The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 22nd 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) Emerging Solid State Storage And Higher Endurance Flash
We predicted that Solid State Drives would replace Hard Disk Drives in most applications a number of years ago. There are limits to SSDs which concern some people, and most of those relate to the flash storage technology found in SSDs. Of course, flash has not been optimized for SSDs until recently so there is plenty of room for improvement, as well as the introduction of novel alternative storage systems. Most new memory technologies are never commercialized, but that doesn’t mean flash is the only alternative.
“HGST, a Western Digital company, demonstrated an SSD architecture that combined a PCIe-interface and phase change memory (45 nm 1 Gb PCM chips from Micron) to provide 3 million random read input/outputs per second (IOPS) with 512 byte blocks in a queued environment and with a random read access latency of 1.5 microseconds in non-queued applications. These are performance levels that are much higher than most flash storage devices available today. To take advantage of the faster performance HGST said that they developed a low-latency PCIe interface optimized for performance.”
2) SanDisk’s Ultra II SSD offers prices as low as 44 cents per gigabyte
This isn’t meant to be a product placement, simply a reflection of pricing in the SSD market. A 240 GB SSD is more than adequate for most Windows laptops and, at $115 this is an easy and relatively inexpensive upgrade to almost any laptop: you get significantly increased speed and battery life and a more durable (i.e. drop proof) mass storage system. Most laptops are also easy to upgrade with an SSD.
“The Ultra II is the follow-up to the SanDisk Ultra Plus SSD released early last year. At the time of its announcement, the Ultra Plus SSD came in capacities from 64GB ($75 retail price) to 256GB ($210 retail price). The new Ultra II SSD comes in 120GB ($80), 240GB ($115), 480GB ($220), and 960GB ($430).”
3) Sea plankton discovered outside space station
Needless to say, I’d be happier if the source were not ITAR-TASS, but if true this finding is supportive of the ‘panspermia’ hypothesis that life can travel in space as a result of impacts (ejecting bacteria, etc., along with rocks) or other causes. If, indeed, the space station happens to harbor life on its external surfaces, perhaps weather is enough to launch single celled organizams into space.
“Russian scientists conducting experiments on the outside surface of the International Space State made a puzzling discovery, one made all the more remarkable because it’s something that whales eat. Samples taken from illuminators and the surface of the space station were found to have traces of sea plankton and other microorganisms, but scientists are baffled as to how they got there, the Russian chief of the orbital mission told the ITAR-TASS News Agency.”
4) Ridiculous Patent Troll Gets Stomped By CAFC, Just Months After Being Awarded A Huge Chunk Of Google’s Ad Revenue
Things seem to be moving slowed against the true “patent troll” business model although it is too early to suggest the business is finished. The prototypical patent troll extorts via threats of litigation and that only really works if they have a reasonable chance of winning at litigation or costing their targets more in legal fees than they would spend for a settlement. Unless and until ‘loser pays’ is frequently enacted against trolls who lose at trial that approach will continue to bear fruit.
“We’ve written a few times about Vringo, a patent troll (which got its name, and public stock status, from a reverse merger with a basically defunct public “video ringtone” company and a pure patent troll called I/P Engine). The company was using some very broad patents (6,314,420 and 6,775,664) to claim that Google and Microsoft were infringing based on how their search ad programs worked. In effect, Vringo, whose patents were at one time associated with Lycos, was trying to pull off another Overture move — patenting a basic idea for search ads, and then cashing in from Google actually making it work. The case took a slight detour into the bizarre when Microsoft not only settled with Vringo for $1 million — but also with a promise to pay 5% of whatever Google had to pay.”
5) Baylin Technologies (BYL) Posts Quarterly Earnings Results, Misses Estimates By $0.09 EPS
I included this article not because of the company – don’t get me started about the company – but because it is more likely automatically generated. Not that most actual investment research contains much useful investment information, but now even the news services churn out worthless garbage like this. If it isn’t automatically generated, I’d suggest “Micah Haroldson” find another job.
“Baylin Technologies (TSE:BYL) released its earnings data on Thursday. The company reported ($0.14) EPS for the quarter, missing the Thomson Reuters consensus estimate of ($0.05) by $0.09, Analyst Ratings Network.com reports.”
6) Gigabit broadband speed spreads throughout state
Northwest Wisconsin is a pretty rural area so it is interesting to see the reach of broadband. On the one hand, in the grand scheme of things broadband is pretty cheap to run (about $25,000/km) so if you pass 10 homes per km (typical in rural areas) that’s only $2,500 per home. On the other hand, not everybody living in the country is wealthy so the rates may be out of reach of many of those people. Nevertheless, the fact this is doable in rural Wisconsin shows it is doable in most places if the will is there. Unfortunately in Canada there appears to be little interest in broadband policy at any level of government, despite the fact we continue to fall from a globally competitive communications infrastructure 20 years ago to sub-third world status today.
“In the Village of Siren, a community of about 900 people surrounded by nearly 300 lakes in northwest Wisconsin, you can get Internet speeds up to 50 times faster than what most people have in their homes in Milwaukee or Madison. Internet providers in Siren and a handful of other rural towns offer what’s called gigabit broadband speed, roughly 1,000 megabits per second, compared with 15 to 20 megabits per second for a typical cable Internet connection around here. The national broadband average is 10 megabits per second.”
7) Decoding the Orwellian ‘doublethink’ around Munich’s open source switch
News broke this week that Munich was ‘planning’ to drop Linux in favor of Microsoft products. Unfortunately, the original German article essentially said they were evaluating such a switch based on purported problems with the user experience. Needless to say, few people read the German article, but they did read the articles written by people who had read articles written by people who had read articles about the looming transition. The reality is somewhat more complicated and there is, apparently, no switch imminent.
“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” wrote George Orwell in his much-quoted dystopian classic 1984. The German city of Munich’s decade-long migration to its own open source Linux operating system probably isn’t what Orwell had in mind when discussing the Party’s focus on ‘reality control’. Or as they called it in Newspeak: ‘doublethink’.”
8) These are the secrets Google wanted to keep about its self-driving cars
I thought this was interesting, but not as scary as the headline suggests: Google did not really lobby to have information related to the safety of its self-driving cars as self-driving cars kept under wraps. Both the state (the DMV) and the industry are trying to figure out how to regulate these things while keeping as much proprietary information proprietary while coming up with sane regulations. It turns out the government, in this case anyway, got its way, which is the important thing.
“Google’s experimental self-driving cars have traveled more than 700,000 miles on California’s roads with nothing more serious than a fender bender, and that one while a human was driving. But if the company had gotten its way, you might not know about the episode. According to documents obtained under freedom-of-information legislation and seen by Quartz, Google lobbied Californian regulators for permission to keep minor accidents secret, as long as the car was not driving itself at the time. Ron Medford, director of safety for Google’s self-driving car program, wrote that the regulations “should be amended to limit required reporting to accidents involving vehicles operated in autonomous mode.””
9) GPS III: Where Are We? And Where Are We Going?
Besides the questionable reference to Flight 007 (which may or may not have actually strayed off course when flying over restricted Soviet military airspace) this is an interesting history of GPS as well as a look forward as to what if coming down the pipe with the 3rd generation service.
“We take GPS for granted as a ‘commodity’, a grand gift from Regan-Era Star Wars Cold War MADness that occasionally teaches high schoolers about relativity. The depressing fact is that GPS (or GNSS as it was classified at the time) was only made available to the public after an eerily familiar airline disaster. In 1983 – just five years after the first NAVSTAR satellite was launched – Korea Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down after crossing into Soviet airspace due to pilot navigation error. The global response to the loss of the 269 souls aboard was anguished but tinged with Cold War Politics, and President Ronald Reagan announced that GPS would be made available to the world for free to prevent such a tragedy.”
10) Stick a 4K in them: Super high-res TVs are DONE
I am not a believer in 4K TV but I would call it “done” just yet. Low end 4K TV sets are crap, but high end sets are pretty good and it is a matter of time before the price of 4K TVs converge with those of HDTVs. After all, the poor souls in the TV business have invested billions in their plants and they have to keep coming up with differentiators so they come up with the exact same features as every other set manufacturer. The root problem is that there is very little 4K content and it is unlikely much will arise, except, perhaps, movies. Unless and until a 4K connection standard, 4K set top boxes, disc players, etc., are ubiquitous, you won’t get much benefit from the format.
“Only 6 per cent of broadband homes are “moderately” or “highly likely” to buy a 4K TV, and 83 per cent of consumers are completely unfamiliar with the term Ultra HD. These are the major findings from a new report from The Diffusion Group (TDG) and should be particularly worrying for any business pinning its hopes on 4K revitalising TV sales. TDG says short term demand for 4K is inhibited by the lack of awareness and hindered by the prices of the sets, which range from $1,500 at the low end to $10,000 for OLED 4K units. TDG found that even those consumers who were aware of the benefits of 4K were put off by the price.””
11) Monkey’s selfie cannot be copyrighted, US regulators say
This is a remarkable decision and I’m sure monkeys everywhere are celebrating because humans can’t rip off their creative works for profit. Presumably painting by elephants, etc., are similarly in the public domain. Since a lot of wildlife photography (well, the stuff that isn’t actually done in zoos, which makes up most of it) is done by automated cameras, you have to wonder if that should be copyrightable as well. After all, if a lion walk in from of a camera and the camera takes the picture, can the camera own the copyright?
“United States copyright regulators are agreeing with Wikipedia’s conclusion that a monkey’s selfie cannot be copyrighted by a nature photographer whose camera was swiped by the ape in the jungle. The animal’s selfie went viral. The US Copyright Office, in a 1,222-page report discussing federal copyright law, said that a “photograph taken by a monkey” is unprotected intellectual property.”
12) FDA approves tech that turns smartphone into stroke warning system
Well, really, its a simplified sort of ECG which allows diagnosis of atrial fibrillation, which is linked to stroke and all kinds of other unpleasantries. The fact they can get a useful signal out of a couple of sensors is interesting, but I guess atrial fibrillation can be determined from the pulse signature whereas real ECGs can tell a lot more but require many more electrodes. The iPhone angle is interesting but unnecessary: all you really need is a display and some computing power and that is available in any number of smartphones or tablets today.
“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted AliveCor clearance to sell technology that enables an iPhone or Android smartphone phone to record atrial fibrillation (AFib), the most common form of cardiac arrhythmia or an irregular heartbeat. AliveCor’s Heart Monitor comes as an iPhone case with two electrodes that can detect a heart rate when gripped by both hands of a user. An automated analysis process (algorithm) instantly detects if patients are experiencing AFib through real-time electrocardiogram (ECG) recordings taken on the mobile phone based AliveCor Heart Monitor.”
13) Quebec Seeks to Tax and Regulate Airbnb Out of Existence
To be fair to Quebec, they are not alone in this. Airbnb represents a change to the established order of things and it has the potential to mess with a tidy regulatory framework which the bureaucracy have doubtless grown very fond of. Regardless, people have been renting out spare rooms for ever and there is not much the government can do about it. I expect a more visceral attack on Uber, the taxicab disruptor, since politically powerful and wealthy people own almost all taxi licenses, relegating drivers to near serfdom and loss of that position will not likely be tolerated.
“Airbnb matches individuals who have extra space in their apartments with tourists who need places to stay — much like a friend or acquaintance giving you his room for a small fee. It’s a small, voluntary exchange, and it allows individuals to use Airbnb’s payment infrastructure, along with its terms and conditions to handle disputes. Using it allows me to experience a city through the eyes of a local, without the need for plain hotel rooms, and exorbitant costs.”
14) There are 18,796 distinct Android devices, according to OpenSignal’s latest fragmentation report
That is a pretty staggering number, however, the graphs show that most devices are made by a small number of companies, as would be expected. Fragmentation sounds like a bad thing but it really isn’t: it allows vendors to experiment with various architectures which meet various market needs in terms of features and price. The real challenge, of course, is that apps may run well on one platform but no at all on another. This may be a burden for app developers, but ultimately it will be the device manufacturer’s responsibility to resolve compatibility issues or they will lose market share.
“The much-maligned Android fragmentation problem has blighted the mobile operating system for years, though Google has been steadily taking corrective measures in recent times. The issue? So many different devices and form-factors, running a multitude of Android versions which purportedly cause developers no-end of pain when striving to cater for the increasingly-dominant mobile platform. But how serious is the problem? OpenSignal sheds some light on this today, with its 2014 Android fragmentation report.”
15) New Era in Safety When Cars Talk to One Another
A lot of my focus has been on autonomous vehicles, which I figure will transform society as much as the invention of the automobile itself. As a transitional technology, ‘linked’ cars make a lot of sense with respect to safety. For example, if a series of cars are proceeding down the highway and the lead vehicle hits the brakes (i.e. to avoid something) other vehicles can immediately react, avoiding a ‘chain reaction’ situation. Similarly, traffic lights could inform approaching vehicles as to their state, and so on. There is considerable potential in these things but one can’t help but be concerned about diagnosis and repair: most mechanics are not trained in this sort of thing.
“A driver moves along in traffic, the forward view blocked by a truck or a bend in the road. Suddenly, up ahead, someone slams on the brake. Tires screech. There is little time to react. Researchers here are working to add time to that equation. They envision a not-too-distant future in which vehicles are in constant, harmonious communication with one another and their surroundings, instantly warning drivers of unseen dangers.”
16) Metamaterial Superconductor Hints At New Era Of High Temperature Superconductivity
There has been considerable progress in superconductors, but even ‘high temperature’ super conductors work at really low temperatures. This research is intriguing because it is novel and may represent a path to the development of materials with much better performance. Unfortunately, their efforts with tin only raised the critical temperature by 0.15K, which is a lot considering the normal temperature is 3.7K, but is it still a long way from being practically applicable.
“Nevertheless, a way of increasing the critical temperature of existing superconducting materials would be hugely useful. Today, a group of physicists and engineers say they have worked out how to do this. The trick is to think of a superconductor as a special kind of metamaterial and then to manipulate its structure in a way that increases its critical temperature. Vera Smolyaninova at Towson University in Maryland and colleagues from the University of Maryland and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC, have even demonstrated this idea by increasing the critical superconducting temperature of tin.”
17) BrightSource solar plant sets birds on fire as they fly overhead
If this was an oil sands operation and a few dozen ducks had landed in a tailings pond and died, you’d have Greenpeace protests and it would be on the national news. I’m not sure if its because the birds are cooked instead of poisoned, or maybe its the inherent appeal of ducks (seriously – who doesn’t like ducks?) but, incinerating tens of thousand of birds seems not to be a problem. It turns out there are ‘good’ companies and ‘bad’ companies and solar companies are, inherently, ‘good’. If birds don’t want to take one for the team, well that’s there problem.
“Federal wildlife investigators who visited BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah plant last year and watched as birds burned and fell, reporting an average of one “streamer” every two minutes, are urging California officials to halt the operator’s application to build a still-bigger version. The investigators want the halt until the full extent of the deaths can be assessed. Estimates per year now range from a low of about a thousand by BrightSource to 28,000 by an expert for the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.”
18) FarmBot: An Open Source 3D Farming Printer That Aims to Create Food For Everyone
Lord. Where to begin? First, there is no food shortage, there is a money shortage. Poor people don’t starve because there isn’t enough food to grow, they starve because they don’t have the money to use even 1900 era mechanization and fertilization on their food plots, or because they lack the money to buy the copious amount of food which is produced today. Setting that aside, actual experts in agricultural technology have been increasingly applying advanced technology to automate certain functions like milking, cleaning barns, etc.. Unlike the ‘Ted Talk’ crown, these companies actually know that agriculture is extremely hard on equipment – just think of a plow: you are pulling multiple 1 foot by 2 foot pieces of steel through ground and rocks. That takes a lot of power and durability. A machine such as the one described in this article would not last an hour in an agricultural environment.
“The FarmBot employs a similar system to that of typical Cartesian (xyz) based 3D printers, and as you can tell by the photos, it looks very similar to most FDM 3D printers. Instead of printing in your typical PLA or ABS plastics, this machine has the ability to do most of the typical farm jobs that would normally require hard labor and/or individual machines. It can be equipped with different tools, in a similar way as a CNC machine is. Some of those tools include seed injectors, plows, burners, robotic arms (for harvesting), cutters, shredders, tillers, discers, watering nozzles, sensors and more. The hardware used is completely open source and totally scalable for use on any sized farm/garden plots.”
19) Tesla removes mileage limits on drive unit warranty program
The Internet loves its heroes, and the hero du jour is Elon Musk, and of all Musk’s projects (most of which persist due to the generosity of investors and, in particular taxpayers) none is more loved than Tesla. Alas, ‘long term’ tests of Teslas (i.e. used for a year) by Consumer Reports, Edmunds, and Motortrend, as well as numerous owner reports, show that Teslas come with a litany of problems, including, but not limited to, frequent major repairs such as replacement of the $15,000 drive unit. Of course, these are largely engineering problems, unlike the short lived and staggeringly expensive battery, which is the Achilles heel of any EV. Musk has a remarkable capacity of getting ahead of public relations disasters and this is no exception. The issue is moot, however: these vehicles have so many problems (including the inherent and unsolvable battery issue) their resale value should be nil after 8 years, assuming they can be made to last 8 years.
“In a Friday blog post, Elon Musk wrote that Tesla will remove mileage limits on its warranty policy for all Tesla Model S drive units. The warranty, which will still span eight years, won’t have a cap on the number of owners for each vehicle. People who purchased Teslas before today were told that the warranty period for the drive unit expired after eight years or once the car logged over 125,000 miles. The revised warranty applies to new vehicles and Model S cars that are already on the road.”
20) Experts say robots will take 47% of our jobs is this true? And if so is it a problem? A guide to the coming robot revolution
As a general rule you should not take any predictions, especially those about the future, seriously. In particular if the article cites Kurzweil, except to make fun of him and the gibberish he churns out, you can safely ignore it. Nonetheless, robots “taking our jobs” is pretty thematic, especially since mechanization has been “taking our jobs” since the start of the industrial revolution: where are all the scythers? One example of why you shouldn’t worry too much about this is shown in the the large infographic, which makes predictions like “by 2015 30% of cars may be intelligent, driverless vehicles”. This prediction was made sometime after 2008 and nobody who knew anything about the state of the art would thought such a thing was possible.
“Voltaire a prominent author during the Enlightenment era said “Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need”. A paper by Frey and Osborne of Oxford University, has suggested we could face these vices sooner rather than later, with 47 per cent of all American jobs having the potential to be automated in “a decade of two” . But is the number really this high? Even if robots are taking our jobs is it really a bad thing? And what about creative or social jobs, surely in the future there can’t be a moon walking robot Michael Jackson?”