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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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.”