The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 25th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 25th 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) Latest CAFC Ruling Suggests A Whole Lot Of Software Patents Are Likely Invalid

I have been looking for signs the broken US patent is getting fixed but really haven’t seen many. It seems to be impossible for congress to pass legislation (probably because there are competing pools of money) and the courts have been inconsistent in leaning for or against bad patents. Things might be changing but, As Lenin said, “one step forward, two steps back”.

“Some more good news on the patent front. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling last month in the Alice v. CLS Bank case, there has been some question about how the lower courts would now look at software patents. As we noted, the Supreme Court’s ruling would seem to technically invalidate nearly all software patents by basically saying that if a patent “does no more than require a generic computer to perform generic computer functions” then it’s no longer patentable. But that, of course, is basically all that software does. Still, the Supreme Court’s ruling also insisted that plenty of software was still patentable, but it didn’t give any actual examples.”

2) Tablet sales dip, as market matures

This should not be a shock as the utility of tablets is rather limited (great for e-reading, web browsing, etc., though). It is frustrating the industry analysts continue to jabber about the unit sales of things like tablets, which is relatively meaningless compared to revenue. I figure tablet pricing will come under significant pressure, especially now that market growth is slowing. You can safely ignore the forecasts they provide: they have no predictive value whatsoever.

“Year-over-year tablet sales fell for the first time, analyst firm NPD DisplaySearch reported, evidence that the stratospheric growth of the tablet market may be leveling off somewhat. NPD declined to break out specific numbers, but the firm said that based on its sales data for the first quarter, tablet sales had declined compared with the same period last year. About 285 million tablets will be sold in 2014, the firm said, representing a lower number than it had originally expected. In 2014, the year-over-year growth rate of tablet PCs will fall to just 14 percent and by 2017 will slow to single digits.”

3) Hidden network packet sniffer in MILLIONS of iPhones, iPads – expert

Golly, this can’t be right: Apple has explicitly stated it doesn’t spy on its users on behalf of governments (despite the NSA revelations), and, even recently they attacked claims by the Chinese government that iPhones were bad for national security.

“Zdziarski’s analysis shows that 600 million iOS devices, particularly those running the most recent version 7 builds, have data discovery tools that are separate from those used by Apple for standard backup and storage. These include a file-relay service that can snoop out data, bypassing the Backup Encryption service offered by Apple.”

4) Apple denies new allegations that iOS provides backdoor access for forensic snooping

Ah – but they didn’t start denying it until they stood accused, did they? Seriously, nobody should assume any piece of equipment, especially equipment produced under the guidance of the NSA and “Patriot Act” is an more secure than something out of Mother Russia or China. We are past that. Even the denials sound absurd.

“We have designed iOS so that its diagnostic functions do not compromise user privacy and security, but still provides needed information to enterprise IT departments, developers and Apple for troubleshooting technical issues. A user must have unlocked their device and agreed to trust another computer before that computer is able to access this limited diagnostic data. The user must agree to share this information, and data is never transferred without their consent.”

5) Driverless cars could change everything

I agree with the thesis that driverless cars – actually autonomous vehicles in general – will transform modern society almost to the same extent the horseless carriage did. This article touches some points but the major question in my mind remains “starting when?”

“For now, it seems like a novelty – cars that can operate independently of human control, safely cruising down streets thanks to an array of sensors and pinpoint GPS navigation. But if the technology avoids getting crushed by government regulators and product liability lawsuits, writes the Federalist’s Dan McLaughlin, it could prompt a cultural shift similar to the early 20th century move away from horses as the primary means of transportation.”

6) Coming in 2015: A Faster, Sharper Way to 3D Print

It is not abundantly obvious what the advantage of a spinning 3D printer is and the article really doesn’t do much to explain it. The advantage to laser scanning is that the scanning system is very low mass, precise, and relatively low cost. A rotating platform would also result in forces being applied to the object which would not be present in a fixed platform, potentially resulting in distortions. I guess we’ll see if and when the machine gets to market.

“The core idea of the Helios One, a desktop 3D printer that Orange Maker plans to release in 2015, is that it can print continuously. Instead of moving a light source back and forth across layers of resin, the platform on the Helios One rotates as resin hits the surface. Objects are printed in a spiral instead of as one flat layer on top of another. In doing this, the printer doesn’t need to pause as it severs resin between layers. The development team also traded in the standard SLA light source, UV lasers, in favor of one they say is better suited for continuous printing. Though the team won’t reveal what the light source is, they claim it reduces the risk of botched prints.”

7) The Web never forgets: Persistent tracking mechanisms in the wild

The website summarizes a 16 page paper which is linked to at the top. Long story short, they discuss a number of novel (to me, anyhow) tracking techniques. There has been some discussion as to whether or not these (in particular canvas fingerprinting) can be blocked. No doubt they can be, but only if users make an effort to do so. You might remember that “Do Not Track” was recently introduced as a privacy mechanism and is also largely ignored. Among other things, these show why the Internet industry – or any other industry for that matter – cannot be allowed to self-regulate.

“Canvas fingerprinting is a type of browser or device fingerprinting technique that was first presented by Mowery and Shacham in 2012. The authors found that by using the Canvas API of modern browsers, one can exploit the subtle differences in the rendering of the same text to extract a consistent fingerprint that can easily be obtained in a fraction of a second without user’s awareness.”

8) California very much in running for Tesla Gigafactory

“Winning” in this sense is a bit like “winning” an auction in which 32 people were bidding for the same house – you are the idiot who paid more than the other 31 people thought it was worth. Alternative energy mega projects are mechanisms for moving taxpayer’s money, through subsidies, into the pockets of the “visionaries” who promote them. Besides the scale of the subsidies to crank out these batteries, there is nothing revolutionary about a battery factory, no matter how big: it’s just putting goo into packages.

“Tesla has a decision to make, and soon. Where to build a “Gigafactory” employing 6,000 people churning out batteries, not only for Tesla’s range of electric vehicles, but for solar panels and other energy-saving devices, which analysts believe could truly disrupt the auto industry and a whole lot of others.”

9) Japan PM says will offer about $20,000 subsidy for fuel-cell cars

Another example of alternative energy projects being taxpayer funded boondoggles, though, at least in this case, the Japanese government probably hopes the subsidy kick starts the manufacture of vehicles so taxpayers in other countries can subsidize their purchase. In other words a fuel cell version of the Tesla business model. The problem is this: you make hydrogen out of natural gas or electricity, two energy sources Japan really doesn’t have much of. Given the poor efficiency of hydrogen manufacture and distribution, does it make any sense whatsoever to waste either so you can pretend your fuel cell car emits no CO2?

“Japan will offer at least 2 million yen ($19,700) in subsidies for fuel-cell vehicles, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said according to media, as the government and Japanese carmakers including Toyota Motor Corp join forces to speed up the introduction the vehicles. The subsidy would mean that consumers would pay about 5 million yen for Toyota’s fuel-cell sedan, which is set to go on sale by the end of March 2015 and priced at about 7 million yen.”

10) Dumping an open source Honeypot on Rachel: FTC reloads on liquidating robocallers

It is interesting to see that the US government takes robocalls, telephone fraud, and “do not call” lists seriously. In contrast Canada which maintains a do not call list but apparently does no enforcement. In other words, Canada takes robocalling, telemarketing, telephone fraud, etc., as seriously as it takes securities fraud and insider trading: technically illegal, but don’t expect to see many prosecutions. It has gotten to the point that I no longer answer my mobile if I don’t recognize the number of the caller. In fact the number of robocalls I get actually went up after I signed up to the ‘do not call’ list.

“The Federal Trade Commission today announced the rules for its second robocall exterminating challenge, known this time as Zapping Rachel Robocall Contest. “Rachel From Cardholder Services,” was a large robocall scam the agency took out in 2012. The Zapping Rachel contest will take place at DEF CON 22 in Las Vegas Aug. 7-10, and offers partakers $17,000 in cash prizes for developing open-source packages that could be used to build an advance robocall honeypot, circumvent or trick a honeypot, or analyze data from an existing honeypot, the FTC said.”

11) Will Science Burst the Multiverse’s Bubble?

I have to wonder what idiot wrote that headline or why the article raises the issue as being somewhat philosophical. At best, philosophy poses questions that science can answer but it doesn’t answer questions. Things exist or do not exist. If they exist and are testable you will discover a test for their existence. If they exist and are not testable it is the same as they do not exist. Either way, if multiverses exist and have, or had, an influence on our universe there should be a trace of that interaction. Given the scientific hypothesis is a relatively new one, it is not surprising it will take a lot of thinking to devise an experiment to test it.

“Physicists aren’t afraid of thinking big, but what happens when you think too big? This philosophical question overlaps with real physics when hypothesizing what lies beyond the boundary of our observable universe. The problem with trying to apply science to something that may or may not exist beyond our physical realm is that it gets a little foggy as to how we could scientifically test it. A leading hypothesis to come from cosmic inflation theory and advanced theoretical studies — centering around the superstring hypothesis — is that of the multiverse, an idea that scientists have had a hard time in testing.”

12) The relentless (and annoying) pursuit of eyeballs

It can be useful to hear the enemy perspective. I say enemy because, well, this is an industry which is legally entitled to lie and mislead (all within its ‘code of ethics’), which gleefully propagandizes for the most heinous governments or policies, which promotes dangerous products such as homeopathy and other “natural” cures, etc.. Fundamentally, all advertizing is bad and people in the industry are soldiers in that war. Nevertheless, I sort of agree with the article (except about CNN – why would anybody watch a CNN video?). Well I would agree with his point, except I run Firefox and Opera web browsers and the first thing I do is install the Adblock Plus plugin. So I don’t see any ads.

“As a longtime ad guy, I now confess: I have a love-hate relationship with the products of my own profession. I love ads that draw me in with intelligence and wit. I hate ads that barge into my life uninvited. When I was a wide-eyed junior copywriter, I came to appreciate the code of ethics that guided the high-quality ad agencies.”

11) 3D printing could revolutionize supply chains at Maersk

No. No it won’t. I really don’t know that much about ships, but the few I have been on are honking big boxes with a huge engine in them. 3D printers, especially ones which print in ABS might be able to allow you to replace a knob or something, but I’m guessing that if part of that engine, or anything else important, breaks you are pretty much boned unless you have the parts and expertise on board to do the repair. I wonder what inspired them to do this?

“In the future, 3D printing technologies could be used to print out spare or repair parts as a solution to current high logistical cost. When advanced manufacturing and 3D printing becomes widely available, more companies are exploring how 3D printing can be used as an at-sea manufacturing technology.”

12) Transplanting Gene into Injured Hearts Creates Biological Pacemakers

A biological repair is probably going to perform better than a pacemaker since it might be able to directly respond to the natural environment of the heart. Plus, there are no batteries to run down. Unfortunately, there may be complications to using stem cells as well so we’ll have to wait for more research to find out how effective this is.

“Cardiologists at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute have developed a minimally invasive gene transplant procedure that changes unspecialized heart cells into “biological pacemaker” cells that keep the heart steadily beating. The laboratory animal research, published online and in today’s print edition of the peer-reviewed journal Science Translational Medicine, is the result of a dozen years of research with the goal of developing biological treatments for patients with heart rhythm disorders who currently are treated with surgically implanted pacemakers. In the United States, an estimated 300,000 patients receive pacemakers every year.”

13) Kids are not waiting for schools to go online

Online courses have considerable potential, but the folks who run them often report that far more people sign up than actually use them. Given the low (or zero) costs, this is not entirely surprising, and it may just be too early to gauge the impact of online education. I am somewhat skeptical of the results of this survey – self reporting on this sort of thing is not necessarily reflective of reality. For example, far more people claim to attend church regularly than actually attend church regularly. People often reply based on what they aspire to do, or what they think they are expected to do.

“My grandson Oscar will enter the 9th grade this fall and he and a friend are working their way through Algebra II at the Khan Academy this summer. No one told them to do it — no one assigned it – they just decided to do it on their own. It turns out that Oscar and his friend may not be all that unusual. UCLA conducts an annual survey of incoming first-time, full-time college freshman and they included two questions about student’s experience with online classes in the 2013 survey: …”

14) Super-Dense Computer Memory

It has been at least a few months since a revolutionary memory technology has been announced and its a slow news week so I figured I’d mention this one. First the caveats: in the past 25 or so years no novel memory technology has actually gone mainstream (the last one was Flash), so the odds are pretty long on this one. Plus, the article mentions 5 nanometer ‘holes’, which I am pretty sure are rather hard to make, and it mentions an ability to switch ‘hundreds of thousands’ of times, which is orders of magnitude less than what you need for a proper storage system. So it is good to see that the research if progressing but don’t go and short memory stocks just yet.

“A novel type of computer memory could, in theory, let you store tens or even hundreds of times as much data on your smartphone. Researchers at Rice University have demonstrated a more practical way to manufacture it. The type of memory in question, resistive random access memory (RRAM), is being developed by several companies, but fabrication usually requires high-temperatures or voltages, making production difficult and expensive. The Rice researchers have shown a way to make RRAM at room temperature and with far lower voltages.”

15) School accused of causing bullying through iPad scheme

Assuming this story is true (you never know, especially with with UK media) it is an outrage. Not the bullying as much as the fact these twits are asking parents to pay for iPads, of all things, when better and much less expensive alternatives are readily available. In fact the very idea of making parents pay for fragile, expensive, soon to be obsolete, technology is absurd. The proper way for something like this to work is to take the money for the purchases out of the budget for administrators’ salaries.

“A school which has asked parents to buy iPads for their children to use in class has been accused of creating a “two-tier” education system in which pupils who can’t afford the gadgets are bullied by their richer peers. The state-funded Biggleswade Academy in Bedfordshire has asked parents of children in years five and six to pay up to £300 for the Apple tablets, which it says will help to “personalise” their learning. It is offering monthly payment options for families who can’t pay up front and discounts for children on free school meals.”

16) What the Internet Can See From Your Cat Pictures

Most mobile phones now have GPS and ‘tag’ the photos you take with the coordinate of the where you took the photo. This can be handy but it can also result in you unknowingly posting your address online. Think about that if you take a picture of some nice jewelery or something and post it online: you are essentially advertising to burglars. There are applications which can ‘scrub’ photos of personal information but few people use them.

“Your cat may never give up your secrets. But your cat photos might. Using cat pictures — that essential building block of the Internet — and a supercomputer, a Florida State University professor has built a site that shows the locations of the cats (at least at some point in time, given their nature) and, presumably, of their owners.”

17) Payment apps aplenty

I think the only payment app I see used regularly is the one from Starbucks, which appears mostly designed to make people wait longer in line while the guy/gal with the Starbucks payment app fiddles with their phone, tries a few times, etc.. This is from (I think) a South African blogger, and I have heard that phone based banking and payments are far more broadly used in Africa than in Europe or North America because the banking system was never really set up for electronic funds transfer until recently. I don’t know if the article is representative of the broader African experience (there is a big difference between South Africa and Sudan) but clearly these things are more broadly used there than here.

“I think the title says it all – Payment apps aplenty. We’re getting inundated with smartphone apps that claim to make shopping a breeze. For us, SnapScan leads the pack but a few developers have followed suit with other offerings.”

18) Why some workers are begging to get their BlackBerrys back

Having worked at a ‘well-known’ investment firm I can tell you that, most likely, people are pissed off at the ham-handed incompetence of the IT people and the policies implemented along with BYOD. The problem is that these firms actually believe they own you, all your data, and so on, even if it is your own device. I never used a corporate laptop for similar reasons. Given a choice between carrying around a modern smartphone which the IT department had access to, or an additional rudimentary device you could conveniently switch off when you left the office, I’d always go for the latter. The thing is, it ain’t the device that is the problem.

“At a well-known investment firm in New York City, something strange is happening: Mobile app performance issues and privacy concerns have sparked a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) revolt, and now many employees are asking for their corporate BlackBerry back.”

19) GE releases instructions for 3D-printable jet engine

A rather misleading headline, unfortunately. After all, an actual working jet engine would be a cool thing to make. Nevertheless, printing and assembling the 3D models would make an interesting project for kids. Who knows: maybe 3D printing of models will become a hobby, especially since scale models have become staggeringly expensive.

“If you’ve ever felt your life didn’t have enough jet engines in it, now there’s a way you can get one of your very own; just don’t expect it to actually power anything. The engine in question is actually a 3D-printed model, designed by GE. Although its parts move in the same way as a real jet engine, it’s scaled down, simplified, made of 3D printer material, and powered not by combustion but by a hand crank.”

20) An introduction into the disruptive innovations that will shape the future of the smartphone industry

Did I mention this is a slow news week? Well, futurology and futuromentry are pretty pointless exercises but somebody has to do it so we can make fun of them in the future. I’d say most of these predictions are unlikely to come to pass. Yes, prices will plummet as we reach “feature saturation” (the point beyond which nobody gives a damn). I remain unconvinced that payment applications will take off in areas with a modern banking system (and who wants Google to know what they have been spending money on). Battery life will improve, but that will be mostly because of better semiconductors than better batteries. The marker has shown little interest in wearables, Google Glass, or health monitoring, etc.. As a general rule the future is really hard to predict because the predicitons are invariably based on what is interesting today.

“We aim to introduce you to some of the these disruptive changes in the future of the smartphone industry. We then conclude suggesting that the innovations in the next 10 years in the smartphone industry will make the last 10 years look embarrassing. But for this expectation to become a reality there most be a rapid increase in the rate of innovation in batteries.


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