The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 27th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 27th 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

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1) Schultz advocates large-scale testing of self-driving cars on Dutch roads

This looks like a promising development for self-driving cars. I don’t know enough about Dutch politics to hazard a guess as to whether this proposal is likely to be adopted, however, the sponsorship of a minister is probably a strong indication it will be. Another factor might be the nature of Dutch law regarding the apportionment of blame and damages in the event of a traffic accident. Collisions with self driving cars are bound to happen regardless of how good the technology gets, and one can imagine tort lawyers are smacking their lips over the prospects.

“Minister Schultz van Haegen: “The age of self-driving cars has arrived. Developments in this field will change the relationship between driver and vehicle more in the next twenty years than anything in the past one hundred years did. I want us as the Netherlands not only to be ready, but also to be at the vanguard of this innovative development internationally. Self-driving cars will make a positive contribution to the flow of traffic and to the safety of our busy road network. Moreover, self-driving cars are more economical which is good for us as well as the environment.”

2) EU launches attack against corporate tax avoidance

Frankly it is hard to understand how governments let corporations get away with this, at least outside the US. The EU is a particularly odd place because certain members more or less actively promote tax avoidance as a business model. The reason I mention this article in a tech newsletter is that, if enacted properly, cash taxes paid by industry titans would skyrocket, which would ultimately impact valuation. I favor a ‘general tax-avoidance’ law which would criminalize cheating as well as levy astronomical fines.

“The EU has taken steps to curb tax avoidance by global corporations. In recent months, criticism in the budget-strapped bloc has mounted over tax loopholes exploited by companies such as Apple, Google and others.”

3) Russia wants to replace US computer chips with local processors

With (likely well-founded) rumors of ‘back doors’ in Intel and AMD processors, the current tensions between Russia and the West makes this move long overdue. Perhaps the same thing would have happened if the Snowden/NSA revelations had not occurred because you have to believe Russian intelligence was well aware of what was going on. Regardless, other countries, in particular much of the Muslim world, are probably asking themselves whether the Russians would be more trustworthy suppliers than the US. As a side note, ARM processors are not a good market for Microsoft Windows, and any such ‘home brew’ Russian systems will likely run Linux.

“Russia’s Industry and Trade Ministry plans to replace US microchips Intel and AMD, used in government’s computers, with domestically-produced micro processor Baikal in a project worth dozens of millions of dollars, business daily Kommersant reported Thursday.”

4) Canada implements world’s first national Bitcoin law

This seems like a pretty well reasoned and balanced law. While not making Bitcoin legal tender it does require dealers and transaction processors to follow the same anti-money laundering provisions as anybody else, including the local foreign exchange dealer. While the law seems to make sense, I wish I could say the same about the lawyer’s brief comments at the end: is it the role of anti-money laundering laws to foster entrepreneurship? Quite the opposite, depending on the business you are starting.

“At the end of this week, the Parliament of Canada quietly implemented what is likely the world’s first national Bitcoin law, and certainly the world’s first treatment in law of Bitcoin under national anti-money laundering law. Late Thursday, Canada’s Governor General gave Royal Assent to Bill C-31, An Act to Implement Certain Provisions of the Budget Tabled in Parliament on February 11, 2014 and Other Measures (“Bill C-31“). Bill C-31 amends Canada’s Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act, S.C. 2000, c. 17 (“PCMLTFA“) to legislate over Bitcoin as a matter of anti-money laundering law.”

5) New open-source router firmware opens your Wi-Fi network to strangers

I don’t get the purpose of this and, while it is possibly a good idea, I can see some problems with it. After all bandwidth is finite, and sharing it means you get less and your data cap gets eaten up by strangers. Of course, the main reason bandwidth is finite is because of ham-handed and generalized incompetent regulation but that is another issue.

“Members of the “Open Wireless Movement,” including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Free Press, Mozilla, and Fight for the Future are advocating that we open up our Wi-Fi private networks (or at least a small slice of our available bandwidth) to strangers. They claim that such a random act of kindness can actually make us safer online while simultaneously facilitating a better allocation of finite broadband resources.”

6) Infographic: Avoid disaster with BYOD survival cheat sheet

I hate infographics, but this one raises a few good points like the fact that employees can exploit data plans on the company’s dime. For example, I might go to Florida and watch a soccer match on my smartphone resulting in a spectacular data charge and there is no way the company can sort out whether this was personal or business use. The links at the bottom of the page provide additional useful information.

“Unless you’ve been working under a rock in a faraway universe, your company is probably dealing with BYOD (bring your own device) challenges. Companies know they can’t just ignore BYOD. It’s common knowledge that employees will figure out how to get access to corporate information with or without explicit permission. But there’s an upside. Many employees willingly add hours to their work days when you permit them to use their personal devices on the job. You can benefit from the increased productivity and avoid BYOD security pitfalls if you follow a few best practices.”

7) Researchers Find and Decode the Spy Tools Governments Use to Hijack Phones

A couple of takeaways from the article should be that if the “good guys” know how to do this, then any other hacker, scam artist, etc., should be able to do so. The idea that these “products” are only sold to legitimate governments is absurd: the definition of what constitutes a legitimate use would be fluid and they would have no control of what happens after they sell the product. Thanks to my friend Allan Brown for this item.

“Newly uncovered components of a digital surveillance tool used by more than 60 governments worldwide provide a rare glimpse at the extensive ways law enforcement and intelligence agencies use the tool to surreptitiously record and steal data from mobile phones. The modules, made by the Italian company Hacking Team, were uncovered by researchers working independently of each other at Kaspersky Lab in Russia and the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs in Canada, who say the findings provide great insight into the trade craft behind Hacking Team’s tools.”

8) Aereo loses to broadcasters in Supreme Court fight for its life

One problem with disruptive business models (think Aereo, AirBnB, Uber, etc.) is that you run into an existing regulatory structure which generally favors the incumbents. Investors in Aereo might have thought they discounted the event risk associated with a loss at the Supreme Court, but this defeat appears to be total. It is unlikely the company can adjust its rate up high enough to pay licensing fees ot broadcasters, and the broadcasters – flush with victory – are not likely to be in much of a hurry to negotiate. For Aereo, the war is over.

“The Supreme Court struck a dramatic blow against Aereo today in a ruling that puts the TV streaming service as it currently exists on its deathbed. In a 6–3 ruling, the court found that Aereo’s service violates the Copyright Act by playing back recordings of broadcasters’ TV shows — even though it legally captures those shows over the air and obtains individual copies for each viewer. Aereo had argued that it was merely providing technology that its subscribers were renting in order to watch TV, positing that the viewers were responsible for playing back those recordings.”

9) Brain implant restores control of paralyzed muscles

More positive news in the bionics department, but the video makes it fairly obvious this is a long way from prime time. However, given 5 or 10 years this might result in a considerable improved quality of life to quadriplegics. Also, see item 19.

“The quadriplegia that comes as a result of a serious spinal cord injury cuts off the lines of communication between a person’s brain and their limbs. The condition is often irreparable, and those who suffer it do so for the rest of their lives, but surgeons at Ohio State University and researchers at Battelle might have just struck back at the condition. Using a technology called Neurobridge, the pair have been able to offer Ian Burkhart, a 23-year-old who was paralyzed after a diving accident, the ability to move his hand with his own thoughts for the first time in four years.”

10) The vacuum tube strikes back: NASA’s tiny 460GHz vacuum transistor that could one day replace silicon FETs

Interesting technology, but it is a bit premature to get excited about it. There are more parameters to a transistor than switching speed and a particular type of transistor has to meet or exceed a number of those to be of practical use. I am quite skeptical about the claim this would be used for computing because at a certain point speed, size, and power are closely related barriers to use. It is also worth noting that solid state devices have been made from exotic semiconductors and which operate at over 700 GHz. No – those aren’t likely to revolutionize computing either. The most likely application for such devices are probably advanced RADAR systems.

“Way back in the salad days of digital computing (the 1940s and ’50s), computers were made of vacuum tubes — big, hot, clunky devices that, when you got right down to it, were essentially glorified light bulbs. This is why early computers like the ENIAC weighed more than 27 tons and consumed more power than a small town. Later, obviously, vacuum tubes would be replaced by probably the greatest invention of all time — the solid-state transistor — which would allow for the creation of smaller, faster, cheaper, and more reliable computers. Fast forward to 2014, though, and the humble CMOS field-effect transistor (FET) is starting to show its age. We’ve pretty much hit the limit on shrinking silicon transistors any further, and they can’t operate at speeds much faster than a few gigahertz. Which is why NASA’s Ames Research Center is going back to the future with its new vacuum transistor – a nanometer-scale vacuum tube that, in early testing, has reached speeds of up to 460GHz.”

11) US Legal Lessons from Canada’s First STL IP Infringement Case

This was a Canadian case which was settled out of court so it is hard to believe many legal lessons could be learned therefrom. Furthermore, the issue seemed to revolve around a company selling a tangible implementation of an open source design which makes it hard to believe the designer would have prevailed, so the settlement was probably a positioning exercise my the defendant as much as anything else. That being said, does provide an interesting discussion regarding the Intellectual Property issues in play.

“Last month, ran a blog post about “Canada’s First STL IP Infringement Case.” I can’t say if it was the first STL infringement case in Canada, or even if there was any infringement under Canadian law. However, this case provides a good opportunity to examine some of the principles related to digital files, 3D printing, and intellectual property from a U.S. legal perspective. At Public Knowledge I’ve been writing about these topics for years.”

12) Google: 100,000 lives a year lost through fear of data-mining

Golly: if a billionaire says it, it must be true! I mean you wouldn’t expect a Google founder to just make something like this up, especially since they can make money off it, would you? Given a record of collusion with the NSA (and, likely, others) what could possibly go wrong with letting corporations data mine health records?

“For me, I’m so excited about the possibilities to improve things for people, my worry would be the opposite,” he told the New York Times’s Farhad Manjoo. “We get so worried about these things that we don’t get the benefits … Right now we don’t data-mine healthcare data. If we did we’d probably save 100,000 lives next year.””

13) Even venture-backed Bitcoin miner startup can’t deliver on time, gets sued

These Bitcoin miner businesses are amusing. I figure they are inherently dubious. After all, if you had a gizmo which could churn out gold would you sell the gizmo for gold or churn out gold? The very fact somebody offers a gizmo or service which produces a fungible commodity and they are willing to sell you said gizmo or service implies they believe the money you are going to give them is inherently worth more than the commodity said gizmo or service will ever produce.

“Yet another Bitcoin miner manufacturer, CoinTerra, now faces legal action for not fulfilling an order when it originally promised to. CoinTerra is the third Bitcoin-related startup to face litigation for breach of contract and/or fraud in recent months.”

14) Google’s Android One program will set minimum standards for bargain-basement smartphones

I continue to believe smartphone prices are headed way down. These devices are targeting the developing world and it is important to understand these are unsubsidized, “all in”, type figures. Smartphone features are no longer really evolving so it is hard to believe that $100 pricing in the developing world will not have an impact on broader markets.

“Since the company is targeting the developing world, Google is initially teaming up with Indian smartphone makers like Karbonn and Spice. In an example presented on stage, Sundar Pichai talked about a Micromax Android One device with dual-SIM and SD card slots, a 4.5-inch display and FM radio priced at just $100.”

15) Warning over USB chargers after woman dies from apparent electrocution

This is what happens when you allow power mains connected things to be sold without the proper regulatory approvals. The only way to dissuade such practices is to levy extreme (i.e. bankrupting) fines or prison terms to the importing businesses. At least this will provide an incentive to Chinese vendors to forge the certification marks. Of course, if the prices in the photo are correct (A$25 for a ‘cheap’ charger) there would be a strong incentive to import stuff from China, regardless of quality: I can buy a cheap certified charger for $5 in Canada.

“Sheryl Aldeguer left behind two young children and a husband when she was electrocuted by a faulty USB phone charger in her rented room in Gosford in April. The 28-year-old, from the Philippines, was to start work as a theatre nurse at Gosford Hospital within days of her death. Authorities used Ms Aldeguer’s death to warn consumers against buying rip-off USB-style chargers. The young woman was wearing headphones and holding her laptop when she was found dead with burns on her ears and chest, in an apparent electrocution.”

16) Microsoft Makes Bet Quantum Computing Is Next Breakthrough

It seems Microsoft is backing a novel form of quantum computing, which makes this article interesting. The problem with quantum computing is that, like many novel computing systems, it has comparative limited utility. However, protein folding and other chemistry are among the applications a functioning quantum computer so a functioning system may lead to practical breakthroughs.

“Modern computers are not unlike the looms of the industrial revolution: They follow programmed instructions to weave intricate patterns. With a loom, you see the result in a cloth or carpet. With a computer, you see it on an electronic display. Now a group of physicists and computer scientists funded by Microsoft is trying to take the analogy of interwoven threads to what some believe will be the next great leap in computing, so-called quantum computing.”

17) iPhone or Android: it’s time to choose your religion

This sort of ties into item 20 as Google and Apple are diligently trying to tie users into their respective platforms. This move is in contrast with, say, the Consumer Electronics market which learned long ago that open standards work best. Some CE vendors, notably Sony, have tried to introduce proprietary systems but that has not, in general, worked well. I can imagine some people wanting, for example the same platform for their tablet and smartphone, but it is hard to believe I’d buy a car based upon what smartphone platform it works best with. Even less likely is that an auto vendor would hitch its wagon to Apple or Google.

“Life will surely be sweeter once every gadget you own relates intelligently to every other, but to get there, you’ll have to decide where your loyalties lie. And the fact that both Android and iOS platforms are set for their biggest updates in years this fall means that the obsessive comparisons between them will be as salient as they’ve ever been. More than ever, your smartphone preference will dictate your choice of tablet, TV, car, watch, and even fitness tracker.”

18) San Francisco Tells Parking Startup to Stop Operations, Warns Two Others

You might think that city lawyers would have bigger fish to fry than going after the dangerous criminals telling people where parking is available or the fiends who use that information to park their cars. Not that I think the startups have a chance in hell of being successful – it is a matter of time before the parking systems themselves tell you where spots are available (some already do).

“San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera this morning sent a letter to MonkeyParking, a Rome-based startup that operates in San Francisco. The company’s app allows people to post information about the spot they are about to leave. Other drivers can pay for that information. The company currently operates in Rome and San Francisco.”

19) FDA clears ReWalk exoskeleton that lets paraplegics walk again

These sorts of systems could be a boon for paraplegics, however, I don’t understand why the FDA should have a say on whether they should be sold or not. How is this any different from crutches or a wheelchair in terms of approvals. Regardless, I expect to see continued progress in this domain, though ultimately spinal repair is the way to go. Pity about the sloppy journalism: “countless paraplegics” helped by the system? There can’t be that many of them.

“The ReWalk exoskeleton has helped countless paraplegics be able to walk again. But, until now, not just anybody in the US could buy one. That’s because the US Food and Drug Administration hadn’t given full approval for its use. However, the government announced Thursday that ReWalk has finally won FDA clearance.”

20) Apple isn’t letting Google control your home without a fight

The web is supposed to be an open, standards based system but various companies appear hell bent on weaseling their way to controlling, or walling off, certain functions. It appears ot be the central way of doing is through various cloud services though they may or may not be known as such. I cannot imagine why I would want control of any significant system turned over to Apple, Google, or the Happy Smiling Panda company. This is a recipe for disaster: what happens when the company pulls the plug on the service of modifies the terms of use (witness Google now collecting data from various Nest products)?

“With all eyes on the iPhone 6, it can be difficult to remember that Apple has other hardware aspirations in the pipeline. 9to5Mac reports that Apple’s next priority will be the Smart Home, consisting of a range of new devices that will interact with Apple’s phones, computers and tablets. According to unnamed sources, Apple has put together a team specifically for the Smart Home initiative, and although development could be delayed, the company is “beyond the exploratory phase of development.””

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 20th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 20th 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) Chinese gov’t reveals Microsoft’s secret list of Android-killer patents

A peek behind the curtain at the methods used by the world’s largest patent troll. If the purpose of patents is to protect inventions from being copied, companies would make the patents, and their relationship to the inventions publicly known. If, on the other hand, the purpose of patents is extortion then the company would keep the relationship between the patents and the invention a secret, only disclosing the relevant patents after the victim company has invested in developing the product. To think this was once an innovative company.

“For more than three years now, Microsoft has held to the line that it has loads of patents that are infringed by Google’s Android operating system. “Licensing is the solution,” wrote the company’s head IP honcho in 2011, explaining Microsoft’s decision to sue Barnes & Noble’s Android-powered Nook reader. Microsoft has revealed a few of those patents since as it has unleashed litigation against Android device makers. But for the most part, they’ve remained secret. That’s led to a kind of parlor game where industry observers have speculated about what patents Microsoft might be holding over Android.”

2) The SSD Endurance Experiment: Casualties on the way to a petabyte

One of the few criticisms of Solid State Drives (SSDs) is that they “wear out” due to the limited number of writes. Of course, in most systems data is read an awful lot more than it is written, and Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) tend to fail in any of a number of ways. I have only had one SSD failure and that was in an OCZ drive, a company whose utter lack of quality control doomed it. In contrast I have had numerous failures from HDDs. In any event, as this article shows the durability of most SSDs is well beyond the figures implied by their manufacturers.

I feel for the subjects of our SSD Endurance Experiment. They didn’t volunteer for this life. These consumer-grade drives could have ended up in a corporate desktop or grandma’s laptop or even an enthusiast’s PC. They could have spent their days saving spreadsheets and caching Internet files and occasionally making space for new Steam downloads. Instead, they ended up in our labs, on the receiving end of a torturous torrent of writes designed to kill them. Talk about a rough life.”

3) Driverless Cars Could Reduce Urban Traffic by 80 Percent

If you think about it, most cars spend most of their time being parked whereas driverless cars could be used almost 100% of the time so you would need fewer of them. Plus driverless cars could be safely packed closer together on roads, traffic patterns could be optimized, etc.. Of course the drawback to cars that would be used most of the time is that they would probably wear out sooner, though automation could probably ensure timely maintenance that most people seem to neglect.

Driverless cars could take up to four-fifths of the traffic off the roads of Asia’s congested cities, in combination with sharing schemes, an expert told a city planning conference Tuesday. “In the end what is exciting, I think, is you’re going to have less cars on the road,” said Carlos Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab run by US-based university MIT.”

4) Supreme Court rules software patents that cover ‘abstract ideas’ are invalid

It isn’t often you see a unanimous decision out of the US Supreme Court so this appears to be a pretty solid victory for sanity. What is not clear, unfortunately, is how far a stupid software patent can go (and most of them are pretty damned stupid) before they are considered not patentable. Therefore, while this ruling may effect a range of issued patents, it seems likely the major effect will simply be to get new applicants to craft the wording of their claims more carefully.

“Software patents aren’t dead, but they just took a blow. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that a series of banking patents didn’t cover a concrete software process but an abstract idea, throwing them out and potentially setting a stricter precedent for future patents.”

5) Quantum or not, controversial computer runs no faster than a normal one

The D-Wave story is interesting, but for all the wrong reasons. The question of whether or not a particular computer is a breakthrough should not be controversial, especially for one costing over $10M. Historically any computing technology breakthrough has blown the doors off whatever came before and it does not appear that D-Wave’s equipment can do anything with the sort of orders of magnitude increase in performance implied by its price tag. Therefore, the issue as to whether it is “quantum” or not is mainly of interest to academics as it doesn’t seem to be very good bang for the buck – was it did, nobody would question that fact.

“The D-Wave computer, marketed as a groundbreaking quantum machine that runs circles around conventional computers, solves problems no faster than an ordinary rival, a new test shows. Some researchers call the test of the controversial device, described online today in Science, the fairest comparison yet. But D-Wave argues that the computations used in the study were too easy to show what its novel chips can do.”

6) Amazon’s Fire Phone might be the biggest privacy invasion ever (and no one’s noticed)

Smartphones are rapidly becoming commodities so I only bother posting stories when they represent some sort of breakthrough, and nowadays that it typically associated with price. Amazon made a lot of news this week with its announcement, but I confess I am utterly baffled by the Amazon Fire phone. First, it is very expensive: $749 for an unlocked 32 GB version, vs. about $360 for a Nexus 5. Second, it seems to be nothing more more than a sales channel for Amazon. I admit I buy stuff from Amazon occasionally, but not such that I want to pay them money for them to market to me. Furthermore, I know I am old school, but I have no desire to transfer all my data over to a retailer.

“Amazon is a fascinating company, and the Amazon Fire Phone is a fascinating machine for connecting you with stuff to buy. It’s probably also the biggest single invasion of your privacy for commercial purposes ever. And no one seems to have noticed.”

7) Chinese smartphone on sale on Amazon and eBay contains built-in malware

Another interesting smartphone story and for a not entirely different reason. At least this phone is really cheap despite being distributed with malware, rather unlike the Amazon Fire which you pay a huge premium for them to steal your data.

“A Chinese Android smartphone on sale on Amazon, eBay and other online stores has been found to contain a virus that pretends to be the Google Play Store but steals user data. The Star N9500, which closely resembles Samsung’s Galaxy S4 smartphone in appearance, is manufactured in China but sold online through resellers based in Belfast and Hong Kong.”

8) The BlackBerry Passport Is A Phablet With A Hardware Keyboard That Makes No Sense Whatsoever

This is my third weird mobile story of the week. I find it interesting to watch technology companies evaporate as Blackberry is doing. The Passport appears to be a slightly more unwieldy incarnation of their ‘Classic’ device, meaning a slightly larger (but not that much larger) display. And square corners. How this will stem the trend towards corporate BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is not really clear.

Just when you think you might have figured out what BlackBerry is up to (a strong push in enterprise services and emerging markets like the Internet of Things) they go and do something like the BlackBerry Passport. The device broke cover today (via MobileSyrup) during the Canadian smartphone maker’s earnings call, and it’s set to be launched in September this year, following an official unveiling with more details about specs and pricing coming then.”

9) Gravity’s strength still an open question after latest measurement

You would think we’d have a pretty good idea of the value of a fundamental physical constant, especially one of the earliest ones ever defined. Not only do we not have a good idea what the actual number is, the experimental results are all over the map and don’t even seem to be converging on a particular value. How odd.

“You might expect that, all these years after Newton, we might have a good measure of his gravitational constant, G. As the authors of a new paper on the topic note, there are plenty of reasons to want a good measure of G “given the relevance of the gravitational constant in several fields ranging from cosmology to particle physics, and in the absence of a complete theory linking gravity to other forces.” Yet most of our measurements of G come from an updated version of a device designed by Henry Cavendish back in the 1700s. And rather annoyingly, these measurements don’t agree with each other—they’re all close to a single value, but their error bars don’t consistently overlap. Now, researchers have made a new measurement of G using a method that certainly wasn’t available in the 1700s: interference between clouds of ultracold atoms. And the value that they have come up with doesn’t agree with many of the other measurements, either.”

10) YouTube to block indie labels as subscription service launches

Anti-competitive behavior by tech giants like Google, Amazon, and others is not exactly new (witness the current dispute between Amazon and some publishers). Once the channel gets large enough it can dictate the terms and conditions under which suppliers can offer their good through it. I can almost understand how that works for physical goods because of the need for warehousing but I cannot grasp the problem with respect to music and video. Labels simply need to develop there own channel (which is not difficult) and tell Google to stuff it.

“YouTube will remove music videos by artists such as Adele, Arctic Monkeys and Radiohead, because the independent labels to which they belong have refused to agree terms with the site. Google, which owns YouTube, has been renegotiating contracts as it prepares to launch a music subscription service. A spokesperson for the indie labels said YouTube was making a “grave error of commercial judgment”. YouTube said it was bringing “new revenue streams” to the music industry.”

11) Code Spaces goes titsup FOREVER after attacker NUKES its Amazon-hosted data

This could be a story about how bad the cloud is, but it is really a story about a company with serious deficiencies in management. It appears they kept all their eggs (or, more correctly, their customer’s eggs) in one place, including backup. Its a bit like keeping all of your work, including backups ot all your work, on a single laptop and then losing that laptop. Of course, there is probably nothing left of Code Spaces to sue, but if there was it would make for a great shareholders’ suit.

“Source code hosting provider Code Spaces has suffered the ultimate cloud nightmare, having been effectively forced out of business by the actions of an attacker who managed to gain access to its Amazon EC2 control panel. The devastating incident began on June 17 when Code Spaces – a company that claimed to offer “Rock Solid, Secure and Affordable Svn Hosting, Git Hosting and Project Management” – became the target of a DDoS attack from an unknown party who demanded “a large fee” to make it stop.”

12) Sharp Develops Free-Form Display, Enables Vastly Greater Design Freedom for Displays

It takes a while to figure out whats new here. Traditionally, LCD displays have required a bezel, and, for whatever reason, those bezels have been rectangular, meaning whatever the shape of the visible part of the display, the assembly itself was always rectangular. Sharp’s new technology does away with the bezel, thereby allowing freeform shapes for the actual display. Besides allowing for unusual shapes of displays, this may permit the construction of arbitrarily large display through tiling.

“Sharp has developed the Free-Form Display, a revolutionary advance over the conventional display shape concept that enables the creation of new display designs to match a variety of applications. LCDs have contributed to the emergence and spread of a range of application products by offering not just display-related functions such as high brightness, wide viewing angle, high resolution, and superb color purity, but also by providing added value through, for example, greater environmental performance and a superior user interface thanks to touch-panel functions. In addition, LCD application product manufacturers want to offer consumers products with a more polished design, and Sharp has responded by providing these manufacturers with displays that boast features like slim profiles, light weight, and thin bezels.”

13) Chinese site in signal-jammer sting could pay record $34.9M FCC fine

Most people don’t know that signal-jamming is illegal in most countries, as is the manufacture of radio transmitters above a certain power level without certification because these can end up being signal-jammers. The FCC should probably have gone after the buyers rather than the manufacturer because there is virtually no chance they will collect the fine or even impede the manufacturer’s business through this move.

“A Chinese electronics vendor accused of selling signal jammers to U.S. consumers could end up leading the market in one dubious measure: the largest fine ever imposed by the Federal Communications Commission.”

14) Major new security feature coming in next Android and Windows Phone versions

It is about time this feature was implemented in Android and it is a bit surprising to see Android playing catch up to iPhone on a technology. Of course, regulators should have long ago demanded all stolen phone be rendered useless since it was built in to the original cellphone specification. I don’t see that the resale value of a Windows phone would be that high since demand seems rather modest, but it good they are joining the club.

“In addition to replacing Dalvik with ART, which should bring performance improvements and better battery life, the next Android version has apparently been confirmed to feature a new significant security feature that will help users better protect their data when losing their devices, and especially when having them stolen. The same feature is coming to Windows Phone handsets as well.”

15) Light ahead in fight against degenerative blindness

This is an encouraging update on the fight against some of the common causes of blindness. My ill-informed view is that genetic and stem cell approaches will probably be the most successful over time, provided nerve damage is limited, then implants will be a more effective approach. One thing about implants is that their cost will doubtless drop as their capabilities improve, but the cost of the implant procedure will likely remain high.

“Once doomed to a life of darkness, dozens of people stricken by retinal diseases are rediscovering a world of light as scientists push ahead on cures for blindness. Already, bionic retinas enable blind people to “see” sidewalks, doorways and even oversized text while gene therapy has allowed a small boy to put away his white cane and take up Little League baseball.”

16) Taiwan’s Quanta to start mass production of Apple’s smartwatch in July: source

Never before in tech history has an unannounced product been subject to as much hysterical speculation and anticipation, except, perhaps, the Segway. I am actually looking forward to the iWatch so it can flop as thoroughly as all of the other smartwatches have, then I won’t have to read six articles a week speculating as to the life changing nature of the iWatch.

“Taiwan’s Quanta Computer Inc will start mass production of Apple Inc’s first smartwatch in July, a source familiar with the matter said, as the U.S. tech giant tries to prove it can still innovate against rival Samsung Electronics Co Ltd. The watch, which remains unnamed but which company followers have dubbed the iWatch, will be Apple’s first foray into a niche product category that many remain skeptical about, especially as to whether it can drive profits amid cooling growth in tech gadgets.”

17) Battery-topped electric buses flash charge in 15 seconds

The idea is probably not a bad one as electric buses are already pretty expensive, and the cost of cabling can be pretty high. Plus, the buses can only go where the cables go. Because this system only provides enough charge to get to the next station, charging can be prompt and transparent, provided there are passengers getting on and off the bus. This configuration means a small storage system, which would be correspondingly less expensive. It is not clear what type of battery is being used: batteries have a limited number of charge cycles, so the savings in battery size would be more than offset by the reduced life of the battery and maintenance costs. However, if these are ultra-capacitors (which charge very quickly, have long lives, but low power density) it just might work.

“In Geneva, Switzerland, the TOSA (Trolleybus Optimisation Système Alimentation) pilot project is testing electric buses with an unusual method for keeping charged up. The articulated bus has a battery pack on top of the vehicle. When it pulls into certain stations, it connects through a robotic arm to what is essentially an electric bus dock. A 15-second rapid flash charge helps to keep the buses running all day.”

18) Do salamanders hold the key to limb regeneration?

Limb regeneration would certainly be a boon to human health – I’d like to have the full function of my left hand and left leg back, if even just an improvement. The problem is that amphibians have a lifecycle which is completely different from most critters: after hatching as legless tadpoles they eventually grow rear limbs then forelimbs. In other words, they remodel their bodies as they mature. It is a good guess the ability to regrow limbs is an ancient vestige of this lifecycle and the 400 million years or so of evolutionary history between them and us means a fix is going to be very hard to find.

“The secret of how salamanders successfully regrow body parts is being unravelled by University College London researchers in a bid to apply it to humans. For the first time, researchers have found that the ‘ERK pathway’ must be constantly active for salamander cells to be reprogrammed, and hence able to contribute to the regeneration of different body parts.”

19) Radios Give IoT New Channels

Having a low power, narrowband (i.e. slow speed), long range, version of WiFi would be a real boon to Internet of Things (IoT) consumers, manufacturers and developers. This would especially be the case is if routers, laptops, etc., incorporate the new standard because new IoT gizmos would more or less simply appear as devices on the network and an intelligent hub could coordinate information locally. WiFi is becoming ubiquitous even in factory or commercial settings and this approach will similarly simplify deployment in those environments.

“The emerging 802.11ah specification for running low-power WiFi over 900 MHz at distances up to a kilometer is one of the most promising new radios. “We believe this new standard is a very strong candidate for IoT applications in smart homes and buildings where a WiFi router is nearby,” says Kathleen Philips, who heads an ultra-low-power wireless research program at the Holst Center, a partner with Imec in the Netherlands.”

20) NSA jitters are ‘just a bummer’ for cloud growth, HP says

There are plenty of things to be worried about use (or misuse) of cloud services long before you get to the NSA. For example, if you business is dependent on a service provider, and that service provider goes down, your business goes down and there is nothing you can do about it. Similarly, if you use a cloud-based accounting system, don’t expect anybody to make it easy for you to migrate to a rival system: it is going to be a one-way street. Yes, the NSA (and, in fact, all US legal and intelligence agencies) have free access to your data if it happens to be located in the US, or hosted by a US based company, but rest assured the NSA will gain access to it regardless of where it is hosted.

“Revelations about U.S. National Security Agency snooping have made some buyers outside the U.S. think twice about public clouds, placing a drag on one of the world’s biggest technology trends, the head of Hewlett-Packard’s enterprise group said. Bill Veghte, executive vice president and general manager of the HP Enterprise Group, joined the chorus of tech executives lamenting a new wariness among customers just hours after CTO Werner Vogels said his company had seen no impact.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 13th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 13th 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) Will driverless trucks soon roll onto our roads?

I am a big believer in autonomous vehicles and I tend to believe the first major applications will be commercial. This is a bit of a more detailed update to last week’s article about ‘self drafting’ trucks. The idea being that a convoy would operate more efficiently and probably be safer and faster than the same vehicles under human control since delays due to reaction time would be eliminated. Eventually, of course, the vehicles will drive themselves or at least only have a ‘pilot’ up front.

The future of driving is automated, we’re being led to believe. Only last week, computing giant Google unveiled plans for a self-driving car it will build itself. But long before we’re sitting in the passenger seat being ferried to our destination by a robot driver, a much bigger kind of vehicle is likely to be zooming past us, its speed and braking controlled not by a human but by a computer.”

2) If Robots Drove, How Much Safer Would Roads Be?

Ore on autonomous vehicles and the impact on safety. Of course, a vehicle does not have to be fully autonomous to be much safer: many lives have been saved by seat belts and airbags, but many more could be saved if cars had things like radar controlled brakes or other systems to avoid or at least greatly limit the impact of collisions, especially with people.

Human error is the culprit in 93 percent of automobile crashes — including the pileup last weekend that left Tracy Morgan in critical condition, caused, prosecutors say, by a truck driver who had been awake for 24 hours. Robots, on the other hand, don’t need to sleep. Nor do they get drunk or distracted by cellphones. That is why Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist, wrote on Twitter about the accident, with his usual bravado, “Self-driving cars and trucks are a moral imperative.”

3) Researchers Can Now Create Lenses For Less Than a Penny

This is certainly an interesting approach but not something likely which will change people’s lives as these types of lense would mostly be for cameras and instruments. Contact lenses and eyeglasses are not expensive because of the cost to manufacture but because of industry consolidation and near globally enforced government enforced of rules which demand an inefficient distribution system.

Lenses are usually made by either grinding and polishing a disk of glass until it is curved or with molds — both costly, complex methods, the former of which has been practiced for hundreds of years. This new process will allow scientists to bake their own lenses by harnessing the power of gravity with only an oven, a glass slide and polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) — a common, gel-like polymer.”

4) New pill-sized pacemaker implanted in heart of UK patient

A number of years ago people were dying because pacemaker leads were failing. This approach makes sense on a number of levels: there are no leads so they can’t fail and the device is very small which should simplify installation. Of course, such single device would probably only be able to deal with a small region of the heart so it may not be suitable for all patients.

A pacemaker the size of a tablet has been fitted inside the heart of a British patient, in a new operation that promises to reduce infection risk and reduce recovery time. The wireless device used – for the first time in the country – at Southampton general hospital, known as the micra transcatheter pacing system, is the smallest in the world, at a tenth of the size of traditional models, and is implanted directly in the heart.”

5) 3D Systems Just Broke the Speed Barrier, Surpassing Traditional Injection Molding Manufacturing Techniques

I’m a big fan of 3D printing, however, this is rather contrived: you would not likely injection mold a little plastic object in a single cavity: mostly likely you’d run 20 or however many at a go, meaning the actual injection molding would average a second or two per part.

You would have to be living under a rock if you haven’t heard about 3D printing and additive manufacturing yet. The media has been all over the up and coming technology, while businesses, individuals, and even music groups 3dswho want attention, just have to find a way to mention or utilize the technology in some way or another. Despite all the attention, and all the predictions of a changed world as a result of this technology, there are still many skeptics.”

6) An open-source robotics OS is moving from the lab to farms and even into space

On open-source robot Operating System is probably exactly the right thing at the right time, and not just for hackers. ROS means that developers don’t have to start software from scratch and can probably find more and more of the required software available under a Free Open Source Software license. It is surprising that hard to get hardware components for robots are not more readily available as that can be a major obstacle. I don’t know if I like the idea of autonomous baby lettuce killing robots though. It sounds like the beginning of a Terminator movie.

First developed in 2007, ROS is a collection of tools and libraries that serve as a framework for writing robot software. It’s basically a programming platform for robots, just as Android is a platform for smartphone apps. It’s also an approach to artificial intelligence grounded in the premise that the real world is such a complex puzzle for robots to grasp, navigate and act upon that machines must share their knowledge and skills in order to be more useful.”

7) Code-cracking teens hack into Grant Avenue ATM

This shows how little attention is paid to security, even at an institution which knows better. You’d think all of these things would be check-listed and have an audit trail but they are not. The non-challant attitude at the bank is typical: I once got several counterfeit $20s from a BMO bank machine and they didn’t even seem to care, despite the fact it was an obvious inside job so they should have easily been able to track down the perpetrators. I guess that’s what life is like when you don’t have to do much to to have astronomical and rising profits.

A couple of 14-year-old computer whizzes have the Bank of Montreal upgrading their security measures after they hacked an ATM machine. Matthew Hewlett and Caleb Turon, both Grade 9 students, found an old ATM operators manual online that showed how to get into the machine’s operator mode. On Wednesday over their lunch hour, they went to the BMO’s ATM at the Safeway on Grant Avenue to see if they could get into the system.”–charleswood-teens-hack-into-grant-avenue-atm

8) Who Must You Trust?

This is a good article on security in general but it is a pretty long read. The walk down memory lane to the solution used in the Apollo program is by itself worth the read.

During the race to the moon in the 1960s, the Apollo program was faced with the unprecedented problem of guiding two manned spacecraft to a rendezvous in lunar orbit. Because of the speed-of-light delay in radio transmissions to and from the moon, guidance from ground-based computers would have an unacceptable delay from anything close to real-time, endangering the mission and the lives of the astronauts. A better answer was to have on-board computation with minimal lag time to help the pilots determine how to rendezvous the two spacecraft. At that time, computers filled rooms and weighed tons. …”

9) Cree Delivers Groundbreaking Outdoor Area Luminaire

This is basically just another LED streetlamp, however, it it worth knowing about. I continue ot believe substantially all lighting will be replaced by LED devices because they are just as good as incandescent, last a very long time, and use a fraction of the amount of electricity. Indeed I find it remarkable they can still sell traditional flashlights given the cost competitiveness and marked superiority of LD products. One fun fact about LED streetlamps: the major cost savings is due to the long life of the device. Not so much due to the cost of the old device but the unionized labor associatedd with the changeout. Assuming Cree prices these competitively, adoption is a no-brainer.

Cree, Inc. introduces the OSQ™ Area LED luminaire, the first LED area luminaire specifically designed and priced to replace the nearly 54 million* outdated high intensity discharge (HID) area parking lights installed in the United States. Delivering an unprecedented combination of industry-leading performance and low-profile design at nearly half the price of comparable LED luminaires, the Cree® OSQ Area LED luminaire provides up to 70 percent energy savings with a quick payback of two years.”

10) With ‘The Machine,’ HP May Have Invented a New Kind of Computer

Its a pity when an interesting subject is covered by somebody who obviously doesn’t understand the first thing he is writing about. Then again, that pretty much describes “journalist” nowadays. Based on this and other articles it appears HP is aggressively pushing the use of its memristor memory technology in the broader computer market. Because memristor has the potential to be simultaneously main memory (DRAM) and mass storage (i.e. Hard Disk) it would require somewhat of a rethink to the software and, in particular, the operating system. The other stuff (optical interconnect, etc.) I can take or leave as they are not significant bottlenecks in most architectures at the moment. In any event, new operating systems present their won challenges because, in particular, familiar proprietary applications are unlikely to move over to a new platform.

“If Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard are spinning in their graves, they may be due for a break. Their namesake company is cooking up some awfully ambitious industrial-strength computing technology that, if and when it’s released, could replace a data center’s worth of equipment with a single refrigerator-size machine.”

11) All Our Patent Are Belong To You

This was all over the Interwebs this week which would lead you believe it is a significant announcement: it is not. It ain’t for a lack of patents major car makers have stayed away from Electric Vehicles (EVs). Whatever IP Tesla might have in the EV business would be dwarfed by the IP the real automakers have in the auto business so, in the event Ford wanted to make an EV and Tesla sued them for infringement, Ford would bury Tesla in counter suits. This is why Ford, GM, and Toyota rarely bother to sue one another. So it is clear Tesla’s strategy has nothing to do with promoting the adoption of EVs. I figure, like most things which come out of the company it is simply a publicity stunt targeted at increasing the tax breaks and credits which are its real business model.

“Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters. That is no longer the case. They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.”

12) GoDaddy files for $100 million IPO

Golly – this looks like a compelling investment opportunity: after all GoDaddy offers a non-differentiated commodity service and has lost money hand over fist. It has $1.1B in debt, probably because the private equity partners who “rescued” the company did so with other people’s money and paid themselves handsomely for the effort. Not only is it leveraged to the gills it has a working capital deficit of $450 million, and has been so thoroughly “rescued” its net-tangible asset value (i.e. real book value) is negative $1.7 billion. Lucky for investors the private equity firms want to share this opportunity!

“The company lost $279 million in 2012. It bled another $200 million last year. This year doesn’t look much better, with another $51 million lost in the first quarter. What’s going on? The company’s still recovering from a bad stretch. It was mired in debt back in 2011, when three private equity firms came to the rescue: KKR & Co., Silver Lake Partners and Technology Crossover Ventures.”

13) Cisco: Broadband providers should not treat all bits the same

When you are in the business of selling deep-pack inspection to carriers, of course you are going to be opposed to network neutrality. After all, if the network bills on bandwidth (like a common carrier should) rather than content (which would cripple innovation) you don’t really need that kind of stuff. Imagine how privately owned bridges would work if the owners got to inspect the cargo of every truck and decide what the toll would be based on the value of the load. Actually that’s how things worked a century ago, but no longer, for good reason.

“All bits running over the Internet are not equal and should not be treated that way by broadband providers, despite net neutrality advocates’ calls for traffic neutral regulations, Cisco Systems said. A huge number of Internet-connected devices with a wide variety of traffic requirements, including billions of machine-to-machine connections, will come online over the next four years, Cisco predicted in its Visual Networking Index Global Forecast and Service Adoption, released Tuesday.”

14) Ancient Rockies fish fossils reveal origin of jaws

Despite the dopey opening sentence this piece talks about a fascinating discovery of an ancient fish with early gill arches which evolved into jaws, the inner ear, etc.. Similar rudimentary critters are still around but I can’t for the life of me remember the name. If you want to see a really interesting documentary on this subject watch the three part PBS series “Your Inner Fish” (

“The next time you open wide to bite into a triple-decker sandwich, you’ll be able to trace the origin of that ability back 505 million years — to a minnow-sized fish that once lived in a sea in what is now the Canadian Rockies. Paleontologists have discovered fossils of an ancient fish named Metaspriggina that fill a missing link in the evolution of vertebrates and reveal where a key feature of vertebrates – our jaws – came from.”

15) Starbucks gears up for wireless charging support nationwide

The roll out of wireless charging by Starbucks is not exactly earth shaking technology news. Despite my initial skepticism it seems likely that near field (i.e. contact) wireless charging will be commonplace within a few years. There remains a major problem that there are multiple incompatible standards and the ‘Starbucks’ standard is not well supported. Nonetheless, what this announcement does show is how Apple is falling farther and farther behind the mobile innovation curve as they haven’t invented wireless charging yet. The Starbucks crowd seem keen to show off their over-priced, generation behind Macbooks, but at least Macbooks work at the local coffee dive. You won’t be able to sit with the cool kids and wirelessly charge your iPhone or iPad unless Apple does some serious catch-up.

“After successful tests in Boston and Silicon Valley, Starbucks says it is ready for a nationwide rollout of Duracell Powermat wireless charging stations. As with the rest of its wireless charging plans, the rollout will be slow starting first with stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. Starbucks says it will expand to other major markets across the country in 2015. Over time, the entire U.S. will go wireless via company-owned Starbucks locations and Teavana Tea Bar spots. Charging stations, dubbed ‘Powermat Spots,’ will be embedded in tables and counters at company stores.”

16) Are you ready for the next chapter of Wi-Fi? Meet 802.11ax

Ever increasing WiFi speeds definitely have their advantages, but this is mostly for accessing peripherals like cameras, printers and Network Attached Storage (NAS). The utility of advanced WiFi for Internet access is pretty minimal because there are various choke points along the way starting with your ISP and moving down the chain. Nonetheless the era of a ‘no-wires’ home office or computer is rapidly approaching.

“Now that the first wave of 802.11ac Wi-Fi routers and devices are making their way out the door, the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) have begun to look ahead to its successor: 802.11ax. And this time around, the wireless industry is turning its focus away from overall network capacity to actual connection speed to the device.”

17) Amazon Launches Prime Music Service with 1 Million Songs

This isn’t really news unless you are an investor in Spotify, Pandora, etc.. The major barrier to entry for such a service is a licensing agreement with the music companies and they don’t do exclusives. Larger companies like Amazon can bundle subscriptions in with other services and simply price the music service companies out of the market. I figure it is a matter of time before the music industry sets up a sort of co-op system whereby they do all the streaming, etc., and bill out that service on a retail (Spotify) or wholesale (to Amazon) basis.

“With the launch of the service, the ecommerce company will challenge similar music services from Spotify, Pandora and Apple. Amazon is bundling the music service with the $99-per-year Prime service, which provide free two-day shipping and unlimited video-streaming through Prime Instant Video.”

18) Comcast Is Turning The US Into Its Own Private Hotspot

This article is a pretty good take down of Comcast’s plan to ‘open’ Internet access. After all, why should they pay for real estate, installation, and electricity when they can take it from you for free? Apparently they have structured this as an ‘opt-out’ system (which should be illegal). The idea you won’t be using ‘your’ Internet is flat out silly since any traffic going over the pipe is going to further slow the pipe. All in, consistent with what a North American telecom provider is used to doing.

“But here’s the problem: Comcast is essentially using your private residence as a corporate resource. They’re using your electricity. They’re using your Internet connection (although they claim they aren’t) and they’re opening up your private browsing to potential hackers. While Comcast will claim that these two streams are independent, there is nothing to stop a dedicated hacker from figuring out how to snoop data passing through the router. There is also nothing to stop someone from downloading illicit material, software, and other junk from your hotspot and then reporting you for theft or worse. Again, it’s all ostensibly secure, but, like all things, it really isn’t.”

19) The child’s safety blanket that can stop a bullet: $1,000 fabric can also help protect children from falling debris from tornadoes

Despite the title this does not appear to be an “Onion” article. I guess the solution to collapsing buildings is not better building codes nor is the solution to school shooting to keep crazy people from getting guns. No – a $1,000 “bullet-proof” blankie will protect little Ralphie when things hit the fan. Of course, Ralphie will still get crushed by falling debris (but not pierced!), and chances are any self-respecting mass murderer will just pull the blanket off him, but hey – what do you want for $1,000 per student? It is a nice touch to invoke “duck and cover”, a propaganda campaign designed to convince people they could actually survive a thermonuclear strike just to emerge to a post-apocalyptic hellscape.

“An Oklahoma company has created a protective blanket that developers say could give children a better chance of surviving debris from a tornado – or bullets from a 9 mm handgun. The Bodyguard Blanket, made by ProTecht, is a bulletproof pad designed to protect students during disasters at school. The 5/16-inch thick rectangle features backpack-like straps that allow users to put it on, and then duck and cover.”

20) Business Adapts to a New Style of Computer

There are multiple challenges to the Internet of Things (IoT). The principle challenges are not technological but in terms of business models. For example, people suckered into buying a Nest thermostat now have the prospects of being monitored annd having their data sold by Google. If you buy an IoT fitness device and the company who sold it is acquired by, say, Sony, will you be comfortable with Sony having access to all your telemetry? Furthermore, in the current model, IoT devices are tied to specific companies and tech companies wink out of existence or change their business models on a regular basis: should you pay money for the benefits of an IoT devices when that device is unlikely to have its IoT functionality for more than a few years? One thing worth noting is that, by definition, IoT devices will be extremely cheap and use very little Internet bandwidth so don’t get carried away with the numbers.

“The technology industry is preparing for the Internet of things, a type of computing characterized by small, often dumb, usually unseen computers attached to objects. These devices sense and transmit data about the environment or offer new means of controlling it. For more than a decade technologists have predicted and argued about the onslaught of these ubiquitous devices. “There is a lot of quibbling about what to call it, but there’s little doubt that we’re seeing the inklings of a new class of computer,” says David Blaauw, who leads a lab at the University of Michigan that makes functioning computers no bigger than a typed letter o.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 6th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 6th 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) Lab tests show 3D printed guns can be useless — and dangerous

This is as we expected. Guns are made of metal for a reason and it isn’t because some halfwit didn’t think plastic would be a good substitute. There are tremendous pressures built up in the chamber and no plastic can withstand those pressures. Only a complete idiot would make a weapon equally likely to take off his own hand as to wound the target. Besides its really easy to make a gun out of metal and its even easier to buy one, even illegally. Needless to say these reports were met by derision by geniuses who figure the fix was in. So keep your eyes open to one handed conspiracy theorists.

“Tests conducted by ballistic labs and a university in England showed that guns made with thermoplastics on 3D printers are far more dangerous to the shooter than the intended target. A video released by the BBC showed in every case the 3D-printed guns broke or exploded under the chamber force of a bullet being fired. Pieces of the plastic gun were strewn around the firing range — even embedded in the ceiling.”

2) Cisco purchase of CIA-funded company may fuel distrust abroad

I’d never make it as a spymaster. First, I wouldn’t publicly announce ‘investments’ I had made in any computer security firms because, well, the people I’d want to spy on would probably correctly understand that the products of said firm would not be ‘secure’ in the normal meaning of the word. Evidently, Cisco, which is desperate to try and convince people it is not, in fact, colluding with the NSA hasn’t been paying attention to the fact that foreigners suspect they are, in fact doing so. All in, why would anybody suspect that Cisco gear using CIA-funded technology isn’t the most secure stuff in the world?

The CIA’s non-profit venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, has been pumping millions of dollars into technology startups since its launch in 2000, meaning it’s not the least bit unusual for major vendors to have acquired and assimilated one of these CIA-nurtured seedlings.”

3) Robotic truck convoy that closely a human driven lead truck for energy efficiency drafting

This is an early example of a potentially disruptive implementation of early autonomous vehicle technology (see also items 12 and 13). You can easily imagine a single driver piloting a ‘land train’ of trucks moving much more goods than a single driver could. “Close following” could also help relieve congestion, especially if lanes are set aside for commercial vehicles which is more likely to have a positive impact on the environment and congestion than HOV lanes.

A pair of trucks convoying 10 meters apart on Interstate 80 just outside Reno, Nevada, might seem like an unusual sight—not to mention unsafe. But the two trucks doing this a couple of weeks ago were actually demonstrating a system that could make trucking safer and much more efficient.”

4) Payback time: First patent troll ordered to pay “extraordinary case” fees

This is purportedly the first example of a ‘patent troll’ being ordered to pick up costs (this would typically include the other party’s legal expenses). Of course it is a particularly egregious case and it is evident the ‘troll’ is, indeed, a ‘troll’ whose business model assumed an asymmetrical risk/return since they would previously only have to carry their own expenses no matter what the outcome at trial while the defendant would be faced with a sizable bill for defense or a modest settlement. The economic impact of shutting down such trolls is likely modest as mega-trolls like Microsoft shake down the entire smartphone industry with impunity.

When Santa Barbara startup FindTheBest (FTB) was sued by a patent troll called Lumen View last year, it vowed to fight back rather than pay up the $50,000 licensing fee Lumen was asking for. Company CEO Kevin O’Connor made it personal, pledging $1 million of his own money to fight the legal battle. Once FindTheBest pursued the case, the company dismantled the troll in short order. In November, the judge invalidated Lumen’s patent, finding it was nothing more than a description of computer-oriented “matchmaking.””

5) Supersonic engine nozzle sprays sheets of flawless, self-healing graphene

Graphene has tremendous potential in many applications, however, it is staggeringly expensive even though it is just carbon. I believe this is analogous to aluminum which used to be more valuable than platinum despite the ubiquity of bauxite, until the discovery of the Bayer process. Now we throw aluminum in landfill. I have complete confidence somebody will crack the challenge of low-cost industrial scale graphene production which will lead the commercialization of important graphene applications. Perhaps this is that breakthrough.

An incredible new breakthrough in graphene production could, just maybe, give some pause to the graphene skeptics who have been getting so vocal of late. Despite growing cynicism about the super-material’s chances of ever actually being used in the real world, here we have a startlingly simple approach that offers a very promising window into its future in our everyday lives.”

6) Crucial’s MX100 solid-state drive reviewed: The peoples’ SSD

As we predicted a number of years ago pricing for SSDs have become very compelling. Skeptics might point out that they are still much more expensive on a per-byte basis than traditional Hard Disk Drives but SSDs are so much faster and more reliable they make for an excellent laptop upgrade even at current prices. Furthermore, given the fragility of laptops you really want to have an online backup for all your stuff – I favor a RAID Network Attached Storage (NAS) in combination with Bittorrent Sync or similar.

We don’t get big leaps in performance anymore, though. The limited bandwidth of the 6Gbps SATA interface is partly to blame, as are the inefficiencies of the associated AHCI protocol. Even with those handicaps, most decent drives are already fast enough for the vast majority of desktop applications. None of that makes for a compelling storyline. There’s one more thing, however, and it’s a pretty big deal. SSDs are getting cheaper. Like, a lot cheaper.”

7) Apple To Abandon Headphone Jack? Beats Deal Suddenly Makes Sense

Let’s play fanboy jeopardy! – the game where you rationalize otherwise dumb and banal moves by Apple. The first questions is: how does it makes sense that Apple payed $3.2 billion for a brand of over-marketed and over-priced headphones? This is the funniest answer I’ve seen so I had to share it: its funny because it is, on its face a stupid idea, it would only make some sense if a) smartphones and proprietary headphone jacks would appeal to audiophiles and b) audiophiles were more than a trifling (albeit gullible) part of the consumer market. No! Really! The next big thing out of Apple will be a forced conversion to overpriced, proprietary headphones! Next question Alex.

“Suddenly why Apple spent a seemingly ludicrous $3.2 billion buying Beats is starting to make sense. The reason: Apple is being more Apple than we ever imagined and it could mean saying goodbye to your favourite pair of headphones. Furthermore, if my theory is correct, then the new ones you buy will probably have Beats on the logo.”

8) Inside Ford’s 3D Printing Lab, where thousands of parts are made

There is not a lot of useful content in the article however it does demonstrate how important 3D printing has become for large manufacturers. I continue to be more enthusiastic for near term adoption of 3D printing in manufacturing and medicine than in the consumer space.

“The reason for the explosion in 3D printed (or additive manufacturing) of vehicle parts is two-fold: As consumer 3D printers have grown in popularity, printer makers have been infused with fresh revenue, which has been used to improve industrial machines and processes. And secondly, manufacturers have become proficient at creating prototype parts, so much so that the work can be done in hours instead of the four to six weeks needed with traditional machine tooling processes.”

9) How Google Could Disrupt Global Internet Delivery by Satellite

Back in the olden days of the dot-com bubble (not the current one, the 1990s one) a number of companies proposed to launch LEOSATS (Low Earth Orbit Satellites) to deliver broadband. The idea never really took off because of the cost and the speed with which broadband suppliers established a wired infrastructure. It may be that this is an idea whose time has come given the poor broadband coverage in rural (in Canada, this means not in a major city) and developing economies. Nonetheless, Piccioni’s Law of Technology #16 states that most satellite based technology solutions will fail because, by the time you design and launch the birds terrestrial technology has made them obsolete (I invoked this when broadband LEOSATs were a new thing 20 years ago).

“This week the Wall Street Journal reported that Google will spend more than $1 billion to launch a fleet of 180 satellites. The project, the paper reports, is being led by two executives with satellite startup O3b Networks, which Google helped fund in 2010. Neither company would comment on the plan Tuesday.”

10) Hydrogen Fuel Finally Graduating From Lab to City Streets

Lord. No, hydrogen is not a fuel and it is damned expensive and expensive to transport. The only applications where it makes any sense is where its numerous inherent drawbacks are offset by the benefits in particular applications. This precludes its use as a motor fuel, exempt in situations where you have to game pathologically stupid government policies related to “Zero Emission Vehicles.”

“On June 10, in the latest addition to mainstream fuel-cell use, Hyundai Motor Co. will begin deliveries of a consumer SUV in Southern California. The technology is already producing electricity for the grid in Connecticut. AT&T Inc. is using fuel cells to power server farms, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. uses hydrogen-powered fork lifts. Later this summer, FedEx Corp. will begin using hydrogen cargo tractors at its Memphis air hub.”

11) Electric car with massive range in demo by Phinergy, Alcoa

This is not likely to be a useful battery for EVs, unless you are talking for urban vehicles (see item 13, below) making very short trips and there is no mention of cost which is always an important factor. Even though aluminum is cheap processing a battery after 3,000 km is not likely to be inexpensive. Nonetheless, there may be significant potential for this technology in electric backup applications. As an aside, you have to admire the cheek of somebody who would claim that battery replacements would be needed “about once a year” when they last about 3,000 km (about 1/3 of an oil change interval, or what a lot of people drive in two or three months.

“Imagine making the 19-hour, 1,800-kilometre drive from Toronto to Halifax in an electric car without having to stop for a recharge. That’s theoretically possible with a special kind of battery being demonstrated this week in Montreal by Israel-based Phinergy and Alcoa Canada. The partners have refurbished an “ordinary car” to use a special “aluminum-air” battery.”

12) Driverless autonomous vehicles will revolutionize transportation

I continue to believe autonomous vehicles will lead to another industrial revolution as the movement of goods (and people) will be completely transformed. Logistics are an important frictional component of a modern economy and that friction will be significantly reduced just as happened with the emergence of steamships, railroads, and automobiles.

“Greatly increased safety is in itself a compelling argument in favour of surrendering the driving wheel to an automation. But that’s not all. Autonomous cars would also be able to adjust their speed according to GPS traffic data or even remote signals from other cars and traffic lights, which would enable them to drive optimally to reduce travel time and consumption (until the day all cars will be electric).”

13) Lazy Humans Shaped Google’s New Autonomous Car

A bit of a follow on to item 12, which discusses some of the characteristics of the “Google car” which was unveiled a few days ago. The reasoning behind the design which is basically an electric two seater with no steering wheel is explained in this article. What is left out are the deficiencies and compromises: because this vehicle is slow moving and lacks a steering wheel, it can only really function within a well defined and carefully mapped, likely urban or suburban environment. Of course, there is probably a tremendous market for such a vehicle, simply as a replacement for a taxi, shuttles, etc..

“The fact that Google’s bubble-like self-driving car, unveiled this week, lacks a steering wheel might be seen as evidence the company’s software is close to mastering the challenges of piloting a vehicle. But the car’s design is just as much a consequence of what Google’s existing fleet of automated Lexus SUVs revealed about human laziness.”

14) Solar Roadways: Don’t believe the hype on this boondoggle of a project

The web exploded over the past few weeks about this nonsense, proving my assertion than mention of energy causes most peoples’ IQ to drop 75 points. To call this a project is being rather charitable as it is hard to believe the “inventors” are not aware there is exactly zero chance this will ever work. I like this take down because it comes from a purported environmentalist.

“My Facebook feed has been blowing up this week with posts raving about a solar panel system designed to be embedded into roads, driveways and other driveable surfaces. The story links to a video produced for an Indigogo fundraising campaign called Solar Roadways. The campaign has raised more than $1.5 million as of publication of this post, well over the million-dollar goal. More than 38,000 people have contributed to that total. At the expense of being labeled a crotchety old man (at the ripe old age of 36), let me state here for the record that I think this project is a bunch of smoke and mirrors and will fail hard. The Solar Roadways project has been kicking around since 2006 and has been collecting thoughtful detractors all the way (while failing to raise any kind of meaningful investment capital to implement their plans).”

15) ‘A soup of misery’: Over half of people say they’d abandon their cable company, if only they could

I don’t know many people who wouldn’t abandon their cable/satellite company if given an option – I know I would, in a heartbeat. The problem is, of course, they all play by the same rules so you are trading one tormentor for another. Of course, everybody could just pull the plug on cable/satellite service if they really wanted to but they don’t and that’s why the companies behave the way they do.

“Frustrated with rising prices? Check. Keep getting hit with more fees and charges? Check. You’re paying for more channels than you’d ever want to watch? Check. These are just a handful of the most common complaints consumers have when it comes to grappling with cable companies. And it’s not just anecdotal: A survey of subscribers from the nation’s biggest cable providers has found that more than half of Americans would abandon their cable provider if they felt they could. Cable rage is real, and here’s the data to prove it.”

16) Life sentences for serious cyberattacks are proposed in Queen’s speech

Well that’s one way extinguish a free press (I’m referring to emerging media, not the crap in newspapers), Wikipedia, and the likes of Edward Snowden and other whistle blowers in one go: since almost all data is now held in computer files, and anybody accessing such files could be charged as a ‘hacker’ a person could face a life sentence for, say, leaking pretty much any government document. What hath the “war on terror” wrought?

“The UK government has said it wants to hand out life sentences to anyone found guilty of a cyberattack that has a catastrophic effect, under plans announced in the Queen’s speech. Any hackers that manage to carry out “cyberattacks which result in loss of life, serious illness or injury or serious damage to national security, or a significant risk thereof” would face the full life sentence, according to the serious crime bill proposed in Wednesday’s Queen’s speech.”

17) Minitel: The rise and fall of the France-wide web

Minitel was an ambitious program, set up in France, which was a sort of half way point between bulletin board services and the modern Web-based Internet. Given the success of the web it is easy to be critical of Minitel but few people would have predicted the emergence of a standards based global network we have today. This is an interesting walk down memory lane.

“France is switching off its groundbreaking Minitel service which brought online banking, travel reservations, and porn to millions of users in the 1980s. But then came the worldwide web. Minitel has been slowly dying and the plug will be pulled on Saturday.”

18) Hundreds of Cities Are Wired With Fiber—But Telecom Lobbying Keeps It Unused

Broadband policy is a fiasco in North America and their will be huge cost to the economy over time. The regulatory situation in the US and Canada are considerably different: in the US and Canada federal regulation is vigorously anti-consumer and anti-every-business-except­the-broadband business, most likely due to corruption (I’d rather think regulators are correct than incorrigibly stupid). The US has the added overlay of local government collusion which I tend to ascribe mostly to stupidity. Incredibly, the situation in Canada would be much easier to correct, although there is not the slightest indication there is the political will at any level to do so.

“In light of the ongoing net neutrality battle, many people have begun looking to Google and its promise of high-speed fiber as a potential saving grace from companies that want to create an “internet fast lane.” Well, the fact is, even without Google, many communities and cities throughout the country are already wired with fiber—they just don’t let their residents use it. The reasons vary by city, but in many cases, the reason you can’t get gigabit internet speeds—without the threat of that service being provided by a company that wants to discriminate against certain types of traffic—is because of the giant telecom businesses that want to kill net neutrality in the first place.”

19) GM app lets you scan a license plate, then text the driver

I’m guessing that GM doesn’t think drivers in China will get any worse if they are, simultaneously, snapping pictures of license plates and texting pretty girls in the car in front to ask for a date. Mind you this is GM, the company which allegedly kept a potentially fatal safety defect secret for over 10 years, so safety is not, evidently, a major consideration for the firm.

“So with all those connected Chinese, Du figured why not an app that would allow them to simply scan a license plate in front of them in order to connect to the owner’s cell phone. The prototype app, called DiDi Plate, uses an Android phone’s camera to scan the plate and send it to a cloud ID service. The driver who scanned the plate can then start texting the other driver.”

20) Astro Teller: Why we developed Google Glass

I see several problems with Google Glass. First, it’s too damned expensive for what it is. Second there isn’t much use for it and those uses which exist are, in most cases, fairly marginal. Third, many people would rightfully want to punch you in the nose for wearing it in most contexts. The price will undoubtedly come down. If it were below, say, $100, I could see lots of applications for technicians and so on – for example, I would have loved to have had access to a Toyota repair manual when I removed and reinstalled the transmission of my truck yesterday, but for $1,500 I’d rather print it out. As for triggering a punch in the nose, well that is a much harder problem to solve.

“Technology is everywhere. It’s in our homes, cars, workplaces — it’s in your pocket right now. This is nothing new. We have been conditioned to believe, despite the occasional dystopic summer blockbuster, that technology is making our lives easier. We are told constantly that all these tiny computers we carry around with us are improving, keeping pace as we grow as a society and allowing us to lead more efficient, happier lives. Technology is a good thing. I believe that to be true. But, the more I witness its evolution, the more I think we’re building it wrong much of the time. The way technology interacts with us is ready for a serious overhaul.”