The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 29th 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) Kreyos smartwatch is just the latest crowdfunded, wearable horror story
Crowdfunding is a powerful tool to startups and for marketing. As with any situation involving money, there are outright scams, “best efforts” failures, and the occasional success. Some of the failures might be scams but pressing money into the hands of people with no prior business or manufacturing experience is not usually going to end well. Even then, most hardware projects end up behind schedule due to unexpected challenges, “feature creep”, or broken promises by suppliers Consumer should be very care before giving money to crowdsourced projects unless they do it for entertainment.
“Android Police also claims to have photos of Kreyos co-founder Steve Tan posing with a Ferrari, and, in a separate photo, with a mound of shopping bags from high-end retailers. Assuming these photos exist and reflect actual purchases, even if Tan didn’t pay for these luxuries with crowdsourced money, the images don’t look good to backers who haven’t received what they paid for.”
2) Vehicle-to-Vehicle: 7 Things to Know About Uncle Sam’s Plan
Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle-to-Roadway (where traffic lights and so on tell you what’s up) have the potential to make a significant impact on vehicle safety and even fuel efficiency. Not only that but the technology is inherently easier than autonomous vehicles and probably comes with fewer potential litigation issues as well, meaning near term adoption is much more likely. Even though the article refers to the possibility of retrofitting vehicles I doubt that will be done much, unless mandated by government or insurance companies. As a result, it will take a long time before a significant portion of the fleet is equipped with V2V and the full benefit realized.
“Now that Google has autonomous cars up and running in California, and more new cars are equipped with Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s unveiling this week of its plan to require vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications technologies in all new passenger cars might seem too little, too late. But, with the announcement, US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the proposed V2V technology “the next great advance in saving lives.””
3) For many, the once-hyped tablet has become dead weight
Well I never hyped it, even though I ended up buying once when the prices went below $200. Tablets are OK for sitting around browsing the web but they are portable (or connected) enough to be phones and they aren’t powerful enough, and lack the I/O and storage, to replace laptops. When coupled with specific applications (such as for a menu at a restaurant, or a check-in counter) they can be useful in business but they are not really useable in a corporate environment. I don’t think tablets will go away completely, but the folks who built the hype around now have to find something to write about and “the end of the tablet” is topical.
“Ryan Libson of Bloomington owns two portable-computing devices, his Google Nexus 7 tablet and his Google Nexus 5 smartphone. He uses the phone continually, while the tablet typically gathers dust. The reasons for this are simple: “The Nexus 5 is big enough for 90 percent of my Web usage,” he said, and his smartphone also performs splendidly for email and pulling up work documents. The larger tablet is now deadweight. Libson is hardly the only one to feel this way. With many tablet proprietors finding the devices to be redundant lately, for a variety of reasons, it is no wonder this once-hyped flavor of computing device is having a bad year with lagging sales and diminished buzz.”
4) Apple Said to Prepare New 12.9-Inch IPad for Early 2015
Apple’s hype machine (see the last article) is busy stoking the media frenzy of what might be when the company releases its latest versions of a tired product line in a few weeks. Will they deliver a bigger phone? A smaller tablet? Sapphire screens? Maybe – could it be – a modern, multitasking Operating System? I take this report with a large grain of salt as a slightly larger tablet has only slightly different (not necessarily better) utility than what they sell already. Some wits have suggested the product name would be the iPad Max or Max iPad.
“The new iPad will have a screen measuring 12.9 inches diagonally, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the details aren’t public. Apple currently produces iPads with 9.7-inch and 7.9-inch displays. The Cupertino, California-based company has been working with suppliers for at least a year to develop a new range of larger touch-screen devices, said the people.”
5) First ever 3D-printed vertebra successfully implanted in 12-year-old cancer sufferer
This is another potentially significant medical application for 3D printers: the child had a tumor removed, which also entailed the removal of a vertebra. Vertebra are all unique so there wasn’t a good option for replacement until now. I am confident use of 3D printing in bone and joint replacement surgery will become commonplace. Oddly, the caption refers to the device being made of aluminum powder, however, it is made from titanium, which is biocompatible, whereas aluminum is not.
“Chinese surgeons have successfully implanted a 3D-printed vertebra into the spine of a 12-year-old boy suffering from bone cancer. The surgery, which the doctors say was the first of its kind, took five hours in total, with the replacement vertebra constructed from titanium powder and incorporating tiny pores to allow the bone to grow into 3D-printed part.”
6) How Microsoft’s predictive modeling could make streaming gaming tolerable
I am told this technology could make online games a lot more playable. Even fast internet connections are affected by perceptible ‘ping’ times (1/20th of a second or more) and there are the inevitable delays at the server end. Not only that but latencies can vary as Internet segments get loaded, etc.. By predicting the player’s next moves this technology can render frames in advance so the latency is reduced to levels below human perception. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of bandwidth, however, in the civilized world (outside of Canada) bandwidth is abundant and cheap so this should be moot.
“No matter how fast your Internet connection is, streaming game services like OnLive and PlayStation Now always bump up against a hard latency limit based on the total round-trip time (RTT) it takes to send user input to a remote server and receive a frame of game data from that server. The hope for these systems is that broadband speeds and server connections will eventually improve enough so that trip is quick, to the point of being nearly unnoticeable for end users. Until then, a team at Microsoft research seems to have done an end run around the RTT latency limit, using predictive modeling to improve apparent performance even when the server trip takes a full quarter of a second.”
7) TiVo Releases A $49.99 Over-The-Air DVR For Cord Cutters
An Over-The-Air DVR isn’t exactly rocket science, especially now that ATSC (i.e. HDTV) tuners are pretty cheap. Given the success of Netflix and other streaming services – and the plummeting quality of almost all cable TV- more and more consumers are “cutting the cord” and leaving cable. Unfortunately, the quality of broadcast TV is also falling so the utility of an OTA DVR is somewhat questionable, unless you are into sports. I even PVR the CBC news so I can skip the crap and watch what matters in 15 minutes instead of 60. The major problem with this device is the $15 monthly subscription – that’s a lot of coin for an online TV Guide.
“Much of TiVo‘s growth in recent years has come from partnerships with cable and satellite companies, which have made its DVRs available to their subscribers. But with the release of a new, cheaper over-the-air DVR, the company is going after the cord cutter set. TiVo today is announcing the release of its TiVo Roamio OTA DVR, a $49.99 device that will give customers who don’t have cable or satellite service. Instead, they will be able to connect the DVR up to an antenna to record shows broadcast on channels available through over-the-air digital signals.”
8) Backoff Malware Spread Might Have Been Contained With Basic Defenses
The Target hack of a few months ago has moved the focus of security to the retail business. After all, if you are a hacker, what better target than a Point-Of-Sale (POS) terminal that sees thousands of transactions a day. Not surprisingly the folks at corner stores are not experts in computer security and the POS terminal business is an inherently low margin one. So the POS providers have no incentive to maintain their software (let along upgrade the Operating Systems) and the merchants have little interest or knowledge in solving the problem. The only real solution is to move towards PINs and other systems which pass through highly secure terminals.
“The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued an alert to businesses throughout the United States about a malware infection that invades point-of-sale (POS) systems and sends the credit card information of people to cyber-criminals. The malware, which is being called Backoff by security researchers, operates by gaining access to POS systems through an administrator account, according to DHS. … The single overarching theme is that retailers are getting hit by malware because they aren’t following even the most basic security practices. Simple things such as upgrading their POS software or the operating system on their computers would prevent most attacks.”
9) Spark of life: Metabolism appears in lab without cells
Abiogenesis, or the creation of life from non-life, is a major puzzle for biologists and many theories have been advanced. Unfortunately, none of those theories have produced useable results in the lab. Of course, this was likely a process which occurred in stages over a few hundred million years or so and took advantage of the entire surface of the planet and all its resources. Since we lack complete knowledge of the detailed chemistry of the planet, let alone the environment of every niche, it is a tough problem to solve. This is an intriguing result, but there have been many false starts along the way.
“Metabolic processes that underpin life on Earth have arisen spontaneously outside of cells. The serendipitous finding that metabolism – the cascade of reactions in all cells that provides them with the raw materials they need to survive – can happen in such simple conditions provides fresh insights into how the first life formed. It also suggests that the complex processes needed for life may have surprisingly humble origins.”
10) Fish raised on land give clues to how early animals left the seas
According to this study, when you raise amphibious fish on land their skeletal structure adapts to the various loads and stresses you’d expect a walking fish to encounter. This is not entirely surprising as you can see the same result in people (manual labor is reflected in bone structure). Nonetheless, one can see how the critters whose bones adapt best and fastest would be the most successful and as a result this would lead to fish like amphibians. In case you are wondering (I was) this is was a bichir looks like http://alturl.com/9nps3)
“When raised on land, a primitive, air-breathing fish walks much better than its water-raised comrades, according to a new study. The landlubbers even undergo skeletal changes that improve their locomotion. The work may provide clues to how the first swimmers adapted to terrestrial life. The study suggests that the ability of a developing organism to adjust to new conditions—its so-called developmental plasticity—may have played a role in the transition from sea to land. “It was a very adventurous study, and it paid off,” says Richard Blob, an evolutionary biomechanist at Clemson University in South Carolina who was not involved in the work. “They are bringing in a novel perspective and got some very thought-provoking results.””
11) Whole organ ‘grown’ in world first
Another strep forward in stem cell therapies. This experiment used fetal stem cells which would make for a difficult ethical context as well the the challenge of matching fetal tissue to the patient to avoid rejection. This was probably done for convenience for the researchers as mouse lawyers have little sway in the court of public opinion. No doubt human trials will involve the patient’s own stem cells.
“A whole functional organ has been grown from scratch inside an animal for the first time, say researchers in Scotland. A group of cells developed into a thymus – a critical part of the immune system – when transplanted into mice. The findings, published in Nature Cell Biology, could pave the way to alternatives to organ transplantation. Experts said the research was promising, but still years away from human therapies. The thymus is found near the heart and produces a component of the immune system, called T-cells, which fight infection.”
12) Revolutionary handheld DNA diagnostic unit allows lab-quality analysis in the field
I first found this being reported as a handheld DNA sequencing machine, which it is not. A bit of research led me to this article which is both readble and more likely accurate (you have to love the state of science reporting). DNA based diagnostics would allow doctors to begin to treat certain illnesses much earlier since the cause of the infection could be quickly determined instead of waiting for cultures, etc..
“A revolutionary handheld and battery-powered DNA diagnostic device invented at the University of Otago is poised to become a commonly used field tool for rapidly detecting suspected viruses or bacteria in samples while also determining the level of infection.”
13) Sorting cells with sound waves
Sorting cells is a bit of a problem. Flow cytometry is used to automate blood tests, but looking for metastatic cancer cells is like looking for a needle in a hay stack. This system has the potential of separating out normal and abnormal cells, which greatly reduces the size of the haystack. It looks very promising.
“Researchers from MIT, Pennsylvania State University, and Carnegie Mellon University have devised a new way to separate cells by exposing them to sound waves as they flow through a tiny channel. Their device, about the size of a dime, could be used to detect the extremely rare tumor cells that circulate in cancer patients’ blood, helping doctors predict whether a tumor is going to spread.”
14) The final ISA showdown: Is ARM, x86, or MIPS intrinsically more power efficient?
RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computers) and CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computers) are the big endian/little endian debate of the computer industry. Long story short, companies like Intel and AMD (and formerly others) design CISC. ARM (which is in most smartphones, tablets, etc.) is RISC. Most ARM processors have been designed for low power use so plenty of folks confuse the RISC/CISC issue with low power vs. high power vs. performance. This article looks at the data and concludes that relationship does not hold. Unfortunately, another axis worthy of consideration, namely cost vs. power and power efficiency is not considered.
“One of the canards that’s regularly trotted out in discussions of ARM vs. x86 processors is the idea that ARM chips are intrinsically more power efficient thanks to fundamental differences in the ISA (instruction set architecture). A new research paper examines these claims using a variety of ARM cores as well as a Loongson MIPS microprocessor, Intel’s Atom and Sandy Bridge microarchitectures, and AMD’s Bobcat.”
15) Airbnb to Expose 124 Hosts to New York Attorney General
Airbnb and Uber (the taxi like service) are facing regulatory push back in many places. This is not all bad: an unregulated market is easily abused. Nonetheless, the push-back is probably more due to entrenched interests than a concern for consumers. I am currently writing this from an Airbnb apartment in San Francisco where I used Uber several times a day for the past week. The appartment is better and cheaper than a hotel and Uber is cheaper and more available than cabs (try getting a cab in San Fran). In fact, many rides are cheaper than the subway when you travel as a family. You can see the problem if you own a hotel or a taxi license.
“Airbnb plans to hand over the names and addresses of 124 hosts on its service to the New York attorney general, the company said in a blog post Friday. The apartment-rental site agreed in May to provide Attorney General Eric Schneiderman with anonymous information on about 16,000 hosts in the city as well as the names and contact information of individual users the regulator chooses to investigate for possible enforcement action.”
16) Building Water Splitters to Store Energy
Hey – we’ve subsidized the hell out of ‘alternative energy’ like solar and wind power which is unreliable and sporadic. Since this wrecks havoc on the electrical grid and causes energy prices to plummet (at least for those hapless unsubsidized ‘big’ energy companies), why not waste most of their power to create hydrogen? No doubt the next move will be to subsidize fuel cell vehicles to do something with all that excess hydrogen. You gotta love government.
“Germany, which has come to rely heavily on wind and solar power in recent years, is launching more than 20 demonstration projects that involve storing energy by splitting water into hydrogen gas and oxygen. The projects could help establish whether electrolysis, as the technology is known, could address one of the biggest looming challenges for renewable energy—its intermittency.”
17) “Spooky” Quantum Entanglement Reveals Invisible Objects
Now, this is cool. They entangle two wavelengths of light and pass one through an object to image. Due to ‘spooky action at a distance’ the other beam of light, which never sees the object, produces the image. So, you could ‘image’ using a wavelength with is good for seeing the object but bad for creating an image and create the output using a wavelength which is good for creating the image but not for seeing the object. Too cool.
“The images, of tiny cats and a trident, are an advance for quantum optics, an emerging physics discipline built on surprising interactions among subatomic particles that Einstein famously called “spooky.” A conventional camera captures light that bounces back from an object. But in the experiment reported in the journal Nature, light particles, or photons, that never strike an object are the ones that produce its picture.”
18) Rival may have roasted Keurig’s coffee-pod DRM
Or, as the article points out, they may simply have paid a license fee. I almost see the appeal of a coffee machine which squirts out a small cup of expensive mediocre coffee because it is convenient. Even so, I remain old school with respect to my coffee: I use a Capresso machine. At least the coffee is cheap if you disregard the cost of the machine. Regardless it would be a cold day in hell before I bought a DRM locked coffee pot just on principle.
“Back in March, Keurig announced plans to lock down its popular coffee pod system in an effort to make third-party pod makers pay for a license. But the company’s plans may be foiled; a press release last week from Mother Parkers Tea & Coffee suggests that the Keurig “DRM” used to lock out third parties has been cracked and that Mother Parkers is now making coffee pods that can work in Keurig’s brewing machines.”
19) Researchers suggest lack of published null result papers skews reliability of those that are published
This research was regarding “social sciences” (which should always be in quotes) but the conclusions certainly apply to all domains. There is a heavy publication bias towards positive results (those which confirm the author’s hypotheses) and very little published which does not, or even which suggests an already published paper, especially one by a senior research, might be wrong. This leads to confidence in false results and hypotheses and an enormous amount of effort following the wrong path, even wrong paths other researchers have shown – but only to themselves – are wrong.
“The answer lies in the domain of published results, if respected journals only ever publish strong result papers, an impression is created that only research that provides strong results is important, which of course is nonsense. It also leaves the science open to wasted effort when other researchers come up with the same hypotheses and the same result.”
20) Seeing Through the Illusion: Understanding Apple’s Mastery of the Media
This is a long article but if you want insight into how the Apple mythology was created and sustained, a lot if it is here. Essentially, Apple has a small team of master media manipulators and propagandists who build hype and crush any criticism, or even those who are not fully on board. I’d never read about the specific techniques before, but they are all very familiar to anybody who has read Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent”. Getting people hysterically excited about old technology is not, apparently, much different from building support for illegal wars. You really have to read this article whether you are interest in Apple, the Media (and how it is managed), or just politics.
“Apple’s public relations (PR) department is probably the best in the world — certainly more impressive at shaping and controlling the discussion of its products than any other technology company. Before customers get their first chance to see or touch a new Apple product, the company has carefully orchestrated almost every one of its public appearances: controlled leaks and advance briefings for favored writers, an invite-only media debut, and a special early review process for a group of pre-screened, known-positive writers. Nothing is left to chance, and in the rare case where Apple doesn’t control the initial message, it remedies that by using proxies to deliver carefully crafted, off-the-record responses.”