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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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.”
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” (http://video.pbs.org/program/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.”