from hackers a quarter-century ago. Now the company says such tactics are doomed to failure. Antivirus “is dead,” says Brian Dye, Symantec’s senior vice president for information security. “We don’t think of antivirus as a moneymaker in any way.”

3) Bacteria from Earth can easily colonize Mars

Sounds kinda scarey, but it really means that bacteria from earth can survive the journey and perhaps even survive on Mars. Colonization would require faster reproduction than death and Mars is a pretty harsh environment: a thin atmosphere, little water, high radiation, etc., so reproductive rates would be very very slow and even a low death rate would probably kill or damage enough bacteria to limit any chance of colonization. Of course, the fact the critters can survive the trip lends some credence to panspermia, or that life can hop from one planet or solar system to another.

“Bacteria from Earth could quickly colonize the surface of Mars, according to new research conducted aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Research into bacterial colonization on the red planet was not part of the plan to terraform the alien world ahead of human occupation. Instead, three teams investigated how to prevent microbes from Earth from hitching a ride to the red planet aboard spacecraft.”

3) Volvo ‘Drive Me’ Autonomous Car Pilot Project Gets Underway In Sweden: Video

Despite initial skepticism, I believe that autonomous (i.e. robotic) vehicles will be a disruptive technology. The real challenge will probably come from lawyers: no machine is perfect, however, the engineers who design them are expected to be. Based on my experience with Volvos I’d prefer they spend some time making their vehicles reliable before expecting me to believe they could make them drive themselves.

“While in the U.S. Google is making strides in the development of autonomous cars, overseas major automakers such as Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Volvo are also at an advanced stage and hope to have the technology ready for the mainstream by as early as the end of this decade. Volvo recently launched a pilot project in the city of Gothenburg, Sweden, where its self-driving cars are being tested on real public roads among other, non-autonomous traffic.”

4) Changing Channels: Americans View Just 17 Channels Despite Record Number to Choose From

This statistic shows why nobody (besides consumers) wants a situation whereby consumers only pay for what they watch – frankly, cable bills would plummet. Most of this is self inflicted, of course: it is hard to believe but there was a time when The History Channel had stuff on history, Discovery had stuff on science, etc.. Now it is pretty much unadulterated low brow crap. Assuming government do nothing (they have long promised choice, but they lie about mobile services as well) within a decade or so most TV will be streamed and this chapter will close.

“According to Nielsen’s forthcoming Advertising & Audiences Report, the average U.S. TV home now receives 189 TV channels—a record high and significant jump since 2008, when the average home received 129 channels. Despite this increase, however, consumers have consistently tuned in to an average of just 17 channels.”

5) ARM Expects 1B Entry Level Smartphones In 2018, $20 Smartphones Coming This Year

This sounds about right, however, I suspect the low end is probably a bit aggressive (i.e. too low), depending upon what you define as a smartphone. Displays have been a big cost factor and as I reported recently there are signs those prices are about to collapse. Despite what anybody tells you, branding will not save the $600 smartphone and pricing, margins and profits are set to plummet.

“At its second ever Tech Day, ARM shared some data about how the smartphone market is evolving. We often mention that the growth in the smartphone industry will shift from high-end devices to mid-range and entry level devices. The graph above shows just that. By 2018 ARM expects over a billion entry level (< $150) smartphone shipments per year, around 2x what it is today.”

6) The Exploitative Economics of Academic Publishing

While a boycott of Elsevier et als is a good idea, a simple change in funding policy would also work wonders: the US (and other leading research countries) could simply demand than any papers as a result of their grants be placed on an open or free access journal. This would not prohibit Elsevier et als from running their business but it would put a serious dent in their price gouging. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this article.

“Like many scientists, I provide access to my research papers on my website. I view this as a commonsense way to disseminate knowledge, but not everyone shares this view. A few months ago, I received an email from an official at Princeton University, where I attended graduate school, informing me that a lawyer representing the publishing giant Elsevier had demanded the removal of these papers from my website. When I published these papers in Elsevier journals, I was required to hand over the copyrights. Therefore, I had no choice but to remove the papers.”

7) Do-it-yourselfers inspire hardware renaissance in Silicon Valley

The ‘Maker Movement’ is probably more of a convergence of a variety of things than anything else. Open source software means that development tools, CAD tools, etc., which used to cost thousands of dollars are now available for free. Open source hardware like Arduino means ‘makers’ can hit the ground running rather than spending years developing their hardware platform drivers, etc.. Online electronics suppliers like Digikey means you can buy parts you simple were not allowed to buy 15 years ago and services like Upverter provide excellent platforms to get stuff to market. Crowdfunding means makers can dream of being the next Nest. Unfortunately, there is still very little investor interest in hardware but that will likely change.

“In the shadow of Internet monoliths such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, it’s easy to forget that Silicon Valley got its start from hard-scrabble tinkerers building radios, microchips and other devices. Now, a proliferation of high-tech but affordable manufacturing tools and new sources of funding are empowering a generation of handy entrepreneurs and laying the foundation for a hardware renaissance.”

8) NASA, CNES Warn SpaceX of Challenges in Flying Reusable Falcon 9 Rocket

A few weeks ago SpaceX showed a short take-off/soft landing of a rocket ( which was pretty cool and the Internet was full of fawning praise for this revolutionary accomplishment. I remain rather skeptical since you’d have to carry a lot of fuel in order to accomplish a soft landing from space, and NASA experts find other flaws with the plan. Above all, as the article hints, the prospect of a reusable vehicle with a sizable load of fuel, executing a landing within a few hundred miles of people presents its share of risks.

“In theory, the SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 booster can be reused more than three-dozen times. That’s because the rocket’s LOX/Kerosene Merlin 1D engine — nine of which power its first stage — has a cycle of 40, according to Stella Guillen, SpaceX director of business development. “It’s not obviously the entire system or the entire stage,” she said during a space conference in Paris last month. “We don’t know how many times we can fly the first stage. But the engines have a cycle of 40.””

9) Dropbox Scrambles To Block Leaks Of Shared Data

One great feature of Dropbox is that you can easily share certain files with others without compromising security of your entire shared file system. Or so that was the idea. I simple mistake can open those explicitly shared files to all Internet users, though admittedly it seems unlikely others would likely find out about it. Nonetheless, it is worth knowing about.

“Dropbox has moved to fix a weakness that allows users of its service, along with those of its arch-rival Box, to accidentally to leak private data to other web users. However security experts have warned that the danger remains. When users share a file on Dropbox or similar services they send a link intended for the reader alone, but there are two ways in which these links can be leaked to third parties, allowing them to access the files without any restriction.”

10) One woman’s cancer battle highlights promise of new treatment

This is my cancer cure of the week story and it is somewhat interesting. Immune therapies have come a long way as treatments for certain types of cancer (certain lymphomas for instance) and there is good reason to believe they have potential to get even better. Needless to say, this is a pretty early result, but encouraging nonetheless.

“Just over two years ago, Melinda Bachini decided she was done with chemotherapy to treat her cholangiocarcinoma—a rare cancer of the bile duct that runs from the liver to the intestines. At that point, she’d gone through three rounds of chemo, with little to show for it except side effects. The cancer was in her liver and lungs, and the outlook was grim. “I knew if I was going to beat this, it would have to be with an experimental therapy,” said Bachini, a mother of six who was diagnosed at the age of 41—on her son’s 14th birthday.”

11) New adhesive system makes a circuit board that is 90% recyclable

If its ‘green’ the Guardian is gonna carry the story with unblinking and unthinking coverage. Here’s the thing: removing components from a PCB depends on a couple factors but whether you raise the temperature to 100C or 200C (the melting point of most solders) doesn’t make much difference. You would never reuse electronic components because they would be completely unreliable. (Well, some Chinese manufactures do, but don’t get me started.) Plus, most of the components are obsolete by the time you would recycle them. Finally, who wants to use this approach and discover all their units fail in the field because of the adhesive?

“Three British companies have developed a 90% recyclable and reusable circuit board, whose components can be easily separated by soaking in hot water. Funded by the UK government’s Technology Strategy Board with a view to help industry conform to European electronic waste regulation, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), In2Tec and Gwent Electronic Materials have devised an adhesive that helps manufacturers take apart electronic circuit boards and reuse their components to make new components. They call it ReUse – Reusable, Unzippable, Sustainable Electronics.”

12) First Transistors Made Entirely Of 2-D Materials

This is my weekly graphene/nanotechnology article which discusses some of the applications which would be possible with the use of these novel materials. It’s good to see the caveat at the end of the article: too often these “breakthroughs” are widely touted despite significant remaining challenges.

“Two independent research groups report the first transistors built entirely of two-dimensional electronic materials, making the devices some of the thinnest yet. The transistors, just a few atoms thick and hence transparent, could lead to bright, high-resolution displays that are power-efficient and bendable.”

13) US Patent Office Grants ‘Photography Against A White Background’ Patent To Amazon

Good for a laugh. Evidently, US Patent Office examiners are so ignorant of the world they’ll approve a patent for basic photography. Some of the comments to this article are pretty funny, however, the situation in the USPTO is not.

“The US Patent and Trademark Office is frequently maligned for its baffling/terrible decisions… and rightfully so. Because this is exactly the sort of thing for which the USPTO should be maligned. Udi Tirosh at DIY Photography has uncovered a recently granted patent for the previously-unheard of process of photographing things/people against a white backdrop… to of all companies, Amazon.”

14) Scientists May Have Decoded One of the Secrets to Superconductors

This article is pretty hard to understand, however, it seems that the physics of high temperature superconducting is poorly understood and these researchers appear to have made progress with respect to understanding the phenomenon. Once the physics are understood it may be possible to design materials which obey those rules at higher temperatures and that would open up all kinds of possibilities.

“The microscopic structure of high-temperature superconductors has long puzzled scientists seeking to harness their virtually limitless technological potential. Now at last researchers have deciphered the cryptic structure of one class of the superconductors, providing a basis for theories about how they manage to transport electricity with perfect efficiency when cooled, and how scientists might raise their operating temperature closer to the climes of everyday life.”

15) First life with ‘alien’ DNA

This story got a lot of coverage, but I am not entirely sure why. Its pretty esoteric stuff and most of the coverage seemed to focus on the wrong aspects. Long story short there are molecules X and Y, which are neither A, T, C, or G, and which are close enough in structure that you can get them them into a DNA(ish) molecule. That is interesting, however, even if you could get the cell to make its own X and Y, there is no reason you would have anything other than a cell with a DNA like molecule which isn’t really DNA. Chances are, if X and Y had any advantage over traditional nucleotides they would have already been incorporated.

“For billions of years, the history of life has been written with just four letters — A, T, C and G, the labels given to the DNA subunits contained in all organisms. That alphabet has just grown longer, researchers announce, with the creation of a living cell that has two ‘foreign’ DNA building blocks in its genome.”

16) How Munich switched 15,000 PCs from Windows to Linux

This sounds like a success story but I have to say it took an awfully long time and that alone my discourage others from going down this path. Mind you, Linux has evolved a lot in the past decade and the first time is always the hardest. That being said, it shows it can be done. Plus the story about how Balmer’s efforts were counterproductive is kinda funny.

“Munich city council has migrated 15,000 workers from Windows to Linux. It’s a great success story for Free Software, and it upset Microsoft enormously. We visited the city and talked to Peter Hofmann, the man behind the migration – so read on for all the juicy details about what went right, what went wrong, and what made Steve Ballmer sweat…”

17) Apple close to buying Beats for $3.2 billion: source

I look upon Beats as Monster Cable for Dummies: basically selling what is inherently cheap low technology goods on the basis of branding. People have lousy hearing and you don’t real get much benefit from expensive headphones. As for streaming music, etc., well that ain’t exactly rocket science – its just a matter of getting the licenses and driving people to your site, which shouldn’t be a problem for Apple. I’ve learned in my career that you should never exclude the possibility of any high tech acquisition, no matter how ill-advised or over priced. The analyst’s comments are priceless: it’s Apple, so it must be a stroke of genius.

“This is really puzzling,” said Forrester analyst James McQuivey, who said there was huge overlap between the two companies’ customer base. “You buy companies today to get technologies that no one else … or customers that no one has.” “They must have something hidden … under the hood,” he said.”

18) Using Microsoft Is Cheaper Than Free Software Says Government Chief Information Officer

I don’t really understand how Apple got into the discussion, but I guess the ghost of Jobs haunts all. We have to remember that governments are the same sort of skillful managers who purportedly spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the Obamacare website orA better yet, $2 billion on a gun registry. In other words, if you are going to look for guidance on IT, the last people you would ask would be government. Even if, somehow, funding the most profitable companies in history is somehow cost effective, the money for Open Source support is generally spent locally, meaning the money (and expertise) stays in the community rather than ending up in a tax haven.

“It is hard competing with the world’s largest software company, but it can seem virtually impossible when even giving away your products is deemed too expensive. That is the point made by UK government Chief Information Officer for Hampshire Jos Creese and it throws a spotlight on the huge challenge faced by any company trying to compete with a giant like Microsoft or Apple.”

19) Router company that threatened a reviewer loses Amazon selling license

This will probably get me sued but you have to wonder what sort of lawyer would do such a thing. The Streisand Effect is a well known phenomenon – this isn’t the 1980s and people can tell other people they are being intimidated by a corporation, after which nobody cares what the facts are. Interestingly, Amazon appears to have removed the reviews, etc., so I can’t even tell if this was a good review or not. Regardless, I doubt I would consider this company’s products.

“In the statement, the company says that it did not actually sue the Amazon reviewer, but that it did insist that the reviewer’s “untrue, damaging, and disparaging statements” be taken down. “It’s our sincere belief that reasonable people understand that not only is it within our rights to take steps to protect our integrity, but that it should be expected that we would do so when it is recklessly attacked,” Mediabridge Products wrote. “The reviewer has since changed his review completely to remove the libelous statements, but unfortunately not before having an army attack us on the internet.”

20) Are 3D printed houses practical? The experts weigh in

I can’t really make up my mind as to whether this is a good article or one the people being quoted will feel bad about in 20 years. After all, it is pretty clear you can’t 3D print an entire house but you can pretty obviously produce the foundation in direct contradiction to one of the ‘experts’. My house is made from ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) From the basement to the roof and it is pretty obvious those could be 3D printed and filled on-site. The real issue is whether you can roboticly manufacture a house and, in my opinion, it is simply a question of time before that happens even if finishing has to be done by people.

“Recently Chinese company WinSun 3D printed 10 full-sized single storey houses in just 24 hours – a feat that seems incredible and may be able help solve housing problems around the world. Discussions about printing 3D houses have been going on for some time, however printing a house may not be as simple as it has been made out – if it is even possible at all.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 2nd 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

Click to Subscribe

Click to Unsubscribe


1) Google’s real plan behind the purchase of the Nest thermostat

Well, golly, the folks at Google were right: Nest was worth $3.2 billion because utilities will pay $40/customer per year to know how much electricity Nest users are using! Well, sort of. Except the sort of thermostats Nest make are usually for gas or oil heat and not electrical heat. Then there is the fact that lots of utilities have smart meters which pretty much tell them how electricity you are using, and not just for the heating which you are probably doing with gas or oil anyway. Other than that, brilliant!

“Google purchased Nest back in January this year for $3.2B and people everywhere are still wondering why. The Nest is a handsome device to be sure, but at around $250 a pop, it’s not exactly a household name. To recover its purchase price, Google would have to sell a lot of Nests…except they won’t have to.”

2) Spark of life: Metabolism appears in lab without cells

Abiogenesis presents a conundrum for science: evolution is very well and good (and completely proven) but the are orders of magnitude in complexity between non-living matter and the most basic living organism. Not only that, but it is not entirely clear what environment the earliest life forms evolved it. This sounds interesting, but it will be a long time before the question is really answered.

“Metabolic processes that underpin life on Earth have arisen spontaneously outside of cells. The serendipitous finding that metabolism – the cascade of reactions in all cells that provides them with the raw materials they need to survive – can happen in such simple conditions provides fresh insights into how the first life formed. It also suggests that the complex processes needed for life may have surprisingly humble origins.”

3) Forget Your ISP: Mesh Networks Are The Future Of The Internet

Mesh networking has its uses, however, in the current regulatory environment it would necessarily have limited coverage. Something worth pondering, however, is that the abysmal regulation of telecommunications, in particular in North America, has led to massive wealth for the companies who gamed (and influenced) the regulatory environment. That is, after all, the major skill of any telecommunications company. This presents a powerful incentive for complete disintermediation of the telecom service providers which I believe is inevitable over time.

“Gathered on sites such as the subreddit r/darknetplan, entrepreneurs and activists discuss plans to create an alternative to the current Internet by beaming data packets from router to router, circumventing ISPs. This is called mesh networking, where each node on a network is both a recipient and a relay station for data.”

4) Verizon Wireless sells out customers with creepy new tactic

Its one thing to get a ‘free’ service and let people exploit your personal information, and yet another to pay for that very abuse. The problem is that people appear to have become completely comfortable with companies exploiting their data and the regulatory regime, at least in North America, seems fully aligned with it. In the unlikely event my carrier implemented such a program I would immediately discontinue the service. Mind you, the great thing about the telecommunications industry (and finance) is that consumer abuse is widely and concurrently adopted – no doubt due to the “intensely competitive” nature of the market.

“As far as corporate notices go, they don’t get much creepier than this recent alert from Verizon Wireless. The company says it’s “enhancing” its Relevant Mobile Advertising program, which it uses to collect data on customers’ online habits so that marketers can pitch stuff at them with greater precision. “In addition to the customer information that’s currently part of the program, we will soon use an anonymous, unique identifier we create when you register on our websites,” Verizon Wireless is telling customers. “This identifier may allow an advertiser to use information they have about your visits to websites from your desktop computer to deliver marketing messages to mobile devices on our network,” it says.”,0,5339459,full.column

5) Early Life in Death Valley

This is not about abiogenesis but the detection of signs of microbial life appearing on land at a time when they are unexpected and the implication complex, macroscopic, life (most likely plants and arthropods, I’m guessing) might have been on land far earlier than expected. This is not as crazy as it sounds: environments tend to get exploited as soon as possible, and ‘barren land’ – or land with only microbial life – would be the ideal environment to exploit as there would be no competition and over the years, dead microbial life would add up to a sizable food resource.

“At last we reached our goal in this forbidding terrain: an approximately 750-million-year-old cave that Knauth, 69, a geochemist and geologist at Arizona State University, and the late Robert Horodyski, a paleontologist, had stumbled across two decades ago. The shape of the cave is stamped into a wall of dolomite; it is big enough to hold a human, but packed solid with a finely powdered quartz. The scientists discovered the cave while searching for microfossils to buttress their then-radical theory that microbial life flourished on land more than a billion years ago.”

6) Touch panel makers face falling revenue thanks to faltering touchscreen PC sales

Rising volumes and declining revenues are a very bad thing for any business as it means margins are about to get crushed, which is going to inflict a world of pain on the industry. Not only that but the display is an important cost item for phones and tables, so this trend supports my hypothesis that smartphone and tablet prices are set to plummet. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“Increased competition among the growing number of touch-panel makers is causing overall ASP and revenue declines, even as shipment volumes continue their upward trajectory,” NPD DisplaySearch research director Calvin Hsieh said. The revelation came as part of NPD’s most recent quarterly analysis of the touch panel industry.”

7) Liquid Metal Used to Reconnect Severed Nerves

Its hard to tell how real this advance is, but it sure sounds cool. Nerve repair is another problem which is due to be solved, though I’d put my money on stem cells before something like this.

“Today, Jing Liu at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a few pals say they’ve reconnected severed nerves using liquid metal for the first time. And they say that in conducting electrical signals between the severed ends of a nerve, the metal dramatically outperforms the standard saline electrolyte used to preserve the electrical properties of living tissue.”

8) What Running Out of Power in a Tesla on the Side of a Highway Taught Me About the Road Trip of Tomorrow

I am rather suspicious of the tow truck story: based upon what I have seem tow truck operators are not generally too concerned about damaging vehicles. Nonetheless, a dead battery is a very big deal with an EV, and range drops with every charge. As for ‘Superchargers’ well, yes, they do charge somewhat faster, but rest assured each use takes an even greater toll on battery life.

Four hours later we’re awake again, on the phone to AAA. They can’t find anyone who’s willing to take on the liability of towing a fancy car. After hours of calls back and forth, they say they’ve finally found a truck willing to jump and tow us. We convince a local cabbie to drop us off on the side of the interstate where we left the car 8 hours earlier, but our hero truck never comes. I call AAA after an hour, and they promptly hang us out to dry, saying, essentially, “Sorry, we aren’t willing to take on the liability of helping you.” We have entered an episode of The Twilight Zone written by Franz Kafka.”

9) Microsoft ‘must release’ data held on Dublin server

This is simply a reminder that under the Orwellian named “Patriot Act” US companies are required to hand data over to law enforcement regardless of the location of the data or the customer. Microsoft surely knows this, which suggests these legal moves are just theatrics.

“A judge in the US has ordered Microsoft to hand over a customer’s emails, even though the data is held in Ireland. The company had attempted to challenge the search warrant on the basis that the information was stored exclusively on computer servers outside the US.”

10) In 9-0 vote, Supreme Court makes it easier to get fees in patent cases

This looks like very bad news for the patent litigation business. The 9-0 decision sends a very strong signal to lower courts to award damages more readily, and that is the last thing a ‘non-practicing entity’ wants. The name of the game for the typical patent troll is to provide its victims with a lose/lose scenario whereby settling might be costly, but less costly than legal expenses even if the alleged infringer prevails. This ruling will balance risks such that, in many cases, the loser will end up paying legal expenses, presenting a clear danger to those with a weak case – as is often the situation with ‘trolls’

“This morning, the US Supreme Court published opinions in two of the five patent cases it will decide this term. Both will make it easier for parties who win patent cases to collect fees when the other side has engaged in outlandish behavior or filed an exceptionally weak case.”

11) Materialise Updates Their ‘Mimics Innovation Suite’, Turns X-Rays Into 3D Models

This is a really interesting piece of software, however, as you can imagine, the article doesn’t get into much in the way of specifics or limitations. For example, it is hard to believe you can derive all the information a CAT or MRI can provide with only two X-Ray images. Nonetheless, there may be many applications where a small number of X-Rays can be synthesized into a ‘good enough’ picture.

“Every year tens of millions of dollars are spent by patients and their insurance companies on expensive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. The scans can be time consuming, as well as a pain in the neck to sit through. Another medical imaging technology, commonly used, is the computed tomography (CT) scan. These scans are not only expensive, but they also direct a great deal of radiation towards the body.”

12) Toyota Describes Combustion Engine That Generates Electricity Directly

As the article links this is not a new idea and I have my doubts as to whether these will ever hit the market. The interesting thing is that if you decouple the engine from the wheels as in a hybrid vehicle, for example, many limitations in engine design are eliminated, which allows for innovation with respect to the type of engine you can put in a car. For example, perhaps turbines, radial engines, etc., would fit a hybrid application.

“Despite the recent advent of usable, talented electric vehicles, combustion engines are likely to persist for quite some time, often as a component in plug-in hybrid and range-extended electric vehicles. The onus then is on refining combustion power to work harmoniously with increasingly electrified vehicles–and Toyota’s new Free Piston Engine Linear Generator (FPEG) could be one solution.”

13) Stanford bioengineers create circuit board modeled on the human brain

Neural networks are seriously cool, however, they have never lived up to their promise. This does not, of course, imply they never will: one problem has been ‘programming’ and these researchers seem to appreciate that. One word of caution, however: neural networks, like quantum computers, are not general purpose computers but are best applied to certain classes or problems. I suspect that, unlike quantum computers, there are many more ‘real world’ applications for neural networks than for quantum computers.

Stanford bioengineers have developed a new circuit board modeled on the human brain, possibly opening up new frontiers in robotics and computing. For all their sophistication, computers pale in comparison to the brain. The modest cortex of the mouse, for instance, operates 9,000 times faster than a personal computer simulation of its functions.”

14) A is for algorithm

The teaching of programming, logic, and other computer related skills is, probably as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic, as the article suggests. Nonetheless, I have my doubts as to whether the teachers have the skills necessary to teach the subject. After all, in many developed world countries, even basic education seems to be on a long term decline.

LET’S do it again,” calls a ten-year-old. Once more, pupils clasping printed numbers follow tangled lines marked with white tape on the floor of their school hall. When two meet, the one holding the higher number follows the line right; the other goes left. Afterwards they line up—and the numbers are in ascending order. “The idea is to show how a computer sorts data,” explains their teacher, Claire Lotriet.”

15) Why Japanese watchmakers have no time for smartwatches

Even though I agree with the conclusion that interest in wearables will fizzle, it is rare that incumbents predict their own demise. In other words, you wouldn’t ask a horse breeder or a railroad engineer to predict the impact of newfangled horseless carriages.

If the Rufus Cuff smartwatch is anything to go by, some people want a lot of hardware on their wrists. The crowdfunded watch is truly massive: 8 centimeters wide, with a 3-inch touchscreen, Wi-Fi, GPS and other features that make it seem like a smartphone strapped to your arm. The US$279 behemoth might look unwieldy to some, but backers love it. They’ve pledged over $230,000 to Rufus Cuff’s Indiegogo fundraising campaign, more than meeting its goal of $200,000.”

16) Report: Google Glass parts make up 5.3%—roughly $100—of $1,500 price tag

Apparently, this is a rather controversial conclusion, but I don’t really see why: $100 gets you one hell of a lot of electronics nowadays so I’d be surprised if the real figure was that much higher. Even volume pricing wouldn’t matter much: pricing for 25,000 or 1 million would be pretty close, though higher volume would likely reduce assembly costs.

With the expansion of Google Glass’ Explorer program earlier this month came more digital-eyewear shoppers—and, not long after, more scrutiny. Once Glass’ second purchasing wave got its hands on Google’s wearable tech, a few cost-curious shoppers didn’t wait long to take their new, $1,500 devices apart.”

17) Implant Lets Patients Regrow Lost Leg Muscle

There were a fair number of stem cell announcements over the past week, so there must be a conference going on or something. I knew someone who lost a large chunk of muscle which never grew back, and it was a debilitating injury. This new treatment offers some hope.

Five people who suffered serious leg injuries have been able to regrow muscle tissue in their legs thanks to a new regenerative medicine treatment. The new treatment requires intensive surgery to remove scar tissue, after which a biological scaffold is sutured in. Within two days, the patients began an intensive physical therapy regimen that helps direct the development of stem cells in the body that are drawn to the implant. Once the stem cells reach the implant, they start making new muscle tissue.”

18) Quantum telescope could make giant mirrors obsolete

As usual with quantum mechanics I only have a vague idea what they are talking about, however, it certainly seems link an interesting approach. It is clear from the article that this is only at the discussion stage today, though nobody seems to be saying it won’t work. Perhaps a lot can be done if the theoreticians focus their efforts.

Quantum mechanics, rather than a huge telescope, could be the best route to high-resolution space images, according to new research carried out in the UK. If confirmed, a telescope of any size could resolve ever-smaller features of the night sky, allowing astronomers to discover exoplanets and other distant objects much more easily than is currently possible.”

19) Google’s IBM motherboards a dark omen for Intel

Last week we mentioned that IBM was opening its Power architecture. This announcement was, no doubt, in the works for at least a year, if not two. Should Intel be worried? Well, with x86 Windows desktop and laptop sales in secular decline (they will plateau) loss or erosion of your most profitable segment could be problematic.

The latest blow to Intel’s future arrived on Monday in the form of a red server motherboard touted by Gordon MacKean, the man responsible for building the hundreds of thousands of servers that power Google’s online empire. In a Google+ post, MacKean said he was “excited” to show off the red motherboard, which was built using not an Intel chip, but IBM’s Power8 processor.”

20) It’s no joke – the robots will really take over this time

The new Luddites have stated to array against our future robot overlords. One good thing about these authors is that they are at a business school, and, lets face it, the predictive skill of economists and business professors is about the same as the average chicken. Economies are, by their nature, adaptive, and I am pretty sure few people starved to death when we stopped cutting grain with scythes. Plus, “thinking” robots are far enough into the future and their limitations so unknown, its nothing to worry about. I am hoping the robots remember my position on this.

Not often do you hear a Newsnight presenter using an arcane mathematical term, but last week was an exception. The culprit was David Grossman, who made an excellent film for Newsnight about the threat to employment from advanced robotics. In the course of this, he made the standard pilgrimage to MIT to interview Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who have made much of the running in this area with a number of books, of which the most recent is The Second Machine Age. Their argument, said Grossman, was that our society has reached an “inflection point”, a concept beloved of those who studied differential calculus in their youth, but probably unfamiliar to the average viewer.”