The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 12th 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.
ps: This was a bad week for tech news. Most of the first part of the week was speculation about the “revolutionary” new products fashion company Apple would launch, along with ground breaking features. In the second half of the week, most stories were either 1) people making fun of the abject banality of the products Apple launched or 2) people praising the genius of Apple’s latest products. While both postmortems were amusing to read (for different reasons) they were probably repetitive, suggesting sock-puppetry and/or other efforts at manipulating the coverage were in force.
1) Yale professor makes the case for Supercool Metals
Smartphones are topical and all, but something tells me a material like this might have broader application. I particularly like the idea the stuff becomes plastic at supercool temperatures. Who ever heard of such a thing?
“Someday, digital citizens around the world may have a Yale professor to thank for the supercool, extra-durable case protecting their smartphones. Jan Schroers, who teaches mechanical engineering and materials science, has created a thin, lightweight smartphone case that is harder than steel and as easy to shape as plastic. Schroers developed the technology for the cases in his Yale lab; now he’s ready for a partner to bring the product into mass production. “This material is 50 times harder than plastic, nearly 10 times harder than aluminum and almost three times the hardness of steel,” Schroers said. “It’s awesome.””
2) Is LibreOffice 4.0 Better than Microsoft Office 2013?
I use LibreOffice, but the answer to this – and most headlines ending with a question mark – is no, no it is not. Personally I think Office 2013 was a step backward but Office products are better integrated and more stable. Nonetheless, the question should be one of value: is the free LibreOffice suite a better package than Office, and the answer to that is, unless you can somehow get a deal on on it (I paid $10), Office is simply not worth the extra cost.
“In 2010, Open Office, an open-source freeware alternative to Microsoft Office, got into some conflict with one of its partners at that time – Oracle. People who were behind the development of Open Office couldn’t stand this monopoly. So they decided to part their ways, and formed a non-profit called The Document Foundation. Later they released their Office suite named as LibreOffice. Last month, its version 4.0 came out – a version which is fully mastered and has what it takes to, if not defeat its rival competitor Microsoft Office, stand along it.”
3) Apple payments service may boost sales of larger iPhones
In the reality distortion field which permeates Apple product launches, there is no past – only the glorious future lead by the genius that is Apple. In the real world, a slightly larger screen size (available from many vendors for several years), a first generation “smart watch” (a market which has not met with measurable success) and a payment system (which has been tried and flopped) all scream “welcome to 2012” (note: this was written before I found item 6, below). The payment system is particularly baffling: why would somebody pay double the going rate for a smartphone in order to use a payment system few retailers are likely to adopt? Why would retailers adopt a payment infrastructure which can only serve a small set of a modest part of the smartphone market?
“The addition of a mobile payments service to Apple Inc’s next iPhone could help to boost sales of the larger-screen phones and claw back market share lost to mobiles running on Google Inc’s Android platform. Apple shares rose as much as 1.3 percent on Wednesday, a day after the launch of the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch – the first new product introduced by Chief Executive Tim Cook.”
4) Apple Watch: Much ado about nothing
As Apple slides from (arguably) innovator to fast follower to just plain follower, even the fanboys (such as this author) are finding it harder and harder to justify their bizarre allegiance to the firm. For a blogger this is a dangerous path as the company deals with its critics brutally (see last week’s GRL) and, as a guy who had the temerity to suggest Nortel was overvalued in 2000, I know what that is about. Alas, as the separation between reality and marketing gets wider and wider, the ability to suspend disbelief takes more and more effort. Eventually, something gives.
“I don’t get it. Based on my demographic standing; by sheer dint of my position within the tech press; as someone who grew up with the first Macintosh in his house and a subscription to Macworld, I should be standing and applauding and ferociously tweeting my awe and amazement at the unveiling of Apple Watch. Yet, I am not. Apple did not save wearables, as many thought it would. Apple caved to the incredibly high bar of expectations set by the public. Apple unveiled something, at best, lukewarm. At most, it’s prettier than the smartwatches that’ve come before, and that’s likely its greatest innovation.”
5) How Apple’s Launch Event Distorted Reality — Again
This is another effort by a member of the Apple fanboy cult to see what he wants to see despite evidence to the contrary. Any criticism is tempered by reflecting a “love” for the company. What intelligent person “loves” a company? Companies provide a bundle of benefits for a price: the value of that bundle of benefits exceeds the price you should prefer it over other products. If you “love” a company you are a fool and if you write about your “love” for a company you are an admitted idiot and your opinion should have no value. Regardless, what I found interesting about coverage of the Apple launch is the high proportion of apologetic critiques of the event: when many of your fans (or paid mouthpieces) find it had to say something nice about your newest products, you have a problem.
“Abandon objectivity, all ye who enter an Apple product launch event. ‘Reality distortion field’ is a phrase long associated with this company, and with good reason. It goes back to 1981, when Apple manager Bud Tribble first used it to describe Steve Jobs’ absolute unshakeable certainty that the Macintosh computer was going to ship in 1982. (In fact, it wasn’t ready until 1984.)”
6) Android Fans Are Laughing Over This Graphic Showing Why iPhone 6 Is 2 Years Behind The Curve
This is good for a chuckle and pretty much sums things up.
“This image, which compares the specifications of the new iPhone 6 and a Nexus 4, an older Android device, is all over the internet today. It was put together by the Ars Technica reviews editor Ron Amadeo. The infographic, which got retweeted nearly 16,000 times and favorited by more than 7,000 users on Twitter, highlights that most of the new iPhone’s specifications are matched by the Nexus 4 — when it was released way back in 2012.”
7) US electric car maker Tesla is developing technology that could see vehicles run on “full auto pilot” in as little as five or six years, according to its chief executive Elon Musk.
Of course, the modern epitome of reality distortion has to be Tesla: a company which produces vehicles which, by their nature disposable – due to the use of a staggeringly expensive, inherently short lived battery – with, by all reports, the reliability of a Trabant and despite this are very highly rated by all and sundry. Now we hear (and there is no reason to believe he was kidding) the CEO of a company which has no particular experience in the field will be first to market with a “full auto pilot” on their vehicles. Sure. Why not? Good luck with that.
“US electric car maker Tesla is developing technology that could see vehicles run on “full auto pilot” in as little as five or six years, according to its chief executive Elon Musk. “The colourful entrepreneur said his firm was stepping on the accelerator in the race against rivals such as Google and Volvo to create a driverless car, which could revolutionise the road by drastically cutting mortality rates. “The overall system and software will be programmed by Tesla, but we will certainly use sensors and subcomponents from many companies,” Musk told reporters in Tokyo Monday. “I think in the long term, all Tesla cars will have auto-pilot capability,” added Tesla’s 43-year-old head.””
8) GM will introduce hands-free, foot-free driving in 2017 Cadillac
I’ve never owned a GM product and likely never will, but like the other major car companies (i.e. the ones who do not subsist off subsidy programs, tax credits, and specially crafted regulatory regimes) they actually know a few things about mass producing vehicles. GM and all the other real car companies understand the challenges of autonomous vehicles and are taking a much more cautious – and realistic – approach to the problem.
“GM is to offer what it is calling “Super Cruise” in a new Cadillac model that Barra didn’t name. The system will allow drivers to switch the vehicle into a semi-automated mode in which it will automatically keep the car in its lane, making necessary steering adjustments, and autonomously trigger braking and speed control to maintain a safe distance from other vehicles.”
9) 3D printing: From racing cars to dresses to human tissue
This is a good overview of some of the real applications of 3D printing. While I don’t think race car duct work is a mainstream application, I visited a factory once where they had spent about $250,000 on similar duct work, to be produced in similar volume, even though could have had it 3D printed even then.
“”Concept to final product used to be a minimum of maybe four weeks, whereas now it can be the next day.” Strakka Racing’s Dan Walmsley is talking about their new prototype car, the Strakka Dome S103. It’s a racer that has to be hardy; it’s designed for the World Endurance championship, a series that includes the Le Mans 24 hour. In that one race it will travel further than a F1 vehicle does in an entire season.”
10) The Revolutionary Technique That Quietly Changed Machine Vision
I was previously unaware that a revolution had taken place in the machine vision as recently as a couple years ago. The local angle is nice as well. The use of simulated neural networks is particularly intriguing as memristor technology has the potential to significantly speed up, and cost reduce, the production of neural nets. What is not clear from the article is whether these machine vision advances have the same performance in a real world context or just for artificial benchmarks. There is always a difference.
“Computers have always had trouble identifying objects in real images so it is not hard to believe that the winners of these competitions have always performed poorly compared to humans. But all that changed in 2012 when a team from the University of Toronto in Canada entered an algorithm called SuperVision, which swept the floor with the opposition. Today, Olga Russakovsky at Stanford University in California and a few pals review the history of this competition and say that in retrospect, SuperVision’s comprehensive victory was a turning point for machine vision. Since then, they say, machine vision has improved at such a rapid pace that today it rivals human accuracy for the first time.”
12) Findings questioned when clinical trials get a closer look
The scientific method is, without a doubt, the best mechanism for understanding the universe. Science never runs in a straight line, however, despite the occasional wrong turn it is ultimately self correcting. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, the funding model for most research has lead to a situation where “new’ findings get funded and or published while null outcomes or, worse yet efforts to verify published research, get short shrift. The net effect of this bias is that mistakes can become part of “settled science” for much longer than should be the case. Ultimately this will take care of itself, however, until then there will be a lot of duplication and wasted effort. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.
“Clinical trials rarely get a second look—and when they do, their findings are not always what the authors originally reported. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which compared how 37 studies that had been reanalyzed measured up to the original. In 13 cases, the reanalysis came to a different outcome—a finding that suggests many clinical trials may not be accurately reporting the effect of a new drug or intervention.”
13) Rethinking the basic science of graphene synthesis
As we have noted in the past, the problem with revolutionary applications for graphene is that the material is extremely expensive to make rending most such applications far from economical. Graphene is like diamond: though made of extremely cheap carbon, production is very difficult. I fully expect there will be a breakthrough eventually. After all, metallic aluminum used to be more precious than platinum, despite the abundance of the ore.
“A new route to making graphene has been discovered that could make the 21st century’s wonder material easier to ramp up to industrial scale. Graphene — a tightly bound single layer of carbon atoms with super strength and the ability to conduct heat and electricity better than any other known material — has potential industrial uses that include flexible electronic displays, high-speed computing, stronger wind-turbine blades, and more-efficient solar cells, to name just a few under development.”
14) In Wake of Confirmed Breach at Home Depot, Banks See Spike in PIN Debit Card Fraud
Oddly enough this exploit received much less coverage than a similar attack on Target. Perhaps the media has become used to these stories or perhaps Home Depot managed the fallout more adeptly. This is a problem on many levels: companies like Home Depot are vacuuming up customer information and lax in protecting it. They lack fundamental security efforts and somehow manage to permit the installation of malware on their systems. US companies and banks are not demanding the use of chipcard/PIN systems and banks are lax in allowing PIN changes. What a mess.
“Nearly a week after this blog first reported signs that Home Depot was battling a major security incident, the company has acknowledged that it suffered a credit and debit card breach involving its U.S. and Canadian stores dating back to April 2014. Home Depot was quick to assure customers and banks that no debit card PIN data was compromised in the break-in. Nevertheless, multiple financial institutions contacted by this publication are reporting a steep increase over the past few days in fraudulent ATM withdrawals on customer accounts.”
15) Intel Releases Edison, a Computer Slightly Larger Than an SD Card
Like I said above, it was a slow week for tech news. Intel may have released Edison, but it doesn’t seem to be broadly available. More and more large semiconductor companies, having witnessed the success of Arduino and Raspberry Pi are supporting “maker” culture with a hope that their devices will find their way into mainstream Internet of Things type products. Edison has potential: most similar offerings lack native wireless support while it has WiFi and Bluetooth, which are critical for almost any IoT application.
“The key feature of the Edison is, of course, the Intel CPU. It’s a 22nm SoC with dual cores running at 500 MHz. Unlike so many other IoT and micro-sized devices out there, the chip in this device, an Atom Z34XX, has an x86 architecture. Also on board is 4GB of eMMC Flash and 1 GB of DDR3. Also included in this tiny module is an Intel Quark microcontroller – the same as found in the Intel Galileo – running at 100 MHz. The best part? Edison will retail for about $50. That’s a dual core x86 platform in a tiny footprint for just a few bucks more than a Raspberry Pi.”
16) Facebook’s Messenger App Is Tracking a Lot More of Your Data Than You Think
As I have noted in the past, Facebook puzzles me – I don’t see the appeal and I don’t understand the success. This analysis of their messenger app is simply another of a long list of privacy violations and abuses by the company. Why people put up with this sort of thing is a mystery.
“It should come as no surprise that most mobile apps run some sort of analytics on user behaviour. But in the case of Facebook, the social network’s Messenger app for iOS apparently tracks quite a bit more than most users likely realize. iOS forensics and security researcher Jonathan Zdziarski spent Tuesday morning disassembling Facebook Messenger’s iOS binary, at one point declaring via Twitter that “Messenger appears to have more spyware type code in it than I’ve seen in products intended specifically for enterprise surveillance.””
17) Armchair merchant sailors, your drone ship may pull in soon
A minor update on the subject of autonomous ships. The approach has appeal: not having a crew on board can save costs and free up space for more cargo. Potentially, not having a crew may allow for more fuel efficient, albeit slower, route. Unfortunately, not having a crew also means not having anybody on board in the even something goes wrong. Perhaps they can develop a sort of “flying squad” which can board robot ships in the even of a problem.
“A European Union-funded research project called MUNIN is looking to make international cargo shipping more energy and cost efficient, essentially turning “seafaring” into a desk job. Named for one of the Nordic god Odin’s raven sidekicks, the goal of the MUNIN project is to create autonomous ships that can sail themselves from port to port. This would reduce energy consumption by lessening lighting, eliminating fresh water production, and getting rid of an onboard crew. The project is the subject of a workshop at the SMM maritime conference in Hamburg, Germany, today.”
18) LED market to grow at 13.5% CAGR to $42.7bn in 2020
Industry research is not worth the paper it is printed on, however, this forecast is likely directionally correct. I replaced most of the lights in my house with LEDs a couple years ago and I can report they are superior to CFL in all respects except for price. Of course we can expect the price to drop significantly over time. One industry challenge is the fact that LEDs are robust and long-lived so the replacement market will be a fraction of what it was for incandescent lights or CFLs and even at higher prices that will lead to a collapse in revenue once the market approaches about 60% penetration.
“The LED (chips and components) market is forecast to increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.5% from 2014 to $42.7bn by 2020, according to a report ‘Global Light Emitting Diode (LED) Market (Technology, Application and Geography), 2013 – 2020’ from Allied Market Research (AMR, a market research and business-consulting wing of Allied Analytics LLP).”
19) The MOOC Revolution That Wasn’t
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) have significant potential but for one important fact: people may think they want to learn stuff but few are willing to put the effort into doing so. I like the idea of free tuition, but the cost of tuition provides an incentive to attend the classes and do the needed work. A student needs to be highly motivated in order to complete a MOOC and there is always a shortage of highly motivated students.
“Three years ago this week, Sebastian Thrun recorded his Stanford class on Artificial Intelligence, released it online to a staggering 180,000 students, and started a “revolution in higher education.” Soon after, Coursera, Udacity and others promised free access to valuable content, supposedly delivering a disruptive solution that would solve massive student debt and a struggling economy. Since then, over 8 million students have enrolled in their courses. This year, that revolution fizzled. Only half of those who signed up watched even one lecture, and only 4 percent stayed long enough to complete a course.”
20) Surging Carbon Dioxide Shows Clean Tech Failure
Clean Tech fantasies usually have their roots in politics and, unfortunately, politics does not lead to careful analysis. Energy is a complex subject and, while it may sound “good” to subsidize the production, purchase, installation, and operation of solar cells, it is not necessarily the case there is a system wide benefit no matter how you measure it (except to the folks who make, sell, and install the things). Politics is about what feels right, not what is optimal for the economy or the environment. One thing I find perplexing is that corporations in the “clean tech” space appear to be hailed as “good”, despite the fact they are principally parasites on taxpayers without any demonstrable benefit for the environment.
“Wind, solar, and other clean energy technologies have sprouted around the world in recent years, and deployment surged in 2013. Yet taken together, they still failed to prevent 2013 from notching the largest single-year growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations since the mid-1980s. The World Meteorological Organization reported this week that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere last year experienced the largest one-year spurt since 1984. With a jump of 2.9 parts per million, the year-average concentration now stands at 396 parts per million. That’s about 42 percent higher than in 1750, before humans began digging up and burning coal, oil, and natural gas at a vast scale.”