The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 18th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 18th 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) Most of Microsoft’s Android patents commercially irrelevant, those affected could seek free alternatives

The problem with a patent portfolio is that they can get you on a single claim of a single patent. As the world’s largest patent troll Microsoft’s tactic has thus far, apparently, been to keep its allegations secret while shaking down every Android manufacturer. They seem very careful to avoid suing anybody for actual infringement, probably because that would raise the specter of having at least some of their patents invalidated. I doubt whether this will have an actual impact on them, however.

“For years, Microsoft has been claiming that its patents are used in Android, and rightly so, but it never revealed which patents were exactly involved. Until last month, when the Chinese Ministry of Commerce disclosed all the 310 Microsoft-owned patents. We know that Google pays a heck of a lot of amount of cash to the Redmond-giant every year for licensing those patents. But how useful are these patents? And more importantly, can Google look for other alternatives? M-Cam surely hopes so.”

2) 2013 Tesla Model S: Drive Unit IV: The Milling

Well now, having to replace a major component of a vehicle three times in a year or so shouldn’t be a major concern, should it? Frankly, I’d be outraged if I have only the other repairs mentioned on this post, let alone the litany of problems recorded on this blog (and these are not unique if you read the comments). Given the astronomical cost of the battery and its short life, I figure these things should have a zero resale value after 5 or so years even if the rest of the car was good for another 200,000 km. And no, I don’t think being an ‘early adopter’ excuses any of these issues. They are wise to unload the car to an unsuspecting chump as soon as they can or at least until word gets out they are less reliable than Ladas …

“Around midday, I received a call from Omar with an update on the repairs. “The technician sent a recording of the milling sound to our engineers and they gave us the OK to replace the drive unit.” It was a unique way of diagnosing the issue. All the work was set to be finished by the end of the day, but there was an issue with the new drive unit. It had a broken logic connector. This meant that Tesla would need yet another drive unit, which it got from another one of its shops across town. But that meant I wouldn’t have the car back that day. Plus, the techs spotted a few other items that needed repairs.”

3) 2013 Tesla Model S P85+ Long-Term Update 3

Now I’m not the sort of person who confuses “Automotive Journalist” for “journalist”, but this is pretty funny. Two “reputable” (irony intended) organizations have been “long term testing” a vehicle and are delighted – delighted I tell you – over the fact that the company replaces drive trains (@$15,000 each) whenever they fail, which is at roughly 10,000 mile intervals (i.e. one oil change if you use synthetic oil). A quick web search shows that Tesla appears to be quite busy replacing these drive units, under warranty, meaning there is a good chance they have negative revenues on some of their fleet. However, Motortrend is more concerned with tire wear and no doubt they continue to be pleased they don’t have to change the oil. Presumably, like Edmunds, they’ll be so pleased with the vehicle they’ll want to sell it while it is still under warranty.

“I read it again. Replaced the Drivetrain! “There was nothing wrong with the power unit” they noted, “but we heard a clicking in the transmission. The power unit isn’t serviceable in the shop so we decided to be proactive.” As if they were replacing a windshield wiper. Wow. The new motor might have a bit more low-speed hum but otherwise, the car drives exactly the same. And let me guess — you’re tapping your fingers right now thinking Motor Trend’s long-term Model S is simply being given the red carpet treatment. Well, I guess it’s possible. But frankly, the sense I got from the service guys was that the whole episode amounted to just another day at the office. Which makes for an extraordinary level of service in my opinion.

4) ‘Lemon-law’ lawyer declares victory against Tesla

The third times the charm. I didn’t go looking for this story, it just popped up on one of my news feeds. Tesla apparently tried claiming the fuse problem (which was only one of his problems) was of his own doing but the court didn’t buy it. As is customary, most of the commentary regarding this news is met for Tesla and derision for the unfortunate former consumer. Note that the Edmunds article (item 2) speculates on whether they would have a claim under California’s Lemon law. (OK a fourth which covers drive failures with a tiny amount of balance).

A Milwaukee attorney says he’s won a settlement in his lemon-law suit against Tesla Motors on behalf of a Wisconsin owner who had big problems with his Model S. Attorney Vince Megna, the self-declared “lemon-law king,” said Monday that the electric carmaker agreed to buy the car back for $126,836, including accessories and extras and $18,500 in attorney fees. “We got back every penny we asked for,” he says.”

5) Google Inks a Deal With Novartis to Make Smart Contact Lenses

A while back Google announced they had developed a contact lens which could monitor certain biochemical markers, including those associated with diabetes. It is interesting they have now teamed with Novartis to produce the device, however, it is not clear to me such a thing would have broad market appeal beyond a subset of diabetes sufferers who also happen to wear contact lenses and who are dissatisfied with current monitoring systems. Cost is bound to be a factor as well.

The Google X project is now officially in lock step with healthcare giant Novartis, the parent of Alcon, which produces some of the most-widely used contact lens products on the market, including Air Optix, FreshLook and Dailies. Novartis will work on turning Google’s lab project into smart contact lenses for people around the world.”

6) MakerBot 3D printers go on sale at The Home Depot

This has to be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard: it is hard enough to find somebody in a Home Depot which knows what a Grade 8 bolt is, let alone anything technical such as how to operate basic power tools. Even the customer base of Home Depot are not, characteristically, the sort of customer who would be interested in 3D printing. You would think that the folks at MakerBot would know better.

Home improvement chain The Home Depot is making the plunge into the 3D printing with a new pilot project that brings the MakerBot Replicator to a dozen stores nationwide. The pilot marks The Home Depot’s first foray into the burgeoning 3D printer space.”

7) Patent trolls now account for 67 percent of all new patent lawsuits

Of course, it would depend on what you mean when you say “patent troll”. A true patent troll basically shakes down alleged infringer (as does Microsoft) with threats of litigation because the cost of litigation, and the almost inevitable settlement (over 90% of patent litigation is settled prior to trial) exceeds the initial demand for “damages”. Proposed “loser pays” rules would greatly reduce the burden on the courts.

Despite the sudden collapse of patent legislation in Congress earlier this year, most policymakers agree that patent trolls are a huge drag on the U.S. economy. By filing one frivolous lawsuit after another, trolls extract enormous payments from companies simply by claiming infringement — they don’t have to do very much to back up their assertions, nor do they have to be using the patents to sue.”

8) Introducing the iPhone 6, made in China by a robot

It is worth noting that almost all the really difficult assembly work, namely circuit board assembly, has been done for many years. In fact, automation is so advanced that many board can’t really be assembled, except by robots. The tasks done by hand are difficult for robots but trivial for people and it boils down to the payback period for a new design of robot (which will coincidentally deliver better quality) vs. a low wage, low skilled human. Bet on the robot over the long term.

The worst kept secret of Apple and its Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn isn’t their poor labor conditions. It isn’t even the fact that they use robots to help bring together all the pieces that make up an iPhone. It’s that their robots are now performing more and more human-like functions. In the past, it’s always been people that put the finishing touches on the popular devices. Well, that’s all about to change.”

9) New York state proposes sweeping Bitcoin regulations—and they’re strict

Not surprisingly, governments lack the pseudo-Libertarian zeal of Bitcoin proponents and have a fundamental problem with people circumventing money laundering rules, funding criminal enterprises, etc.. These sorts of rules, which in no way legitimize Bitcoin, allows prosecution under existing legal frameworks. Canada introduced similar rules a few weeks ago.

“The New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) has issued proposed regulations for Bitcoin and other related cryptocurrency businesses that operate in the Empire State. The most significant change is that anyone doing business with a firm operating under these rules won’t be pseudonymous, much less anonymous—in direct contradiction to one of the defining characteristics of Bitcoin.”

10) New Fastpass system opts for counter-intuitive central processing architecture.

This is not exactly an earth-shaking development, but it does sound promising: after all, the Internet, besides being a series of tubes, is essentially a series of bottlenecks and improving any bottleneck is bound to result in a better experience. It is worth noting that, if this technique shows practical applications engineers can develop and optimized central arbiter to further improve performance. Because it is centralized this should not have a significant impact on cost.

“A group of MIT researchers say they’ve invented a new technology that should all but eliminate queue length in data center networking. The technology will be fully described in a paper presented at the annual conference of the ACM Special Interest Group on Data Communication. According to MIT, the paper will detail a system – dubbed Fastpass – that uses a centralized arbiter to analyze network traffic holistically and make routing decisions based on that analysis, in contrast to the more decentralized protocols common today.”

11) Nissan adding autonomous driving features

Frankly, I don’t see the appeal of automated parking – it is a basic skill and parking should not occupy that much of your time. I can see the merit of automatic navigation in stop and go traffic, especially if such capability becomes widely adopted in the car fleet. The vagaries of human driving skills results in a massive slowdown for modest cause and a car that knows when to move would probably speed things up for everybody.

“Following up on last year’s promise of self-driving cars by 2020, Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn detailed the technologies that will make autonomous cars production-ready during a speech to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. Ghosn said that by the end of 2016, Nissan will make fully automated parking, and a feature called Traffic Jam Assistant available in its vehicles. Traffic Jam Assistant lets the car drive autonomously in very slow or stop-and-go traffic. Ghosn did not specify whether the fully automated parking feature would require a driver in the car.”

12) Cosmologists Prove Negative Mass Can Exist In Our Universe

Well this is unexpected. And to think that just the other day I was making fun of the idea of anti-gravity systems. I am not in a position to comment on the correctness of their mathematics, but I recently heard Brian Greene (the string theorist) opine that when when we have discovered something that is permitted by mathematics, we eventually discover a corresponding phenomenon in the universe. In other words, hoverboards may not be that far into the future.

“Negative mass is the hypothetical idea that matter can exist with mass of the opposite sign to the ordinary stuff. Instead of 2 kg, a lump of negative mass would be -2 kg. Nobody knows whether negative mass can exist but there have nevertheless been plenty of analyses to determine its properties. In particular, physicists have investigated whether negative mass would violate various laws of the universe, such as the conservation of energy or momentum and therefore cannot exist. These analyses suggest that although the interaction of positive and negative mass produces counterintuitive behaviour, it does not violate these conservation laws.”

13) PC Shipment Slump Bottoms Out

One always has to be leery of “unit sales” figures in technology as prices tend to go down. In the specific case of PCs prices at the low end may have bottomed, however, there is plenty of room for the high end to come down. I do not believe the decline in PC sales had much to do with the surge in tablet sales, except to the extent consumers only have so much money to spend. The secular problem with the PC industry isn’t tablets, it is the fact that pretty much everybody has all the PCs they need, so it is becoming like any other consumer electronics business like TVs, sound systems, etc..

“A two-year slump in personal computer sales ended in the second quarter, helped by improving demand in developed markets like North America and Europe. PC sales have fallen in recent years, hurt by surging demand for tablets and other mobile devices. Tough economic conditions around the world have also disrupted sales. But quarterly figures released Wednesday by the research firms Gartner Relevant Products/Services Inc. and International Data Corp. show the global slump is easing.”

14) FBI warns driverless cars could be used as ‘lethal weapons’

I kinda see their point: after all, a “drive by shooting” would be 33% more lethal if the driver and two passengers where shooting than just the passengers. Mind you, the problem is more the underlying crime than the actual getaway. The FBI might just want to think out of the box and ask what other common, readily accessible things might be used as weapons. Like, for example, weapons.

“Google’s driverless car may remain a prototype, but the FBI believes the “game changing” vehicle could revolutionise high-speed car chases within a matter of years. The report also warned that autonomous cars may be used as “lethal weapons”. In an unclassified but restricted report obtained by the Guardian under a public records request, the FBI predicts that autonomous cars “will have a high impact on transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car.””

15) Could a Brain Scan Protect U.S. Troops from Insider Attacks?

Because the headline ends with a question mark, I can safely answer “No” even before reading the article. Furthermore, since no “lie detection” system has ever been shown to actually detect lies, the answer is “No”. Since any such system would easily be spoofed, leading to a false sense of security, the answer would be “No”. Since any such helmet would probably (correctly) assign me as dangerous, based on what I know, the answer is “No” (well in my case maybe it would be correct). Thanks to my friend Avner Mandelman for this article.

“A Pentagon report, revealed by The New York Times over the weekend, showed that the American troops working alongside Iraqi forces were at risk of harm from Sunni extremists who had infiltrated the Iraqi Army (and, perhaps, from the pro-Iranian Shiite militias that effectively are the Army.) On Monday, Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters that “it would be imprudent, irresponsible not to think about the insider threat.” The threat is real in Afghanistan as well where insider threats, so-called “green-on-blue” attacks, have killed several U.S. troops in recent years.”

16) Chrome Blocks uTorrent as Malicious and Harmful Software

This is pretty strange, especially because it isn’t the first time. Even though the music and film industry have managed to position BitTorrent with piracy, it is also a way huge amounts of software and media are legitimately shared. This particular branding of uTorrent as malicious probably has more to do with a problem in the software bot Google uses to flag websites than anything else.

“With millions of new downloads per month uTorrent is without a doubt the most used BitTorrent client around. However, since this weekend the number of installs must have dropped quite a bit after Google Chrome began warning users away from the software. According to Chrome the BitTorrent client poses a serious risk.”

17) French blogger fined over review’s Google search placing

I don’t know if the Streisand Effect (attempting to block something from the Internet causes it to become more broadly known) is operative in France. Perhaps it is called the Jerry Lewis effect there. Regardless, this seems to show a pretty lax attitude towards freedom of expression, at least as regards businesses. The only thing which should matter is whether the bloggers comments are true, not their search ranking and, in any event, she has little control over the search ranking. You have to wonder what would have happened if a print newspaper had printed the same.

“A French judge has ruled against a blogger because her scathing restaurant review was too prominent in Google search results. The judge ordered that the post’s title be amended and told the blogger Caroline Doudet to pay damages. Ms Doudet said the decision made it a crime to be highly ranked on search engines. The restaurant owners said the article’s prominence was unfairly hurting their business. Ms Doudet was sued by the owner of Il Giardino restaurant in the Aquitaine region of southwestern France after she wrote a blogpost entitled “the place to avoid in Cap-Ferret: Il Giardino”.”

18) Thermoelectric Material to Hit Market Later This Year

Thermoelectrics sound awfully interesting as you can generate electricity from waste heat. Unfortunately the materials which have been available have been very expensive, making it an impractical source of power. In theory a cheap, durable, lightweight, efficient thermoelectric generator could turn waste heat from car engines or industrial processes into useful electricity. However, as is often the case with such ‘breakthroughs’ this article leaves a number of unanswered questions (such as durability) unanswered, so it is a bit early to get excited about it.

“California-based Alphabet Energy plans to begin selling a new type of material that can turn heat into electricity. Unlike previous thermoelectrics, as such materials are known, it is abundant, cheap, and nontoxic. Thermoelectric materials can turn a temperature difference into electricity by exploiting the flow of electrons from a warmer area to a cooler one. Thus, they can theoretically turn waste heat into a power source.”

19) Mathematics makes strong case that “snoopy2” can be just fine as a password

Long story short, you can’t remember all those passwords and password managers are themselves vulnerable. So what you want to do is remember really hard passwords for really important stuff and use Password123 for everything else.

“By now, most readers know the advice cold. Use long, randomly generated passwords to lock down your digital assets. Never use the same password across two or more accounts. In abstract terms, the dictates are some of the best ways to protect against breaches suffered by one site—say, the one that hit Gawker in 2010 that exposed poorly cryptographically scrambled passwords for 1.3 million users—that spread like wildfire. Once hackers cracked weak passwords found in the Gawker database, they were able to compromise accounts across a variety of other websites when victims used the same passcode.”

20) Are Rolls-Royce’s ‘robo-ships’ the future of seafaring?

There is a lot to be said about autonomous ships since the ocean is mostly empty. Plus, they are really, really big, and, for most of the journey, “navigation” mostly consists of pointing the ship in the general direction of where you want to go. One can’t help but suspect that the crew of a modern ship does other things than simply navigate like maintain the vessel and its systems, keep an eye on cargo, and so on. Frankly, I find the fuel savings of 15% a bit hard to believe.

“Ship captains of the future won’t be salty sea dogs with their hand at the helm, and the ocean at their feet. They won’t even step on-board a boat, if revolutionary new technology is given the green light. As Google unveils its driverless car, and Amazon tests out drones delivering goods to our door, could the high seas be the next frontier for robotic transport? Crewless cargo ships, operated by remote control, could be sailing our globe within the next decade says luxury engineering company Rolls-Royce.”

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