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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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 (http://www.space.com/25597-spacex-reusable-rocket-falcon9r-video.html) 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.”