The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 26th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 26th 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

This has been another very slow tech news week. News was dominated by the fawning (and not so fawning) reviews of the iPhone 6, and, in particular, the ‘Mr. Gumby’ bendyness users complained about. As is typical with Apple, they seem to have used their marketing prowess to get ahead of the story, and this morning I even read some conspiracy theories regarding the issue. A word to the wise is don’t put your iPhone 6 in your pocket unless you want a conversation starter

Brian Piccioni


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1) The Strongest, Most Expensive Material On Earth

I often comment on graphene because the material has tremendous potential in a wide variety of applications. Unfortunately, as this very brief article shows, the cost to manufacture graphene is astronomical, despite the fact it is made from carbon. As the video shows, it takes a fair bit of work to get a microscopic sample of the material and scotch tape and tweezers will probably never scale to a factory scale. Nonetheless, I am confident the mass production challenge will be solved, even though it might take decades. Once that happens the basic research into the material will bear fruit.

“It was so simple. Take a small flake of graphite and put it on piece of regular old Scotch tape. Pinch it in between the tape, peeling off layer after layer until it leaves only the vaguest, most transparent of marks. Transfer those dustings onto a chip; stick the chip under the microscope. Congratulations, you’ve just made graphene—the strongest material humans are aware of. It’s only one layer of atoms thick, which means to slice it any thinner would require dividing atoms into their elementary particles.”

2) First Direct-Diode Laser Slices Through Metal

For decades, lasers were expensive and hard to make glass tubes. Laser diodes came on the scene about 20 years ago and lead to more compact and robust devices – two important considerations for a machine tool. The use of lasers in manufacturing has no become commonplace: my wife recently showed me some fabric which had “laser-cut” patterns in the material. Despite the advantages of laser diodes, these still needed to be made into complex assembly. Assuming this company can produce ‘direct diode lasers’ in volume at a reasonable price (two assumptions you can never make about a start-up) this could be a cost breakthrough.

“Start-up company TeraDiode, Wilmington, Mass., has taken technology developed in MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory to develop the first metal-cutting machine that uses only laser diodes — there are no intervening crystals for amplification or focus. The new machine, dubbed TeraBlade, is said to be more efficient (40%) and less expensive than other industrial lasers, including carbon-dioxide, but is just as powerful. The company claims its 4-kW direct-diode laser puts out 2,600 MW per square centimeter per steradian and can slice through a half-inch of steel.”

3) Hard Drive Reliability Update – Sep 2014

Backblaze’s business model is to use redundant consumer grade hard drives in its cloud storage solution. They are agnostic with respect to vendor and they buy a lot of drives, which provides excellent insights with respect to reliability. Fortunately, they have elected to share that information and provide regular updates on their experiences. Because these results should impact manufacturers’ warranty costs and reputation, the information might be useable for investment decisions as well as influencing your next storage purchase choice. The comments on the reliability of ‘enterprise grade’ hard drives being similar or even worse than ‘consumer grade’ hard drives despite a greater than 100% price premium are particularly interesting.

“The good news is that the chart today looks a lot like the one from January, and that most of the drives are continuing to perform well. It’s nice when things are stable. The surprising (and bad) news is that Seagate 3.0TB drives are failing a lot more, with their failure rate jumping from 9% to 15%. The Western Digital 3TB drives have also failed more, with their rate going up from 4% to 7%. In the chart below, the grey bars are the failure rates up through the end of 2013, and the colored bars are the failure rates including all of the data up through the end of June, 2014.”

4) $200 Million Bitcoins Sought After By Hedge Fund GABI

A word to the wise: no size asset buyer announces their intention to take a large stake in an asset because that causes the cost to rise. Therefore, you can safely conclude that, if anything, GABI, is unloading Bitcoin, or somehow shorting them, to the hapless rubes who still believe this scam.

“Bitcoin Hedge Fund Global Advisors Bitcoin Investment (GABI) has begun buying Bitcoins and will invest up to $200 million in their first 6 months on operation. An article on Morning Money first mentioned the $200 million number. CoinDesk has reported in this article, that GABI is buying the Bitcoins over the counter through DigitalBTC, an Australian company, that is Australia’s first publicly listed Bitcoin company.”

5) Bitcoin-mining computer company faces shutdown by US authorities

Let’s imagine for a moment Bitcoin isn’t the scam it is and, instead of being a scheme where you convince presumably lucid, sober people, to exchange actual money for a number. And, lets forget than a staggering portion of Bitcoin exchanges haven’t been ‘hacked’ (or, more likely, pillaged by the folks who set them up. OK, lets play pretend. Now, you’ve developed a machine which produces these magic numbers for less than the cost of the machine and the electricity to run it. Do you sell the machine, or keep it to yourself? Well if the machine works, you don’t sell it. If it doesn’t work, you do. QED.

“US regulators have moved to shut down Butterfly Labs, a Missouri-based company they allege deceptively marketed computers designed to produce the virtual currency Bitcoin. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said the company charged thousands of consumers between $20m-$50m for its Bitcoin computers and services, but then failed to provide the computers until they were practically useless, or did not do so at all.”

6) Law Enforcement Freaks Out Over Apple & Google’s Decision To Encrypt Phone Info By Default

About 25 years ago I heard a news item where the RCMP was lamenting that criminals were using then new cellular technology to avoid being “tapped” by police. Since I had designed early generation mobile phones, I knew how this problem could be solved so I mentioned to my neighbor, who was a detective, that if they needed such a device I could design it for them. The neighbor got back to me after a week or so and let me know that his contacts in Ottawa thanked me for the offer, but they had the necessary equipment, and that it was, in fact easier to record mobile calls than wireline calls. The news story was just misdirection so the geniuses who make up the underworld would use mobiles and be more candid in their discussions. Just sayin’ …

“One Justice Department official said that if the new systems work as advertised, they will make it harder, if not impossible, to solve some cases. Another said the companies have promised customers “the equivalent of a house that can’t be searched, or a car trunk that could never be opened.” Andrew Weissmann, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation general counsel, called Apple’s announcement outrageous, because even a judge’s decision that there is probable cause to suspect a crime has been committed won’t get Apple to help retrieve potential evidence. Apple is “announcing to criminals, ‘use this,’ ” he said. “You could have people who are defrauded, threatened, or even at the extreme, terrorists using it.””

7) PrintAlive: 3D Bioprinter Creates ‘Living Bandage’ Skin Grafts to Treat Burn Victims

Yet another innovative used of 3D printers in medical applications. In this case the device is used to produce skin grafts from patient’s own tissue quicker than was previously possible. It hasn’t been used on people yet but trials are expected in a few years. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this article.

“Engineering students from the University of Toronto have developed a 3D bioprinter that can rapidly create artificial skin grafts from a patient’s cells to help treat burn victims. … In severe burn injuries, both the epidermis (outer layer of the skin) and the dermis (inner layer) are severely damaged, and it usually takes at least two weeks for skin cells to be grown in a laboratory to be grafted on to a patient.”

8) Coke machines in SA to dispense free Wi-Fi

This is probably a good way to sell a lot of soft drinks while, perhaps inadvertently, doing some good. You can imagine the machines are already pretty secure (otherwise the drinks and/or money would soon disappear, so the hotspot should itself be physically secure. Perhaps there is a business model for advertiser funded hotspots as well.

“South African consumers will soon be able to quench their thirst and check their e-mail at the same time. Coca-Cola and BT Global Services have announced plans to offer free Wi-Fi Internet access in impoverished communities using Coke’s vending machines. BT – formerly British Telecom – will provide connectivity, support and business training as part of the roll-out. The pilot project has been launched in the rural Eastern Cape and in rural Mpumalanga. Sites were chosen for their accessibility to local communities, the companies said.”

9) We can now remotely control paralyzed rats, letting them walk again: Humans are next

Bionics has been making a fair bit of progress as implants and control systems have improved. It is hard to tell how contrived the demonstration is: after all, rats rarely walk up stairs on their hind feet and in a harness. It would be more impressive to me if I saw a rat moving more or less the way rats usually move. However, such a system might be more applicable to a human than a rat because a human could be taught how to control the system through moving a joystick or something.

“In the void left by the anticlimactic World Cup exoskeleton adventure, other efforts to make the paralyzed walk again are recapturing the spotlight. Chief among them is Grégoire Courtine’s research group at the EPFL in Switzerland. Their latest breakthroughs, just published in Science Translational Medicine, suggest that a more grounded approach is to repower the locomotive effort at the level of the spinal cord. The researchers were able to get the paralyzed rats to walk on their hind two legs with the help of a treadmill and harness.”

10) Remote exploit vulnerability in bash CVE-2014-6271

This is a very big deal, especially coming so hot on the heels of ‘Heartbleed’ from a few months ago. You might think you are safe if you don’t run Linux at home but most of the Internet and almost all mobile devices are derived from Linux and/or Unix.

“A remotely exploitable vulnerability has been discovered by Stephane Chazelas in bash on Linux and it is unpleasant. The vulnerability has the CVE identifier CVE-2014-6271 and has been given the name Shellshock by some. This affects Debian as well as other Linux distributions. You will need to patch ASAP. Bash supports exporting shell variables as well as shell functions to other bash instances. This is accomplished through the process environment to a child process.”

11) Wearable Artificial Kidneys Begins Safety Tests

One would probably have to walk in the shoes of a dialysis patient in order to appreciate the importance of this new machine. As the video shows, it is a lot larger than you might think from the photograph so you would not expect people to run a marathon with the machine attached. However, being able to move about, travel, etc., while undergoing dialysis would probably be a significant improvement in the quality of life for those suffering kidney failure.

“Nearly identical to a traditional dialysis machine in its mechanics, the WAK has reduced the size of a dialysis machine by leveraging breakthroughs in miniaturization, batteries, materials, and most crucially, the amount of water required to filter blood. In the past, cabinet-sized dialysis machines required 151L (40 gallons) of water to clean a person’s system. However, with the WAK that volume has been slashed so that only a half-liter (1 pint) of water is needed to filter a person’s entire circulatory system.”

12) Modern Life Without a Pancreas

This article sounds like a complaint but it actually demonstrates how modern technology has simplified life for people with diabetes – or at least people with enough money to afford these gizmos. A closed system artificial pancreas, where you simply tank up the insulin reservoir, or an actual lab grown replacement would probably be better, but this beats the heck out of diabetic coma or death.

“My hiking shoes were just laced up when there was a frantic vibrating in my pocket. I reached inside, took out the iPod-sized medical device and checked the screen. Up at the top, where my blood glucose would normally read, was a series of glowing question marks. Great. It had been over a week since I’d inserted my last continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) sensor and it had started acting up earlier that morning, with missed readings. Each of these disposable sensors lasts for about a week, transmitting the number representing my blood sugar level in real time to a small handheld receiver.”

13) How did the ‘Berlin patient’ rid himself of HIV?

Imagine curing somebody of a disease with an otherwise 100% mortality rate and then realizing you could not replicate what you had just done. That pretty much is the case of the ‘Berlin patient’ who was cured of AIDS and remains disease free. The fact he was cured shows there is a protocol which can work, in at least some patients, although a marrow transplant would normally be viewed as a last ditch procedure for most diseases. Hopefully, careful replication of the ‘cure’ will lead to repeatability. This is not the first time this has happened in the history of science.

“Researchers are closer to unraveling the mystery of how Timothy Ray Brown, the only human cured of HIV, defeated the virus, according to a new study. Although the work doesn’t provide a definitive answer, it rules out one possible explanation.”

14) Drone Exemptions for Hollywood Pave the Way for Widespread Use

Frankly I’m surprised the FAA’s permission was needed since I have seen so many drone videos. Were all these done illegally? I am not sure some of the rules make a lot of sense (for example why should the operator require a pilot’s license?), but some degree of regulation is necessary when you are flying machine with rotating parts in the general vicinity of people. Contrast this cautious reality with the hype and hysteria associated with Amazon’s drone delivery service. Either way, prospects are probably dimming for helicopter pilots in the film biz.

“The commercial use of drones in American skies took a leap forward on Thursday with the help of Hollywood. The Federal Aviation Administration, responding to applications from seven filmmaking companies and pressure from the Motion Picture Association of America, said six of those companies could use camera-equipped drones on certain movie and television sets. Until now, the F.A.A. has not permitted commercial drone use except for extremely limited circumstances in wilderness areas of Alaska. Put bluntly, this is the first time that companies in the United States will be able to legally use drones to fly over people.”

15) DHL begins drone delivery in Germany

Evidently the German government is taking a less cautious stance than the US with respect to commercial applications for drones, or, perhaps, the legal environment is different enough to let this pass. To be clear, this is not delivery of packages to random destinations but delivery of high value, low weight items (i.e. drugs) to a specific destination which present particular logistical challenges. A number of years ago I proposed the government of Canada use drone blimps to deliver cargo to remote first nations villages, but I don’t think I was taken seriously.

“Deutsche Post DHL says it is starting Germany’s first drone package delivery service, a test program transporting medicine to a pharmacy on a North Sea island. The company said the quad-rotor “DHL Paketkopter 2.0” will begin daily flights Friday, bringing a maximum load of 1.2 kilograms of medicine to the German island of Juist. The island has about 1,500 inhabitants. It’s usually served by one ferry per day and an occasional small-aircraft flight, depending on the weather.”

16) Why the Uber-for-X Wave Should Stop

When I was young the local grocery store would always have some kid with a special bicycle who would deliver a few bags of groceries for a tip. You don’t see this as much anymore for a reason: delivering stuff is expensive and inefficient. It is much better for people to come to stores (or in the case of, say, Costco, warehouses) and pick their stuuff up themselves. The important thing about Uber is that it is, first and foremost, a regulatory arbitrage which makes use of modern technology for dispatch. As the article notes, ‘on-demand’ has been the nature of the taxi business from day one. In any event, just as the last dot-com bubble lead to the emergence of all kinds of inherently money losing businesses, these will crash and burn once investors wise up.

“Delivery startups are cropping up everywhere, which is great in the age of Everything-as-a-Service. But why are they all jumping on Uber’s black on-demand bandwagon? Being able to promise hyper-fast deliveries is neat, but at what cost? Most on-demand startups are probably running on losses and battling a constant last-minute scramble day in and day out. So before you promise on-demand, let’s consider the alternative of scheduling your deliveries.”

17) This Palm-Sized Laser Could Make Self-Driving Cars Way Cheaper

I included this article in order to show how far we are from having self-driving cars. Even though this device is roughly 1/10th the cost of the unit used on Google’s self-driving cars, it is at least 50 times too costly to be useable on even a premium vehicle, especially when you take into account an autonomous vehicle would have to have multiple redundancy in terms of imaging devices and imaging technologies. Ultimately, of course, these challenges will be solved as the market emerges but at $7,999 we are still very far away.

“Which brings us to the Puck, Velodyne’s miniaturized version of that technology. Instead of 64 lasers, it has just 16, resulting in a tenfold reduction in price. It’s also smaller, just 4 inches tall and 1.3 pounds—compared to 10 inches tall and 29 pounds for the unit on each of Google’s robocars. At $7,999, it’s small and cheap enough for mass-market vehicles, a big help for automakers intent on offering cars that drive themselves in the next decade.”

18) iPhone camera evolution: How does the iPhone 6 camera compare to previous iPhone cameras?

Because this is a slow news week, I’m including a few bizarro world stories to sort of pad things out. You see, the reality of thing is that all smartphone cameras are crap and unless and until people are willing to carry around a large lens they will always be crap. The quality of a photo is a function of the sensor and the lens and if you could get a decent picture out of a sensor the size of a piece of confetti and a lens the size of an aspirin tablet, Sony, Nikon, etc., would have figured that out long ago. A smartphone camera is convenient and cheap (they cost a few bucks each), which make them nice features in case you happen to encounter a UFO. But don’t for a moment think they are good cameras or ever will be.

“In the past seven years, each new advancement in iPhone camera technology has made dramatic improvements to image quality. The iPhone 6 is no different. Besides being faster to shoot and easier to focus, the images taken with the iPhone 6 camera show greater detail and are significantly better in low-light. In this follow-up post to my iPhone 4s and iPhone 5 comparisons, I present an 8 iPhone comparison from all iPhone versions taken with Camera+ including, the original iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPhone 5S, and the new iPhone 6 in a variety of situations to test the camera’s capabilities.”

19) I ate crickets because they’re the future of food

I have nothing against people who eat bugs. After all, what is a lobster but a bug that lives in the ocean? You’ve eaten a lot of bugs as well, especially in the form of processed vegetables, in particular tomato sauce (a fact the vendors do not, curiously, advertise). The thing is, eating insects is a cultural thing and, unless you can predict the future of culture, you don’t know the future of food. Imagine explaining sushi to your great grandfather, unless, of course, he was Japanese. So, even though you shouldn’t hold your breath, it is interesting to read about it.

“Next Millennium Farms (NMF), located about 90 minutes outside of Toronto, Ontario, is part of a movement to introduce crickets — fried, baked, or milled into flour — to the North American menu. The insect’s nutritional benefits, combined with mounting concerns over the environmental impacts of meat production, is prompting conscious food producers to see the pest in a new light, turning cricket meal into everything from protein bars to cookies.”

20) Salt water-powered electric car approved for roads in Europe

I guess the world’s energy problems are solved: salt water powered cars are clearly the future. I mean we have oceans of salt water, don’t we? Except this is not a salt water powered car, it is a car with a flow-cell battery (this is a battery where the electrolyte is a liquid so you can can, essentially, recharge the battery by replacing the electrolyte as it operates. The unanswered yet extremely important question is how much it costs in energy and dollars to produce the electrolyte to refuel the vehicle. Because there is no data with respect to the cost of the flow-cell or the electrolyte, it is probably astronomical.

“In development for 14 years, the four-seated car measures roughly 5.25 metres in length and sports what its creators say is an entirely new kind of energy storage system, also called Nanoflowcell. The company claims that the automobile is capable of speeds of 350 kilometres per hour and acceleration of 0-100 kilometres per hour in just 2.8 seconds, and can travel distances of 600 kilometres with a full tank of a petrol made from a salt water solution. … An electrochemical reaction is created by combining two liquids with metallic salts acting as the electrolyte. These solutions are pumped through a fuel cell where an anode or cathode electrode is located, creating electricity that is then forwarded to super capacitors within the car. ”




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