The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 5th 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) When You Flip Through an IKEA Catalog, 75% of the ‘Photography’ You See is CGI
I figure the reason they have to use CGI is because even IKEA can’t find what they want in stock for catalog photography. Seriously, though, the use of CGI for catalogs makes perfect sense, especially for a company like IKEA which uses the most cutting edge design and manufacturing technology. Since the product exists in 3D CAD long before it is manufactured, the files are there and can be rendered photo-realistically, from any angle, whatever the lighting. Plus they can make the catalog as the product is being manufactured, reducing time to market.
“This photo isn’t actually a photo. From the furniture to the beautiful light falling on the countertops and wood floors, what you’re looking at is a CGI rendering that has replaced 75% of the ‘photos’ in the IKEA catalogs the college kids, divorced men and NYC residents in your life have lying around. This fact, and all of the interesting technical details behind it, is revealed in a fascinating article on The Computer Graphics Society website, where they took some time a couple of months ago to speak with Martin Enthed, the IT Manager for the in-house communication agency of IKEA.”
2) Google’s Self-Driving Car Can’t Navigate Heavy Rain Or Most Roads
The other day I was speaking to an Uber driver who was concerned self-driving cars would put him out of business. That will happen, but perhaps 20 or 30 years in the future, not today. It is remarkable these vehicles exist and are capable of driving at all but there are lots of things which have to be figured out before they become commercially available. Nonetheless, this article misses the point: not all technologies take a TV season to develop and nobody with any understanding of the state of the art would believe otherwise.
“Apparently the famous Google self-driving car isn’t that close to giving us hands-free transportation after all. While Google’s fleet has safely driven more than 700,000 miles, the autonomous model relies so heavily on maps and detailed data that it can’t yet drive itself in 99 percent of the country, according to an MIT Technology Review report. “The public seems to think that all of the technology issues are solved” with Google’s self-driving vehicle, said Steven Shladover, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “But that is simply not the case.””
3) Computer Science Majors, Your Degree May Not Be As Valuable As You Think
Whenever an industry booms there comes a time when companies can’t hire the best so they hire the rest. So, for example, I got a job programming microprocessors despite only a rudimentary amount of skill because, at the time, schools were not teaching that sort of thing. I became pretty good at it, but even with the expertise I had, after about 10 years or so it because evident that “being good” wasn’t sufficient when HR departments use a checklist which requires “A BSc or equivalent in computer sciences”. Once the market normalizes, and they all do after a few years, it becomes much easier and lower risk for an HR person (or, nowadays an HR ‘bot’) to screen out anybody without a formal education for a technical role. Articles like these to a major disservice to young people looking for a job in software today: go to a “code camp” in lieu of university and you’ll get a job today but you will be unemployable tomorrow.
“Those who are interested or capable of studying computer science may see these figures and decide to choose this as their major, believing that they will find a high paying job with relative ease upon graduation. This is true, generally, but may not be the best route to take. Companies in the industry are finding more and more with each passing day that graduates, despite their intensive studies, are often ill prepared for the work force. This is because the courses taught in virtually all computer science curriculums focus on theory, and they only dabble in teaching practical programming skills.”
4) Is Apple’s iCloud safe after leak of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities’ nude photos?
The answer to most headlines which end with a question mark is “No” and this is not the exception. No cloud service is secure and the insecurity lies at many levels: you rely on the company to implement a secure environment (and to stay in business), you rely on that companies employees not to look at your data (if your password can be reset, it can be reset by them), and, most of all, you rely on a hacker not being attracted to a large cache of valuable data. Fundamentally, all cloud systems are a potential single point of failure and they should not be used unless you are willing for the data to become public domain. Of course, the real joy of many cloud services on smartphones is, they are hard to opt out of but that is an issue for lawyers to deal with.
“The apparent leak of hundreds of naked photos purportedly belonging to more than 100 high-profile singers, actors and celebrities has raised questions of the safety and security of digital services. On Sunday night, images of 101 high-profile stars, including Jennifer Lawrence, Ariana Grande, Victoria Justice, Kate Upton, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Kirsten Dunst and Selena Gomez, were posted on 4chan, an online image sharing forum, in an apparent hacking leak linked to the Apple iCloud service.”
5) California cell-phone ruling poses big BYOD challenge
It is hard to believe that somebody would have to sue over such a thing, but BYOD does present challenges with respect to cost allocation. After all, if the company pays the bill, it is subsidizing its employees (and that can get expensive), but employees are bound to take issue with paying their bill for company work. Regardless, as services have become increasingly data driven, allocation which activity is used for what purpose and who should pay for it becomes a big, albeit solvable, problem.
“A recent California appellate court ruling could hurt efforts to implement bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies nationwide, analysts agreed Tuesday. On Aug. 12, California’s Second District Court of Appeal ruled that companies with employees in California must reimburse those employees for work-related voice calls on their personal cellphones. The ruling came in Cochran v. Schwan’s Home Service.”
6) Russian Communications Ministry Develops Means of Replacing Foreign Software – Reports
Setting aside the current excitement in Ukraine and the Snowden/NSA revelations, it makes little sense for countries to base their respective economies on software (such as Windows) where a foreign government essentially controls the “off” switch. The same goes for networking gear, etc.. There is very little in the way of novelty in software or hardware today so efforts to diversify supply makes some sense, even if driven by nationalism.
“Russian Communications Ministry has developed a number of measures to support domestically produced substitutes for imported software, the newspaper Vedomosti reported Tuesday, citing the department’s letter to the Ministry of Industry. “The department proposes to establish a 15 percent price preference in the procurement of domestic software. If the foreign software is purchased while it has domestic counterparts, it will be necessary to write a justification and post it on a public portal,” Vedomosti reported, citing the letter by the Communications Ministry.”
7) Conscious Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans Using Non-Invasive Technologies
This is pretty amazing stuff, if true and replicable. The abstract concludes that this technology could transform society, and it could, especially if developed to the extent predicted in science fiction (The Terminal Man, Brainstorm, and others). Taken to the extreme, this would allow us to share emotions (and other activities) with significant others, and so on. Perhaps we could even strap one on a cat and begin to understand them. I am very skeptical about this article, but the possibilities are, truly, incredible.
“Here we demonstrate the conscious transmission of information between human brains through the intact scalp and without intervention of motor or peripheral sensory systems. Pseudo-random binary streams encoding words were transmitted between the minds of emitter and receiver subjects separated by great distances, representing the realization of the first human brain-to-brain interface. In a series of experiments, we established internet-mediated B2B communication by combining a BCI based on voluntary motor imagery-controlled electroencephalographic (EEG) changes with a CBI inducing the conscious perception of phosphenes (light flashes) through neuronavigated, robotized transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), with special care taken to block sensory (tactile, visual or auditory) cues. Our results provide a critical proof-of-principle demonstration for the development of conscious B2B communication technologies.”
8) Drone Developers Consider Obstacles That Cannot Be Flown Around
The prospect of amateurs and/or companies filling the sky with small flying machines is not one I look forward. After all, aircraft don’t just fly wherever the pilots want and at least birds have the good sense to avoid running into things. All things considered I think it is a matter of time before government steps in and regulates the use of drones. Only once the rules have been established will it be possible to predict how the industry will evolve.
“But for all the Tomorrowland wonder of a potential delivery-by-drone service, plenty of issues will be tricky to solve. Drone technology has not been thoroughly tested in populated areas, and commercial use of drones is not allowed in the United States. Even if it were, it is not clear that companies could make a profit using advanced, helicopter like vehicles to deliver dog food, toothpaste or whatever else a modern family might need.”
9) The Feynman Lectures on Physics, The Most Popular Physics Book Ever Written, Now Completely Online
I have not had the opportunity to read or listen to the Feynman Lectures on Physics, but these are supposed to be a classic, and delivered by one of the great physicists of all time. There is a lot of stuff to digest, and no doubt some of it (quantum mechanics in particular) might appear out of date. After all, I recently listened to a presentation on cosmology and the recording, which was only a few years old, had to be stopped mid-way through and updated regarding dark matter. You get to Volume II and III by clicking the arrow on the upper right hand corner.
“Last fall, we let you know that Caltech and The Feynman Lectures Website joined forces to create an online edition of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. They started with Volume 1. And now they’ve followed up with Volume 2 and Volume 3, making the collection complete. First presented in the early 1960s at Caltech by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, the lectures were eventually turned into a book by Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands. The text went on to become arguably the most popular physics book ever written, selling more than 1.5 million copies in English, and getting translated into a dozen languages.”
10) Uber banned in Germany by Frankfurt court
Not surprisingly there is push back associated with Uber and Airbnb. It takes time for regulatory frameworks to catch up (see the item on drones), and, in many countries, a lot of really rich and politically connected people own the taxi rights. As president, consider the fact that many countries outright banned VoIP since it disrupted the power of existing telecommunications monopolies. As a consumer it is unclear why I should care about how brings me from my hotel to a restaurant, but a lot of these rules were put in place during the era of gentlemen and horse-drawn coaches so you can’t expect them to change overnight.
“A court in Frankfurt ruled that the firm lacked the necessary legal permits to operate under German law. It has emerged that the firm was told last week that its “low-cost” UberPop service could no longer take passengers and faced a fine if it continued. But an Uber spokesman said it had decided not to suspend the service, adding that the ban was not enforceable while an appeal process was ongoing. “Germany is one of the fastest growing markets for Uber in Europe,” he said.”
11) Deep sea ‘mushroom’ may be new branch of life
I guess we really won’t know whether this is significant or not until they do the DNA sequencing and it is a pity the beasties were preserved in formaldehyde since that destroys DNA. (the significance of that decision was not understood until DNA sequencing became a mainstream technique, which occurred only recently). Finding a primitive branch of life which may be represented in fossils from the Cambrian ‘Explosion’ – which actually took tens of millions of years – would be very exciting.
“A mushroom-shaped sea animal discovered off the Australian coast has defied classification in the tree of life. A team of scientists at the University of Copenhagen says the tiny organism does not fit into any of the known subdivisions of the animal kingdom. Such a situation has occurred only a handful of times in the last 100 years. The organisms, which were originally collected in 1986, are described in the academic journal Plos One. The authors of the article note several similarities with the bizarre and enigmatic soft-bodied life forms that lived between 635 and 540 million years ago – the span of Earth history known as the Ediacaran Period.”
12) Silicon Valley’s Most Hated Patent Troll Stops Suing and Starts Making
Its well and good that IV has decided it wants to go legit, and that makes some sense as and increasing number of ruling seem to be going against patent trolls, but I don’t understand why any inventor would go to a company like this for commercialization. After all, there are all kinds of companies with relevant domain expertise in various industries, as well as factories, a distribution channel, and so on, so why would you go to a company whose area of expertise is exclusively in a specific set of legal practice? Smart people, PhDs and so on, are impressive, but a marketing guy and a good factory manager are actually useful.
“Raisioagro next started looking for a partner that could help turn Benemilk into a global blockbuster. It needed expertise in patenting the ideas behind its cattle chow, making contact with large-scale dairies in other countries, and perfecting its feed recipe to maximize milk production. Raisioagro tapped Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue (Wash.)-based technology investment company. The move made sense on one level: IV certainly knew how to handle the dirty work of protecting the ideas behind Benemilk. Less clear was how this loathed company, the supposed enemy of innovation, could help create a hit product.”
13) Sparks Fly as NASA Pushes the Limits of 3-D Printing Technology
A technology which is over-hyped for near term impact but will probably make a huge impact down the road is 3D printing. Consumer units are mostly good for printing chess pieces nowadays but even these can be used to speed production of jewelery and other custom parts when used by an expert. Here we have an example of how the unique capabilities of a high end 3D printer can be used to improved an ultra high end application despite very low volume production.
“NASA engineers pushed the limits of technology by designing a rocket engine injector –a highly complex part that sends propellant into the engine — with design features that took advantage of 3-D printing. To make the parts, the design was entered into the 3-D printer’s computer. The printer then built each part by layering metal powder and fusing it together with a laser, a process known as selective laser melting. The additive manufacturing process allowed rocket designers to create an injector with 40 individual spray elements, all printed as a single component rather than manufactured individually. The part was similar in size to injectors that power small rocket engines and similar in design to injectors for large engines, such as the RS-25 engine that will power NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the heavy-lift, exploration class rocket under development to take humans beyond Earth orbit and to Mars.”
14) Low-cost 3D printers and crowdfunding suicide
This article has a look at one of the ‘cutting edges’ of the 3D printer market, namely the latest, greatest, ultra cheap, consumer grade, crowd-funded, 3D printer. The conclusion is stark: most will never fly for straight up business reasons. Of course, this does not preclude a low cost 3D printer from being successful, but it displays the odds starkly. Unless and until a use for them is found the issue is moot: don’t expect volume demand for a machine few people would ever use, and whose primary application is the production of chess pieces.
“I am writing this article recently as I have been following the development of many Kickstarter 3D printers for over a year and the market has reached a point this month where I feel like legitimate companies are being damaged by cash-grab start-ups. Businesses with fraudulent financing models are dragging this entire industry down but it seems too many people give these companies the benefit of the doubt for being young and naive. I believe a harsher reality check is needed, the optimistic 3D printing public needs to be warned about these companies which will fail and the companies themselves need to be warned of their own shortcomings before bankrupting themselves. It is a lose-lose situation for everyone, even people who don’t back any 3D printers on Kickstarter.”
15) Named Data Networking Consortium makes its debut in LA
This is the first I’ve heard of this proposed Internet architecture. The existing architecture is pretty long in the tooth and was developed in an era where computing was expensive, networks unreliable, etc., so it makes sense an upgrade is required. I haven’t read enough of it to understand the advantages (see http://named-data.net/project/archoverview/), but the time has come. Speaking from past experiences I can confidently predict a slew of small companies bursting onto the scene promoting their “leadership” in NDN but these will be scams and or hotly promoted IPOs. You can ignore them: NDN will be done at the grown ups table.
“Big name academic and vendor organizations have unveiled a consortium this week that’s pushing Named Data Networking (NDN), an emerging Internet architecture designed to better accommodate data and application access in an increasingly mobile world. The Named Data Networking Consortium members, which include universities such as UCLA and China’s Tsinghua University as well as vendors such as Cisco and VeriSign, are meeting this week at a two-day workshop at UCLA to discuss NDN’s promise for scientific research. Big data, eHealth and climate research are among the application areas on the table.”
16) Google Launches Effort to Build Its Own Quantum Computer
It sure in interesting that, having carefully evaluated the D-Wave computer, Google decided to engage D-Wave’s major critic, who, not-coincidentally, is an actual published expert on quantum computing, to built a ‘real’ quantum computing. You can draw your own conclusions.
“Google is about to begin designing and building hardware for a quantum computer, a type of machine that can exploit quantum physics to solve problems that would take a conventional computer millions of years. Since 2009, Google has been working with controversial startup D-Wave Systems, which claims to make “the first commercial quantum computer.” And last year Google purchased one of D-Wave’s machines. But independent tests published earlier this year found no evidence that D-Wave’s computer uses quantum physics to solve problems more efficiently than a conventional machine.”
17) Scientists discover how to ‘switch off’ autoimmune diseases
This sounds like a potential breakthrough, but you have to wonder why this hasn’t been done before. After all, if allergists can desensitize the immune system against certain allergens, why can’t the same technique be used against autoimmune diseases? Of course, the proof will be in the pudding: if this group can cure a single one of these terrible diseases with this approach they’ll be in line for a Nobel Prize. Stranger things have happened (such as the discovery H. pylori causes ulcers), so it is worth a shot.
“Scientists have made an important breakthrough in the fight against debilitating autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis by revealing how to stop cells attacking healthy body tissue. Rather than the body’s immune system destroying its own tissue by mistake, researchers at the University of Bristol have discovered how cells convert from being aggressive to actually protecting against disease. … It’s hoped this latest insight will lead to the widespread use of antigen-specific immunotherapy as a treatment for many autoimmune disorders, including multiple sclerosis (MS), type 1 diabetes, Graves’ disease and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).”
18) Is there a creativity deficit in science?
If there is a pool of money around there is always going to be a lot more people asking for it than money available so you need some systematic approach to allocate it. This leads to committees and consensus decisions which structurally favor the status quo and the “known quantity”. I don’t like the invocation of Berners-Lee as a reference point but that was probably there to grab the attention of the audience. One issue of great concern is, as the article highlights, the disproportionate allocation of money to “established” scientists, despite the tendency for breakthroughs to be made by the young. Nonetheless, this is what you would expect from a committee. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.
“Rather than have peers assess the innovative potential of an idea, preliminary data and publication records are now the dominant parts of the evaluation. Funding is so tight and proposals are so heavily critiqued that any one reviewer can kill a grant proposal based on arbitrary metrics of quality—or even if they suspect the idea just won’t work. Yet relying only on peer-review misses something about the nature of scientific innovation: some of the biggest discoveries are deemed crazy or impossible by experts at the time.”
19) Nvidia sues Qualcomm, Samsung over graphics patents
This doesn’t seem like the most intelligent move, strategically speaking. I can, grudgingly, understand suing Qualcomm, though this invites counter-suit, but suing one of the largest handset manufacturers in the word – and therefore the largest potential customer for your handset products – only makes sense if you’ve given up hope of ever getting share in that market segment. Note that the article contains an error in the fifth paragraph as it implies Qualcom, not Nvidia, is suing.
“Nvidia Corp has sued rival chipmakers Qualcomm and Samsung Electronics, accusing both companies of infringing its patents on graphics processing technology. The U.S. chipmaker vies with Qualcomm in the business of providing chips for smartphones and tablets. It said on Thursday that Qualcomm and Samsung had used Nvidia’s patented technologies without a licence in Samsung’s mobile devices, including the just-launched Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy Note Edge. Nvidia said Samsung devices made with graphics technology from Qualcomm, Britain’s ARM Holdings and Imagination Technologies infringed on its patents.”
20) The west wind blows afresh
We have seem an increasing number of articles about drones and such being used for service provision in the developing world. I dismissed these as publicity stunts, but this article raises a point I had not considered: at $25,000/kg the launch costs of satellites are staggering, and therefore, because satellites are so expensive to launch they tend to be over-designed and made in small quantities (typically custom made). Then there is the limited number of orbital slots and so on. Mass produced, cheap drones – probably costing $10,000 or less each, eventually – would make excellent radio transponders at a fraction of the cost. Their low cost would allow for redundancy, ensuring service, and quick repair or turnaround.
“If spacecraft are so precarious, then perhaps investors should lower their sights. But not in terms of innovation; rather in altitude. Airbus, a European aerospace company, thinks that developing satellite-like capabilities without satellites is the answer. Hence the firm’s recent trial, at an undisclosed location (but one subject to Brazilian airspace regulations) of Zephyr 7, a high-altitude “pseudo-satellite”, or HAPS for short.”