The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 7th 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 was a comparatively busy week for tech news. Despite a couple of launch failures – and one death – in the private space business, none the of the related articles were particularly noteworthy. Of all things, Hewlett-Packard generated some level of interest in a couple of apparently transformational products and there was a fair bit of news concerning automotive technology.
This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
1) Cree Engineers a Cheaper LED Bulb by Losing the Heat Sink
The LED lighting industry faces a conundrum: prices have to come down a lot in order for consumers to adopt the technology – despite the substantial lifetime energy savings – and yet LED lamps last so long, once the market is saturated, demand should drop precipitously. There is some hope in the prospect LED lighting is so energy efficient low prices will spur adoption in the developing world, which will broaden the market considerably. One thing about this device, however: I have to wonder about the vents: if they are not small enough, bugs will get inside (I have this problem with my smoke alarms).
“Heat sinks have made LED bulbs the freaks of the lighting world. Metal collars and other heat sinks serve to draw away heat from LEDs to ensure long life, but they also give LED bulbs an unfamiliar, bulky look and add to their costs. LED maker Cree on Tuesday is introducing a new consumer bulb that does away with the metal heat sink seen on most LED bulbs. The dimmable bulbs come with a lower cost, too: $7.97 for a 40-watt and 60-watt equivalent, down from $9.97 for a “soft white” version. The “daylight” version with whiter light costs $8.97.”
2) You Are Not the Product: The Coming Revolution in Social Networks
Social media is a mystery to me: why would I want to share personal details, photographs, etc., with a corporation let alone people I hardly know? Evidently, I am in the stark minority, although I am clearly not the only one concerned about corporate data mining. There has been a bit of discussion around emerging models of social media which do not make the content provider the product. Whether or not these schemes actually become successful and/or hold true to their purported mission, is another matter.
“This idea that we are just products for advertisers pops up in lots of online conversations, a reflection of the current state of our advertising-driven social networks. These networks were built on TV’s old business model of “I sell your eyeballs and give you interesting stuff to watch in exchange.” They’ve just modified that model a bit so that now, in addition to attention, we also surrender our personal data. Oh, and now we’re the ones supplying most of that “interesting stuff” to watch. That’s why I’ve gotten excited over a flurry of recent announcements painting an alternative vision for social networks …”
3) HP’s move into 3D printing will radically change manufacturing
One can scarcely consider ill informed anonymous comments made on Reddit to be representative of market interest in the launch of HP’s novel industrial 3D printer which we covered last week. HP is a company which has made plenty of mistakes but which should not be underestimated, especially where their expertise in printing is concerned. Ultimately, we will have to reserve judgment until the new machine hits the market, however, in terms of specs it looks very impressive.
“Cynicism aside, HP is a $112 billion company whose products span the corporate and consumer marketplace, and it can bring to bear 30 years of 2D printer R&D on the 3D printer space. Simply put, the move is unprecedented. “There’s a lot of parallels between document printing and 3D printing, so our company’s been looking at HP for a long time, thinking it’s an excellent candidate to enter this market place,” said Terry Wohlers, president of research firm Wohlers Associates. Recently, Wohlers said he was given a demonstration of HP’s new Multi Jet Fusion printer and was “blown away” by the speed, quality, feature details of printed items and by the brilliant colors it produces.”
4) HP’s radical new Machine could start computing by 2016
I’m not on the HP bandwagon or anything, however, this week there was also a bit more information released regarding HP’s “Machine” computer. It is not immediately clear to me launching a supercomputer with a comparatively novel architecture is destined for success, however, most likely HP has some sense of customer needs. What is most interesting is the likelihood the Machine will be the first commercial launch of memristor memory, and that could be a very big deal indeed. Memristors are high speed, non-volatile memory equally adept at main memory (i.e. DRAM) or mass storage – or so the story goes. That would be a very big deal indeed. See also http://www8.hp.com/hpnext/posts/end-necessary-evil-collapsing-memory-hierarchy#.VFRs__nF98E for more information on HP’s approach and the potential impact of memristor technology.
“Hewlett-Packard’s efforts to usher in an entirely new computer architecture, one potentially much faster and simpler, may bear fruit by the end of 2016, when the company’s lab expects to have the first prototype machine based on its design. Should HP’s Machine architecture prove successful, everyone in the IT business, from computer scientists to system administrators, may have to rethink their jobs, judging by a talk HP Labs Director Martin Fink gave at the Software Freedom Law Center’s 10th anniversary conference Friday in New York.”
5) Why Silicon Valley doesn’t care about Android
It is abundantly clear North Americans associate smartphones with iPhone and little else. The cynicism associated with Android simply ignores the fact Android has a much larger and expanding market share (see item 6), a situation which I believe will magnify as smartphone pricing collapses. The main drawback to Android is its architectural diversification, which makes development more challenging. Ultimately, that is also its strength: backing a single horse only works when that horse wins. Eventually developers will realize this.
“Based on my experience meeting hundreds of startup founders and VCs in both San Francisco and New York, few professionals in America’s tech hubs have owned an Android phone or believe in the opportunity of the platform. Meanwhile, the growth and prevalence of Android around the globe shows that there’s a massive platform shift going on right now–the type of event that historically has marked a point when one company achieves market dominance. If there is such a shift and opportunity under going on, why don’t the most innovative people in the most successful tech cities in the world care?”
6) Android is edging out iOS in the global tablet market
The future ain’t what it used to be for tablets – growth of 11.5% (which is a unit figure and therefore meaningless within the context of dropping prices) would have been disappointing for declining years of the PC industry. Tablets have limited utility compared to laptops and, as smartphones get larger, they become redundant for many applications. Why carry a tablet and a smartphone if your smartphone does most everything the tablet does and costs the same?
“First it came for Apple’s smartphones and now it’s going after Apple’s tablets too: Android’s global army of low-cost tablets means that it’s gaining in terms of overall share, although Apple remains the single biggest individual vendor. Overall, the tablet market grew by 11.5 percent worldwide according to the latest report from IDC, with 53.8 million tablets sold in the last quarter. Apple may have some shiny new iPads on the market but the slice of the pie claimed by iOS has dropped to 22.8 percent from 29.2 percent at the same point last year. Android makes up the bulk of the remainder though IDC didn’t specify an exact percentage — Windows tablets and other niche platforms will account for part of those sales. Samsung has an 18.3 percent share of the tablet market worldwide, but that too has dropped from 19.3 percent in 2013.”
7) GM to roll out Android cars in 2016, supplier says
This refers to infotainment systems (radio, navigation, etc.) and not engine control and it seems like the logical choice. Historically, infotainment system developers have built some sort of home brew OS, however, that fails to leverage the strength of existing applications, drivers, and development tools. Although Android is closely identified with Google, as an open source project auto manufacturers are not handing over the keys to the kingdom as they would with Apple’s iOS or even Windows. I expect most vendors will come to the same conclusion eventually.
“More than 1 billion mobile devices, from smartphones and tablet computers to computerized wristwatches, use Google Inc.’s Android operating system. Next up? Chevrolets and Cadillacs. So says supplier Harman International, which won a $900 million contract from General Motors in 2012 to supply a next-generation infotainment system. Harman’s system will be based on Android, and is scheduled to launch in GM vehicles in late 2016, Harman CEO Dinesh Paliwal revealed last week during a conference call discussing quarterly earnings.”
8) Mercedes, VW to put brakes on Google’s in-car data inroads
This is the drawback to opening your systems to the likes of Google, Apple, or Microsoft and speaks to the advantages of ‘forking’ Android, or otherwise creating a sandbox around proprietary or owner data. If nothing else, this would be desirable for safety reasons. Of course, this is a similar problem to that encountered by carriers and even end users of smartphones. Typically it is dealt with through acknowledging a lengthy EULA which nobody reads, let alone understands.
“Volkswagen Group and Mercedes-Benz called on fellow automakers to establish separate platforms for data on vehicle use to avoid handing over sensitive customer information to Google. “We seek connection to Google’s data systems but we still want to be the masters of our own cars,” VW Group CEO Martin Winterkorn said Thursday at an industry conference here. “Potential conflict arises around making data available.” With consumers increasingly expecting seamless connectivity, automakers are making more Internet services available in their vehicles as well as outfitting cars with systems that allow them to communicate with one another.”
9) Former NSA’s chief lawyer: BlackBerry’s encryption efforts led to its demise
This is a pretty silly comment which got a lot of coverage this week. Setting aside the rather dubious assertion that Blackberry encryption is secure from the NSA, and whether a lawyer would have any insight into the actual operations of the NSA, if you made a list of things leading to the looming demise of Blackberry, its encryption policy would be far down the list. Nearer the top was ignoring customer needs, relying on its market position to maintain its market position, senior executive infighting, etc.. In other words, all the things which kill most other high tech one-trick ponies.
“BlackBerry’s core feature, encrypted email and messaging, was its downfall, according to former National Security Agency general counsel Stewart Baker. Speaking at Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland, Baker said (among other things) BlackBerry’s demise was in part due to its encryption efforts, which in recent months both Apple and Google have pushed to replicate. BlackBerry pioneered the same business model that Google and Apple are doing now. That has not ended well for BlackBerry,” Baker told Guardian editor James Ball at the event.”
10) Critics chafe as Macs send sensitive docs to iCloud without warning
The great thing about cloud services which are a customary part of most new OS releases is that they provide an automatic backup for your files. The bad news is, they also provide a single point of failure for anybody keen on accessing whatever you are working on. Furthermore, the US Patriot Act requires US companies to turn over data stored on their servers, and not just because of suspected terror activity. So, if you are working on anything which is, in any way, sensitive to disclosure (say corporate documents, legal briefs, patent filings, investment research, source code, etc.) be warned.
“Representing a potential privacy snare for some users, Mac OS X Yosemite uploads documents opened in TextEdit, Preview, and Keynote to iCloud servers by default, even if the files are later closed without ever having been saved. The behavior, as noted in an article from Slate, is documented in a Knowledge Base article from December. But it nonetheless came as a surprise to researcher Jeffrey Paul, who said he was alarmed to recently discover a cache of in-progress files he intended to serve as “temporary Post-It notes” that had been silently uploaded to his iCloud account even though he never intended or wished them to be. “Apple has taken local files on my computer not stored in iCloud and silently and without my permission uploaded them to their servers,” Paul wrote in a recent blog post.”
11) Germany Proposes Bill Demanding Foreign Tech Firms’ Source Code to Combat Spying
I red somewhere that Germany had bad experiences with national security states in the past. Seriously, at least their hearts are in the right place with this initiation, even though it is practically meaningless, especially for proprietary software. First, it can be very hard to detect “back doors” in code, even if you have the source. After all, a lot of software security problems are from bad software, not malfeasance. Second, proprietary software is now updated with remarkable regularity, meaning “source code inspectors” would rapidly be overwhelmed. Switching to open source software would apply more eyes would be on the problem and allow the government to act as a gatekeeper for changes.
“Technology firms that sell software to the German government or companies critical to its security would likely be forced to reveal their top-secret source code to the authorities, as the powerful European country seeks to guard itself against snooping after revelations from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The German government has proposed a new bill in the name of state security, potentially excluding US tech companies from its digital economy, and the proposal is expected to become law, according to media reports.”
12) Germany’s top publisher bows to Google in news licensing row
Call it the law of unintended consequences: who would have thought that blocking search engines results in fewer people looking at your website? Its almost like people find things on the web through search engines, rather than linearly reading websites as they do a newspaper. Who knew?
“Germany’s biggest news publisher Axel Springer has scrapped a move to block Google from running snippets of articles from its newspapers, saying that the experiment had caused traffic to its sites to plunge. Springer said a two-week-old experiment to restrict access by Google to some of its publications had caused web traffic to plunge for these sites, leading it to row back and let Google once again showcase Springer news stories in its search results.”
13) Pianist asks The Washington Post to remove a concert review under the E.U.’s ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling
You may recall that a number of months ago the EU produced a ruling which led to the “right to be forgotten”. In some ways this makes sense: if someone has been slandered, the slander can remain a “top hit” on a web search long after the slanderer has been sanctioned. Of course, like any law, “right to be forgotten” can be abused as this example shows. Whats next – removal of all bad restaurant or product reviews? I look forward to the day history can be scrubbed of all my failed predictions and bad stock recommendations.
“The pianist Dejan Lazic, like many artists and performers, is occasionally the subject of bad reviews. Also like other artists, he reads those reviews. And disagrees with them. And gripes over them, sometimes. But because Lazic lives in Europe, where in May the European Union ruled that individuals have a “right to be forgotten” online, he decided to take the griping one step further: On Oct. 30, he sent The Washington Post a request to remove a 2010 review by Post classical music critic Anne Midgette that – he claims — has marred the first page of his Google results for years.”
14) Users can’t tell Facebook from a scam
This is probably a study in the criminal mind and, in a strange sort of way, evolutionary theory. Evidently, criminals are able to parse the personalities of their victims well beyond the traditional con artist’s exploitation of greed. The form of scams are clearly dictated by natural selection as users decide which ones work – thereby infecting their systems and providing positive feedback to the criminals. One would think Facebook could screen user’s pages for malicious content and clickbait. After all, it does represent competition for them.
“A new whitepaper from antivirus company Bitdefender examined 850,000 Facebook scams over two years, showing the psychology of those who get taken in and how Facebook’s own user experience enables these scams to flourish. In analyzing 850,000 scams spreading in countries such as the US, the UK, Australia, Germany, Spain, France and Saudi Arabia since October 2012, the researchers found that scammers have infected millions of users with the same tricks over and over again — just repackaged. Bitdefender’s study found out that there’s no such thing as a typical Facebook scam victim — instead, Facebook scams rely on five kinds of user experience clickbait that are products of, and work in concert with, Facebook’s psychological fabric.”
15) With $100 Million, Entrepreneur Sees Path to Disrupt Medical Imaging
Frankly this article would be a lot more credible if the entrepreneur didn’t come across as a used car salesman. One can see the potential in a small, low cost ultrasound imaging system, however, there are problems with the solution as posed. For example, generating the image data is one thing but actually processing that data to render a useable image is another thing completely, especially to the extent suggested by the article. The computational requirements are well beyond the processing power of a smartphone or even a state of the art PC.
“A scanner the size of an iPhone that you could hold up to a person’s chest and see a vivid, moving, 3-D image of what’s inside is being developed by entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg. Rothberg says he has raised $100 million to create a medical imaging device that’s nearly “as cheap as a stethoscope” and will “make doctors 100 times as effective.” The technology, which according to patent documents relies on a new kind of ultrasound chip, could eventually lead to new ways to destroy cancer cells with heat, or deliver information to brain cells.”
16) UW study shows direct brain interface between humans
This is a follow up to a development we covered a number of months ago, but this time with a larger sample set. It is really impressive stuff and has considerable potential. Nonetheless, it is a long way from, for example, telepathy.
“Sometimes, words just complicate things. What if our brains could communicate directly with each other, bypassing the need for language? University of Washington researchers have successfully replicated a direct brain-to-brain connection between pairs of people as part of a scientific study following the team’s initial demonstration a year ago. In the newly published study, which involved six people, researchers were able to transmit the signals from one person’s brain over the Internet and use these signals to control the hand motions of another person within a split second of sending that signal.”
17) Will You Buy Accident-Free Cars?
This is a long article which covers the state of the art and near state of the art in vision systems for automobiles. As computational power continues to grow problems which were, until recently, science fiction, have become realizable. Unfortunately, “accident free” will only be achievable once a significant portion of vehicles are so equipped since all car accidents are caused by the other party. Even so, until fully autonomous vehicles are perfected there will still be collisions. Nevertheless, one fairly immediate payback to this technology, besides the obvious saving of lives, would be sharply reduced insurance costs.
“In a recent interview with EE Times, Freescale Semiconductor’s CEO Gregg Lowe talked about “cars that won’t get into accidents.” He said, “Imagine you have a 16-year-old who has just begun driving. I think people will pay more for a car that is nearly impossible to get into an accident.” Suddenly, it hit me. Obviously, safety’s important. But I keep thinking that automakers are overplaying the safety card, as a ploy to mothball older, “unsafe” jalopies and jack up sales of next-generation models with advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) features and lots of new semiconductors inside. … Many ADAS features today, in fact, are much more advanced than the semi-autopilot features touted by Tesla’s newly unveiled all-wheel-drive Model S.”
18) Electric Turbochargers: The Next Big Thing in Fuel Efficiency
Rather surprising nobody came up with this before. Turbochargers are devices which use the exhaust gases to drive a compressor to pack air into a car’s cylinders during the intake stroke, boosting horsepower. Exhaust driven turbochargers have their problems, the most commonly know is “turbo lag”, meaning the boost only happens as more exhaust is produced. However, using exhaust as a source of power comes with other, less known challenges including the fact exhaust gasses are very hot, which presents major challenges to reliability, plus “plumbing” a turbocharger can be extremely challenging. An electric version should fix all these problems, however, I’d be hesitant to buy a car with one until reliability has been demonstrated.
“The key to the next major advance in internal combustion engine fuel efficiency could well be the electric turbocharger. At a recent fuel economy technology showcase at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Vehicle Emissions and Fuel Lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Valeo showed off the motor-driven turbo it will supply to an unannounced automaker. The first production applications are scheduled to begin arriving in 2016, according to the company.”
19) Ads Are Coming to the Comments Section of Publisher Sites: Disqus’ sponsored messages will be targeted to what you say
Comments and reviews are increasingly a platform for paid content, though discretely so. Paid shills attack political products, countries, political parties, and so on. Most product reviews, even brief ones, are of questionable provenance, and therefore the positive ones in particular are best ignored. No doubt negative product reviews are also often paid for but at least you can do meaningful research on what they say. Now we have Disqus using your comment history to serve up advertising. Where will it end?
“You can tell a lot about people by their online comments, and that’s why Disqus believes it could be sitting on an advertising gold mine. The third-party comments service, which runs the discussion section on 3 million websites, is starting to show data-targeted sponsored comment ads. Disqus has 150 million users signed up for its service, which lets people leave comments across participating websites like CNBC, The Atlantic, ABC News, Rolling Stone and more niche sites like SuperHeroHype. Disqus would not specify what publishers would feature the comment ads. The San Francisco-based company mines comments, comment votes and comment context to target ads, which will now show up looking like part of the discussion.”
20) The ugly afterlife of crowdfunding projects that never ship and never end
Crowdfunding is a relatively new development so it makes sense there would be growing pains. People need to understand that there is more to innovation than having a good idea: you actually need an understanding of how to put that idea into a product, and that isn’t easy. I’ve encountered entrepreneurs who think manufacturing is something done cheaply by somebody else in a place you don’t have to visit. With rare exceptions, any project of any value is going to require a number of people, suppliers, service providers, etc., to come together to make it a success. Then there are things like customer support and so on. Since the people who write the checks for crowdfunding projects are rarely as sophisticated as even the entrepreneurs, it is not surprising many project never get off the ground. What is probably needed to improve the success rate is vetting and mentoring, not more hype.
“The public life-cycle of a Kickstarter rarely ends in tragedy. Often, if a Kickstarter manages to get covered by the media before its funding round end, or even starts, it can meet its goal within days, and superfluous funds continue to roll in over the next few weeks. By the time its crowdfunding stage closes, the creators, backers, and media alike are excited and proud to have ushered this new project so quickly to a place of prosperity, eager for it to continue to grow. Plenty of projects manage to deliver the goods, even if the timeline slides a bit. That was the case with Tim Schafer’s Kickstarter game Broken Age. If creators miss deadlines, backers typically continue to receive updates via e-mail and the Kickstarter page. But sometimes the end of funding is the beginning of a slide into radio silence, which ultimately turns into few or no backer orders fulfilled, and no satisfactory explanation for why the project didn’t pan out according to the orderly delivery schedule the creators promised.”