The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 24th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 24th 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 has beenanother slow tech news week. There were a few apparent medical breakthroughs announced, which is good, and the usual litany of bitcoin ripoffs (its seems fools, and libertarians, are easily separated from their funny money). Otherwise, news is just a hodgepodge of mostly unrelated items.

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni
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1) This Google Motherboard Means Trouble for Intel

I used to be quite skeptical of the thought Intel would be displaced from certain large markets by ARM and other CPU architectures. As I wrote almost two years ago, the unmitigated fiasco that is Windows 8, combined with the emergence of rival operating systems (most notably the Android variant of Linux) has led me to reevaluate that position. I find the fact Google has selected Power8 as a processor intriguing, however, it is worth recalling that IBM has “opened” its Power architecture, meaning that many of the variants can be manufactured by whoever wants to make them. Of course, this may simply be a gambit by Google to get Intel to drops its prices.

“It’s not just that people are buying iPads and Android phones built with low-power ARM processors instead of PCs and phones and tablets powered by Intel chips–the main reason the Chandler plant was put on hold. It’s that the big online companies, including Google and Facebook and Amazon, are now looking to run their operations on computer servers that use chips made by someone other than Intel. And the first trend may ultimately feed the second. The latest blow to Intel’s future arrived on Monday in the form of a red server motherboard touted by Gordon MacKean, the man responsible for building the hundreds of thousands of servers that power Google’s online empire. In a Google+ post, MacKean said he was “excited” to show off the red motherboard, which was built using not an Intel chip, but IBM’s Power8 processor.”

2) LED Lights Are A ‘Transformative Technology’ In The Developing World

A number of years back we predicted that LED lighting would substantially replace other forms of lighting due to its superior energy efficiency and longer life. We did not anticipate this development, however, it does make sense. We knew that an LED light requires perhaps 10% of the power of other lighting, and it runs off a low voltage power supply, it is ideal for battery powered applications. Since small batteries are fairly easy to charge using hand cranked generators, solar cells, etc., the technology promises to bring light to the developing world at a modest cost. By the way: you can buy a pretty cheap, cigar sized LED flashlight which outperforms any large, heavy, old fashioned flashlight for about $10 right now. Its the way to go.

“Less familiar is the illumination revolution LED bulbs have helped set off in the developing world. For a growing proportion of the more than a billion people who live without reliable sources of electricity, LED lights, in tandem with solar panels, have been a godsend. Nearly 5 percent of Africans without access to electricity, or some 28.5 million people, now use solar-powered LED lights. That’s up from 1 percent five years ago, according to figures released this month by Lighting Africa, a project of the International Finance Corp., the private-sector investment arm of the World Bank. There’s a growing market in South Asia, too.”

3) Rest in Peace, Google Glass: 2012-2014

This might be overstatement, however, I admit to not having had to punch a single dumbass Google Glasses wearer in the nose, despite my efforts to find one to attack. It is easy to see the utility of things like Google Glass, but only in limited situations and, even though surveillance cameras of all types are becoming ubiquitous, I figure most people would find having their conversations filmed pretty off putting. So I’d like to see the technology evolve for the applications in which it would be useful, just not something everybody is walking around with.

“Wearers were gung ho and constantly extolled the virtues of Google Glass. I wrote at the time that the entire product was a hoax. Although ridiculed for the column, one year later, in April 2014, articles began to appear about how all the early adopters stopped wearing the glasses because they were useless and led to personal ridicule. But there was more to it than that. The sudden disappearance of Google Glass reminds me of a couple of other odd fads that came and went. The first was the overwhelming popularity of VCRPlus, a mechanism that allowed you to punch in a simple number into a video cassette recorder (VCR) for it to record a desired show. On the TV listings these numbers appeared almost by magic overnight in much the same way almost the way vinyl records disappeared from “record stores.””,2817,2469916,00.asp

4) Avast Antivirus Was Spying On You with Adware (Until This Week)

I guess if a product is free, then you are the product. Immediately upon reading this I removed Avast from my system and I won’t be going back.

“So Avast has stopped integrating the spying extension, but this is about the principle: you should be able to trust your antivirus provider. Why are they adding a feature that spies on your browsing, inserts ads… and all without properly notifying you? And why, at the same time, are they claiming to stop spyware, even uninstalling other shopping extensions from other vendors, while they were doing the same thing they are supposed to stop?”

5) Robot can perform brain surgery through the patient’s cheek

Laparoscopic, or ‘key hole’, surgery has been around for some time now. Once the technique is mastered, surgeons can manipulate special instruments through small incisions to do things like remove gallbladders. There are many advantages to the technique, not the least of which is that the wounds, being smaller, heal much quicker. This is a much more advanced approach which would permit minimally invasive brain surgery. It looks very promising. Thanks to my friend Avner Mandelman for this item.

“For a percentage of epilepsy patients, medication is less effective at controlling seizures, or it doesn’t work at all. For these patients, there is another option: brain surgery. This is usually a deeply invasive procedure, wherein the section of the patient’s brain is either removed, stimulated or disconnected; afterward, recovery can take up to three months. A robot five years in the making by researchers at Vanderbilt University may be in line to make the surgery less time consuming, less invasive and with a shorter recovery time.”

6) Paralysed man walks again after cell transplant

You probably saw this on the news as it was pretty widely reported, however, it is potentially very significant so I figured I would include it. Essentially, what the surgeons have done is take nervous tissue which is naturally capable of regenerating and used the cells to patch the spinal cord. In this case, the spinal cord was almost severed, so the repair seems to be a near-miracle. Caution is called for, however: it is not certain this result can be replicated, nor is it certain the improvement was not at least in part due to the rigorous training the patient underwent. Furthermore, the long term effect has not yet been determined. Nonetheless, this is very promssing.

“A paralysed man has been able to walk again after a pioneering therapy that involved transplanting cells from his nasal cavity into his spinal cord. Darek Fidyka, who was paralysed from the chest down in a knife attack in 2010, can now walk using a frame. The treatment, a world first, was carried out by surgeons in Poland in collaboration with scientists in London. Details of the research are published in the journal Cell Transplantation.”

7) Australian doctors transplant ‘dead’ hearts in surgical breakthrough

This looks like another impressive result. Since some organs are typically harvested from brain dead (but otherwise still alive) patients, you have to find a brain dead patient who just happens to be a match for the recipient. If the supply of donors can be expanded to those who are completely dead (i.e. their heart has stopped) then, presumably, more patients can be helped.

“Australian surgeons said Friday they have used hearts which had stopped beating in successful transplants, in what they said was a world first that could change the way organs are donated. Until now, doctors have relied on using the still-beating hearts of donors who have been declared brain dead, often placing the recovered organs on ice and rushing them to their recipients. But Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute have developed a technique which means hearts which had been still for 20 minutes can be resuscitated, kept beating and transplanted into a patient.”

8) British serial entrepreneur missing as $1.4m bitcoin is apparently stolen

One thing about bitcoin is that the “virtual currency” is closely tied to tragedy. I mean, here you have this honest entrepreneur who just wanted to make the world a better place running a series of businesses which “went bust” even after he changed his name. And now his latest bitcoin venture has been hacked, everybody’s money is gone, and he can’t be found. Its almost like bitcoin itself is a scam!

“Almost $1.5m of bitcoins formerly held by cryptocurrency exchange Moolah have gone missing, after the exchange declared bankruptcy. The cash is believed to be in the personal wallet of the company’s founder and chief executive, Alex Green, who has not been heard from since Moolah went bust. In the last public communication from Green on 19 October, he revealed that he was previously known as Ryan Kennedy until a name change by deed poll “in an attempt to start my life over and have some peace”.”

9) BitTorrent performance test shows how much faster Sync is compared to Google Drive, OneDrive, and Dropbox

This is obviously a contrived test, however, it gives me the opportunity to mention BitTorrent Sync, which is an alternative to cloud storage services. I like it because the way it works is I own the storage: I am not reliant on Dropbox or any other provided to maintain, protect, and back up my data, or, indeed, to stay in business. The application is also currently free, meaning you have a free, superior, alternative. The only drawback is that like all the other alternatives BitTorrent Sync is closed source, however, open source alternatives are being developed.

“The company transferred a 1.36 GB MP4 video clip between two Apple MacBook Pros using two Apple Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet Adapters, the site as a real-time clock, and the Internet connection at its headquarters (1 Gbps up/down). The timer started when the file transfer was initiated and then stopped once the file was fully synced and downloaded onto the receiving machine. Sync performed 8x faster than Google Drive, 11x faster than OneDrive, and 16x faster than Dropbox”

10) Bitcasa Ends Unlimited Storage

And this is another of many reasons you might want to stay away from cloud storage. Imagine you store your personal or corporate files on the cloud. Once you get to a few terabytes, which is not that hard to do, your provider decides that prices are going up, say from $10 to $50 per terabyte. Now, it’ll take a long time and a lot of bandwidth for you to move your data, assuming of course your service provider allows you to do that. It looks like Bitcasa has invented the “Cloud extortion” business model. Take my advice: even if you insist in using cloud storage, install something like BitTorrent Sync to maintain a local copy. Then ask yourself: “if I have my own cloud, why do I need a cloud storage provider?”

“Bitcasa, a cloud storage service that initially made waves with a low cost unlimited storage offer is scrapping this option entirely — claiming it’s not being used enough to justify the high costs of dealing with a small group of what it dubs Terms of Service abusers. Bitcasa is a former TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield finalist. It started out, back in 2011, offering unlimited cloud storage for just $10 per month. Less than three years later that unlimited promise is no more.”

11) Apple’s Mac computers can automatically collect your location information

Somebody is going to have to explain to me how it is that Apple gets away with this sort of thing, especially after the Snowden/NSA revelations, or let alone how it can position itself as “a leader in privacy” after the celebrity photo debacle. Just as I unhooked Avast! once I discovered they were spying on me, I would surely do the same once I discovered Apple was doing fundamentally the same thing.

“Apple has begun automatically collecting the locations of users and the queries they type when searching for files with the newest Mac operating system, a function that has provoked backlash for a company that portrays itself as a leader on privacy. The function is part of Spotlight search, which was updated with last week’s launch of new Mac computers and Apple’s latest operating system, Yosemite OS X, which also is available for download to owners of older machines. Once Yosemite is installed, users searching for files – even on their own hard drives — have their locations, unique identifying codes and search terms automatically sent to the company, keystroke by keystroke. The same is true for devices using Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 8.”

12) Apple apologist hack hit by instant karma

Apple fanboys really grate on me, though I confess there are many “anti-fanboys” out there as well. Apple’s latest invention is its payment system which was launched this week, three years after Google apparently copied the idea from Apple. I remain skeptical as to why anybody would want such a thing, however, those are not the sorts of questions which are asked about Apple innovations, at least in polite company. Clearly, in this instance, they have a bug in their software which will be discretely correct and then forgotten. Nonetheless, it is pretty funny.

“It seems that not just the design geniuses at Apple need firing for the iPhone 6, but the programmers should also get a written warning and a lecture from HR. Jobs’ Mob’ much over praised Apple Pay double charges users for no apparent reason. Multiple users have reported being charged twice for a single purchase when using the new NFC-based mobile payments system, which just went live on October 20.”

13) Advantages of an Android TV Box

This article looks like it was written by a bot, but I have a point to make. A month or two ago I was in a satellite TV shop and asked about free satellite (i.e. not piracy, but actual free satellite) and the guy gestured to a stack of Android TV boxes and said “that business is dying, but these are flying off the shelves”. Subsequently, over perhaps a half dozen visits to other shops, mostly computer shops, I have seen customers standing at the checkout with their new Android TV boxes for purchase. ( I know media streamers, Netflix, Chrome, Apple TV, etc., have been around for some time, but it is remarkable to seem people standing in line with a particular device, especially if it is not even being advertised. I suspect we may be seeing a seismic shift similar to what I predicted 20 or so years ago regarding the wholesale displacement of broadcast TV.

“Android TV boxes have suddenly become very popular. Even though companies like Apple and Roku have sold many set-top boxes, another option has hit the market – the Android TV box. Also known as a ‘Google TV’ or XBMC Steaming player, these devices are simple. They are available for as little as $60 and as much as $100. This android device is a small box shaped product that is about 5 inches wide and 2 inches tall. This product has access to apps and functions that you can find on other android devices. However, it is able to run a variety of Android apps, games and even a web browser.”

14) Reinvention of Broadcast TV: 10 Things to Know

This is a very lengthy article you should probably only read if you have a deep interest in the broadcast industry. My belief is that it is rather unlikely 4KTV will see broad adoption, especially in the broadcast space. The reasons for this are complicated, but one thing to remember is that broadcasters had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the HD era, and part of that transition was driven by government desire to free valuable spectrum. I believe it is highly unlikely a government mandate to 4K broadcast will occur, and, therefore, any adoption would be reluctant. Of course, I could be wrong.

“As US consumers grow more comfortable with streaming video on mobile devices while continuing to watch cable and satellite TV, terrestrial broadcasters find themselves fighting, as a matter of survival, to redefine an over-the-air digital broadcast system that’s now almost 20 years old. Broadcasters, their future hanging in the balance, hope to prove that they can become friends, rather than foes, of mobile broadband. Their big bet in this high-stakes game is a new standard — still in the making — called ATSC 3.0.”

15) Investors in anti-Facebook startup have no idea how it will make money

I wrote about Ello a little while ago and it does seem to be gaining traction. I avoid social media like the plague so I can’t comment on its merits compared to Facebook or any other site. What I can say is that, from a business perspective, I rather doubt that the document being referenced has any legal force whatsoever, and if it did, I am pretty confident a decent lawyer could find a workaround. That is what investors are banking on.

“Ello, the notably stripped-down, ad-free social network, announced Thursday that it has taken $5.5 million in venture capital and re-incorporated as a “Public Benefit Corporation.” The company’s founders and investors also published a one-page document in which they declared: 1) Ello must never make money from selling ads; 2) Ello must never make money from selling user data; 3) In the event that Ello is ever sold, the new owners would also have to comply by these terms. So how is Ello going to make money? Even its investors don’t know.”

16) Machine-Learning Maestro Michael Jordan on the Delusions of Big Data and Other Huge Engineering Efforts

We hear a great deal about “breakthroughs” in machine learning, vision, and so on. Indeed, a near cult (transhumanism) has emerged to exploit these emerging technologies. Color me skeptical, especially with respect to Artificial Intelligence – how can we replicate something we fundamentally do not understand? This lengthy article provides a sanity check against all the claims. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this article.

“The overeager adoption of big data is likely to result in catastrophes of analysis comparable to a national epidemic of collapsing bridges. Hardware designers creating chips based on the human brain are engaged in a faith-based undertaking likely to prove a fool’s errand. Despite recent claims to the contrary, we are no further along with computer vision than we were with physics when Isaac Newton sat under his apple tree.”

17) Internet-Connected Battery Could Bring Smoke Alarms Online

This is a good idea, but one destined for commercial failure. There certainly is value to an Internet connected fire alarm as it could alert homeowners, property managers, fire departments, etc., of a potential fire. The Nest device provides an example, however, it is stupidly overpriced since the cost of WiFi would add perhaps $5 to $10 to the retail cost of a smoke detector and I can safely predict such devices will become commonplace. Early adopters are more likely to buy new units than to retrofit existing ones with an expensive, short lived, stopgap solution.

“A startup has come up with a simple way to make smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors more useful: a nine-volt battery with built-in Wi-Fi. The battery can alert you on your smartphone if the alarm goes off or the battery itself is about to die. Roost, the Sunnyvale, California-based company behind the battery, plans to sell the batteries starting next year for $25 to $35.”

18) Florida lizards evolve rapidly, within 15 years and 20 generations

This is a pretty interesting example of evolution in action but it is not exactly the first (the classic example is peppered moth coloration changing due to soot in the air Nonetheless, it is a perfect example of evolution being driven by changes in the ecosystem (an invasive species) and competition. Most likely, this has not yet resulted in true speciation (i.e. the ‘new’ lizard can probably interbreed with the old ones), however, over time this will almost certainly occur.

“Scientists working on islands in Florida have documented the rapid evolution of a native lizard species — in as little as 15 years — as a result of pressure from an invading lizard species, introduced from Cuba. After contact with the invasive species, the native lizards began perching higher in trees, and, generation after generation, their feet evolved to become better at gripping the thinner, smoother branches found higher up. The change occurred at an astonishing pace: Within a few months, native lizards had begun shifting to higher perches, and over the course of 15 years and 20 generations, their toe pads had become larger, with more sticky scales on their feet.”

19) Wi-Fi is now free when you visit the UK, if you have a MasterCard

This is a pretty clever idea by MasterCard and will, no doubt, be aggressively marketed, especially if it is successful, in which case it will be rolled out in many markets. It is probably a pretty low cost option, however, what I don’t understand is what would prevent Brits from downloading the apps and pretending to be tourists and getting free WiFi.

“Credit card and payment services company MasterCard has signed up with British Wi-Fi provider The Cloud for free Internet connection in thousands of public places when you come to visit. Download the MasterCard Priceless London WiFi mobile app, available today from Google Play or the Apple App Store, and you’ll be wirelessly connected to the Web faster than a politician spotting 20p on the floor (that’s British for “very quickly”) without having to pay out a single pound, shilling or queenpence (that’s British for “money”).”

20) Bootstrapping a profitable dropshipping websit

I liked this article because it shows how easy it is to set up a web based retailing business today. Access to the technology is minimal and even a self-professed slacker can pay somebody a modest amount of money to replicate the best features of competitive websites. Of course, the choice of product (trailer hitches) is a poor one, especially since he had trouble getting suppliers. Long story short, the barriers to setting up a web based business are minimal and the differentiator is the product. If you have exclusive rights to a product you stand a much better chance of being successful.

“Around April 2011 I wanted to build a dropshipping website to make some passive income. Most people build something and then get zero traffic because their site is not addressing real pain points people have. I knew that if I were to build a site as someone with no industry contact, no physical store, heck no office at all, I’d have to do something unique. I had to figure out what product to sell and what would be my Unique Selling Proposition (USP).”

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