The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 15th 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) Consumer Reports: Tesla Model S has ‘more than its share of problems’
Time was, Consumer Reports was a credible magazine whose reviews you could trust. Then they ranked the Tesla Model S, an unproven design with inherent major deficiencies, as a top rated car. Presumably the zen of the situation demanded wide eyed glee at a “green” car (which isn’t green) despite good reasons to believe they would end up being a nightmare for owners. Edmunds, Car and Driver, and now Consumer Reports have published ‘long term’ tests of vehicles (where ‘long term in this case means more than a weekend and a bit longer than the break-in period. Unlike Edmunds or Car & Driver, they don’t mention replacing the drive system every 10,000 miles or so, but then again their ‘sample of one’ has less than 16,000 miles on it. Thus far all ‘samples of one’ who have done ‘long term tests’ of the Model S have reported the vehicle is a reliability nightmare. Presumably they’ll all sell their cars to hapless rubes before warranties expirer and/oor the inherently short lived batteries stop working.
“Consumer Reports, which last year gave top marks to electric car maker Tesla Motors Inc’s Model S sedan, now says the car it owns has had “more than its share of problems.” While the car has impressed staff at the influential U.S. consumer magazine with its “smoothness, effortless glide and clever, elegant simplicity,” there have been many quirks that might dampen consumers’ experiences, Consumer Reports said in a statement on Monday.”
2) Password manager LastPass goes titsup: Users LOCKED OUT
A traditional password manager is simply a locally run application which stores your passwords for you and presents them to various websites, etc., as required. Obviously if you have multiple devices you might want a cloud hosted password manager. The problem with that is, like any other cloud based system, if it goes down, out of business, or is hacked, well you are pretty much screwed. Like this.
“We started using LP for secure password management about a year back and have a number of systems that accept LP Single Sign On for convenience. Very, very annoying and currently LP seem to be saying nothing whatsoever to their users. Disappointing as a paid-for enterprise customer,” he said in an email.”
3) Four Billion Year-Old Mystery of Last Universal Common Ancestor Solved
Geeze. Even science websites write their headlines as click bait. No, the mystery has not been solved but an hypothesis has been advanced which may solve the mystery. It may or may not be complete bunk, but until its proved this isn’t the answer. Nonetheless the hypothesis is pretty interesting.
“A four billion-year-old mystery surrounding the one common ancestor of all life on Earth has been solved by scientists. All life evolved from a single celled organism known as life’s Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA). However, few details are known about what it looked like, how it lived and how it evolved. Now scientists at University College London (UCL) have discovered that LUCA had a “leaky membrane” which allow it to absorb energy from light, while still holding the other components necessary for life inside it. Researchers discovered this by modelling how the LUCA’s membrane changed to enable its decedents to move to more challenging environments, and eventually evolve into two distinct types of single-celled organisms: bacteria and archaea.”
4) Amazon undercuts Square and PayPal with its own mobile card reader
Square had a good idea and now everybody and their pet monkey is free to copy it. After all this isn’t rocket science so any manufacturer of credit card verification machines should be able to get in on the action if they choose to.
“Square’s grand plan to democratize credit card payments has inspired a clutch of imitators, the latest of which is Amazon. The company has just announced Amazon Local Register, a credit card reader and app combination that’ll enable small businesses to take payments they wouldn’t otherwise get, as long as they have a smartphone or tablet lying around. The retailer is savagely undercutting both Square and PayPal Here, offering a flat charge of 1.75 percent per payment until the start of 2016, a full percent lower than the 2.75 and 2.7 percent asked by the other two.”
5) Internet routers hitting 512K limit, some become unreliable
Earlier this week there was panic in some circles as web routers (i.e. the big ones) stopped working. It turns out that the problem was limited to older units which has been manufactured with limited Content Addressable Memory (CAM) and that CAM was full meaning they could not add additional routes. The growth chart is pretty interesting but this is not exactly a crisis as newer machine do not have the problem and the older ones will simply be changed out or upgraded, as required.
“From performance issues at hosting provider Liquid Web to outages at eBay and LastPass, large networks and websites suffered a series of disruptions and outages on Tuesday. Some Internet engineers are blaming the disruptions on a novel technical issue that impacts older Internet routers.”
6) The Limits of Moore’s Law Limits
The end of Moore’s Law (the tendency for computing price/performance to double every two years) has been looming for some time. I think it is more likely to end with a whimper than a bang as the rate of improvements slow but never really stop. Even if Moore’s Law does slow down, there is plenty of lousy software out there which can be drastically improved to deliver better performance if need be. This article looks at some of the real and fictitious limits ot Moore’s Law.
“Every engineer is worried whether Moore’s Law (that the density of transistors will double every two years) can be extended forever. So far, merely scaling to smaller sizes has kept Moore’s Law in play, but now that we are approaching the atomic scale, many see the handwriting on the wall: When you get down to one atom per memory cell, Moore’s Law has to end — or has it?”
7) Smarter Software Speeds Up Smartphone Charging
Based on the number of announced “breakthroughs” its just a matter of time before batteries charge instantly, cost nothing, and last forever. Realistically that isn’t going to happen. It seems this company claims to have developed a ‘smart’ charger which might be able to make a marginal improvement to charging in certain circumstances. Current chargers are already pretty smart, so it is hard to believe the claims will ever be met.
“One of the most frustrating things about smartphones—how long they take to recharge—could soon be one-third as frustrating. A startup called Qnovo, based in Newark, California, uses a technology that constantly checks and adjusts the flow of power during recharging to charge batteries faster and increase their lifespans.”
8) Worldview-3 – The Satellite That Could Allow Google and US Government to See Your Face From Space
This nonsense made the rounds over the past week. The headline and most of the commentary is utter rubbish. At 1cm resolution you might be able to determine something is a face and not a ball but that is about it. Of course, the face in question would have to be looking directly at the lens as the satellite zipped by at 10 km/sec without suffering whiplash. So you can remove the disguise and take of the tinfoil hat. For now.
“Two months ago, the U.S. government imposed legal restrictions on high-detail satellite imagery, although military satellites were free to use higher resolutions. Companies like DigitalGlobe were limited to capturing satellite imagery from 50 centimeters square of ground space per pixel, but are now free to capture satellite imagery up to 25 cm resolution — twice as detailed as the previous limit.”
Here’s another one for the tinfoil hat brigade. While they are hiding from spy satellites the “gyroscope” in their phone is recording every word! Setting aside the question of whether phones have gyroscopes inside them (they do have accelerometers, but I don’t believe they qualify as gyroscopes, and, maybe you could use them to record sound. Well, sort of, because if you sample at 200 Hz, you are maybe going to pick up 100 Hz, just a bit above the hum of AC power. In other words, if you are talking to a bee you have something to worry about. Mind you, phones have microphones which are pretty much optimized for recording sound. So what you want to do is wrap your phone in tinfoil and keep it in a soundproof box. Now that is a product idea.
“In a presentation at the Usenix security conference next week, researchers from Stanford University and Israel’s defense research group Rafael plan to present a technique for using a smartphone to surreptitiously eavesdrop on conversations in a room—not with a gadget’s microphone, but with its gyroscopes, the sensors designed measure the phone’s orientation.”
10) Have You Bought a Tablet Yet?
I figure the real reason tablet sales are slowing down is that the device is not particularly useful, which limits demand while at the same time resulting in extended replacement cycles. For example, in the early years of the PC revolution, utility increased with every generation providing a strong incentive to upgrade hardware. Tablets (and indeed PCs) are more or less as powerful and feature rich as they need to be so once you’ve got one you don’t need to replace it unless it breaks. As prices plummet, penetration might increase but that will come at the cost of profitability for the vendors.
“As it turns out tablet sales are slumping. Both Apple and Samsung report much lower sales. Maybe all those who wanted a tablet now have them and others are still getting along just fine with a smartphone and a laptop. In fact, some say that tablets are truly a fad anyway. A tablet is that thing between the smartphone and laptop that was more a want rather than a real need. That is how I see tablets, nice but just not as useful as our phones and PCs. And I certainly don’t want to turn into a tablet zombie as many have. Is that tablet affliction or addiction? Or both?”
11) How Shark Week screws scientists
I recently heard an interview with a paleontologist who has stopped watching anything dinosaur related on TV because special effects has displaced fact on “documentaries” on dinosaurs. As it is there is very little science, but a lot of pseudoscience, paranormalism, etc., on things like Discovery. It is really a pity that television gravitates towards lowest comment denomination despite the success of the recent relaunch of Cosmos. Unfortunately, network news works the same way: they’ll interview you for 45 minutes and pull out the 3 second soundbite which aligns with the producer’s preconceived angle regardless of what you to say.
“Discovery’s Shark Week reached an important milestone this week: it hit an all-time ratings high, which the network partially attributes to an increase in female viewership. But instead of receiving acclaim, Discovery is getting pummeled by the media. A sample of recent headlines include “Shark Week is once again making things up,” “Shark Week isn’t just misguided, it’s downright dangerous,” and “More Sharknado than Science.” Of course, this isn’t the first time Shark Week has experienced backlash for its negative portrayal of sharks and its tendency to rely on fiction rather than fact, as last year’s Megalodon documentary was widely trashed for suggesting that extinct sharks still roam Earth’s waters.”
12) Android, iOS gobble up even more global smartphone share
This is pretty much as expected, though a couple thoughts come to mind (besides traditional cautions regarding anything published by IDC, Gartner, or the others). First, these are unit volumes, not revenues – and revenues are all that matters – so Apple is currently doing much better than the numbers would suggest. Nevertheless, as prices continue to decline I firmly believe the high end of the market will disappear as the utility of a $600 device will not be that much different from a $200 device. Second, it should be clear from this that Blackberry is doomed and Windows will persist only as long as Microsoft continues to throw the money it extorts from real smartphone manufacturers via its patent trolling. Shareholders of both companies might take note.
“According to IDC, the total combined market share of Android and iOS swelled to 96.4 percent during the second quarter, up from 92.6 percent a year ago. That left just 2.5 percent of the market to Windows Phone, down from 3.4 percent in a year’s time.”
13) Who needs hackers? ‘Password1’ opens a third of all biz doors
Funny headline – and interesting results – but the figures don’t add up. The four most popular passwords totaled 10,000 out of 576,533 so that is only 1.6%. It was lazy passwords (i.e. 8 characters or symbols) which allowed hackers equipped with sophisticated gear – and a list of hashes – which allowed them to break into a third of business systems. As a note at the bottom suggests, a song lyric or mnemonic, with modification (i.e. first few letters of each word) would be a more effective password for extremely secure needs.
“Hundreds of thousands of hashed corporate passwords have been cracked within minutes by penetration testers using graphics processing units. The 626,718 passwords were harvested during penetration tests over the last two years conducted across corporate America by Trustwave infosec geeks. The firm’s threat intelligence manager Karl Sigler said in a post that half of the plundered passwords were cracked within “the first few minutes”.”
14) The Phone whisperer: using sound to charge mobile phones
Words like “energy” or “battery” cause people’s IQs to drop by 50 points. Making electric power out of sound is not exactly novel – it is the basis by which most microphones work. And the piezoelectric effect is not exactly new either: its the way flint-less lighters produce that nasty spark. The issue boils down to how much electricity from how much vibration, and what is the cost? As desirable as grant money might be you probably aren’t going to change the world with ancient science – even if you use the word “nano” in the research.
“Dr Joe Briscoe and Dr Steve Dunn from QMUL’s School of Engineering and Materials Science discovered that solar cells improved in performance when pop and rock music was played. Working on the research with Nokia, a team at QMUL developed an energy-harvesting prototype, what they call a nanogenerator, to use to charge a mobile phone and for power they decied to use everyday background noise such as crowds at a football match, traffic, music, or the voice of the user.”
15) Telegram not dead STOP Alive, evolving in Japan STOP
Japan is a strange place. I read recently that fax machines are a fixture of every home, so its hardly surprising that telegrams are still in use. Not that Japan is backwards, they are just different.
“Throughout Japan, an army of workers stands ready to ensure important messages are delivered as quickly as possible. But they don’t work in data centers maintaining email servers. They deliver telegrams. Staff from Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT), one of the world’s largest telecom companies, still drive around big cities and even board ships to remote Japanese islands hand-delivering telegrams from friends, loved ones and business partners.”
16) German Startup Says Its New Chip Halves Bitcoin Mining Energy
Frankly I’m shocked the German government isn’t pouring money into this firm as a “greener, more environmentally friendly Bitcoin fraud.” Not that I am suggesting there is anything fraudulent about the company – though if I could mint money out of thin air I wouldn’t have much trouble raising funds and I certainly wouldn’t sell my printing press. Its just that, you know, Bitcoin is pretty much fraud and anything to do with it should be treated as such.
“A German start-up is looking for funding to produce a new high-performance microchip that it says would make bitcoin mining much less energy intensive, and thus cheaper. This is important because ‘mining’ the cryptocurrency—essentially a process of solving complex mathematical problems —requires vast computing power and cooling systems so that the purpose-built processors, called application-specific integrated circuits [ASICs], don’t overheat.”
17) Why BitTorrent is selling itself like potato chips
Torrenting has been vilified by the music and movie industry for piracy but the tool is actually a very good way to distribute files of all kinds. BitTorrent (the company) has introduced a number of interesting and useful products lately including BitTorrent Sync which does pretty much everything DropBox does except you control your storage. The advertising is probably positioning for investors as much as anything else.
“BitTorrent — perhaps best known in the tech world for providing the Internet plumbing for Pirate Bay, a notorious site frequently used to illegally share copyrighted material — is now making a play for the mainstream.”
18) The Rise of 3-D Printed Guns
It is a remarkable thing that even in a gun happy culture like the US there are lots of people – including nearly all journalists – who don’t know the first thing about guns. It is also peculiar that most of the excitement about 3D printed guns comes out of a nation where gun laws are so lax pretty much anybody can legally own most types of guns and its really easy for even convicted criminals to buy them. The major risk of 3D printed guns is to the fools who make them and actually put a couple rounds of ammunition through them, not to the general public.
“This week, instead of walking into a gun shop and handing over my credit card to buy firearms, bullets and grenades, I decided to try a different route: I downloaded highly detailed schematics — like blueprints for a house — of dozens of functional weapons and bullets.”
19) Bullish Toyota admits hydrogen won’t be cheap
When I followed the fuel cell sector I was always puzzled by the idea hydrogen gas, which is produced in vast quantities for industrial use, would somehow be expected to plummet in price once it was used in cars. How would they conclude something like that? Fuel Cell and Electric vehicle owners also benefit from the fact that currently their energy sources are untaxed, which is well and good, however, if the optimists are right and these vehicles become commonplace, the net effect would be a sizable burden on society. In other words, all of the numerous subsidies and programs promoting these cars will have to be eliminated eventually.
“Toyota anticipates that the cost of the hydrogen that will power its fuel cell sedan will initially be greater than gasoline. Speaking at the JP Morgan Auto Conference in New York, Toyota’s senior vice president Bob Carter said that Department of Energy estimates suggest that a full tank of compressed hydrogen will cost around $50. This will fall to $30 in time, however. Toyota’s ‘mass production’ fuel cell car will have a range of 300 miles when in arrives in California next summer. Refueling will takes minutes, while the Japanese giant says it has modeled “specific locations” that will enable the majority of owners to reach a station in just six minutes.”
20) Starwood Introduces Robotic Butlers At Aloft Hotel In Cupertino
Robots have been used to shuffle mail around some offices and parts around some factories for some time now so frankly it is probably more a reflection of dropping costs, rather than technological advances, which enables these robotic butlers. One question might be whether guests would accept a robot in lieu of a real person. Frankly, I’d prefer a robot any day.
“Starwood, one of the world’s largest hotel companies, is rolling out two robotic “Botlrs” inexplicably named A.L.O. in their Cupertino Aloft Hotel. The robotic butlers, built by Savioke, are able to perform tasks in the front of the house and the back of the house, as well as navigate around guests and use elevators. For the most part, it seems that the Botlrs will be delivering amenities to guest rooms in lieu of actual humans, “freeing up existing talent’s time and allowing them to create a more personalized experience for guests.””