The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 21st 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!
Back to slow news flow in tech. Setting aside comments made by Obama regarding “net neutrality” and the hysterical reaction on all sides, nothing really happened of significance this past week. (Net neutrality itself is a fascinating and important subject but not really the sort of thing I can cover in detail on the GRL).
This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
1) The Mystery of 12,000 Missing Teslas: Overseas Boom or Waning U.S. Demand?
I have to be very careful what I say here, however, as a general rule, declining demand in the early adopter market is not a promising development for a technology company, or, in the case of Tesla, an automobile manufacturer. As with other remarkable observations regarding Tesla (fires, Trabant level reliability, etc.) no doubt a positive spin will be placed on this or, alternatively, aspersions will be cast on the data themselves. Nonetheless, as I said, declining demand in your early adopter market, especially when it is the US, is never a good sign. Never, ever, ever, a good sign.
“Tesla Motors (TSLA) is slowly ramping up production. Demand for its electric sedans allegedly remains high. Yet far fewer of the vehicles are making their way onto U.S. roads this year. In the first nine months of 2014, the number of U.S. registrations of Tesla vehicles fell by one-third to 9,331, according to an analysis of public records by Hedges & Co., an Ohio-based market-research firm. In the same period, however, Tesla said it delivered 21,821 cars—a 40 percent increase from a year earlier. What happened to the other 12,490 cars?”
2) Pay Phones in New York City Will Become Free Wi-Fi Hot Spots
This is a great idea since pay phones are not seeing a lot of use and the places pay phones have are already serviced by electricity and telephone wiring. The business case is not entirely clear, however, the cost of delivering WiFi is not that high so it might work. The major problem I can see is that the pods will have to be, almost literally, bullet proof or they won’t last long. After all, cretins do not need a financial incentive to vandalize something which looks expensive.
“The modern New York pay phone will provide no shelter from the rain, no alcove for the quarreling couple seeking a private moment to reconcile. It will afford little refuge to the prospective superhero requiring a wardrobe change. In fact, the pay phone of tomorrow will include no traditional phone at all — nor any payment, for that matter, at least for communication within the United States. But beginning next year, city officials said on Monday, the relics will evolve into something deemed far more practical: thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots across the city, providing free Internet access, free domestic calls using cellphones or a built-in keypad, a charging station for mobile devices and access to city services and directions”
3) Microsoft Azure faults knock websites offline
This is yet another reminder of the hazards of cloud services, and, in particular, hosted applications. Just as was the case previously with Amazon and Adobe, “hiccups” in Microsoft’s cloud computing platform pulled it offline disrupting the activities of countless users (including those who have been lured into using Office 365). You have to believe the likes of Microsoft, Amazon, and Adobe have a pretty good understanding of what they are doing, and yet stuff happens. There is a place for cloud services given ample layers of backup and redundancy, however, these systems do go offline and when they do chaos reigns.
“Faults with Microsoft’s cloud computing platform have knocked many third-party sites offline, as well as disrupting the US firm’s own products. Microsoft Azure’s status page says problems began at 00:52 GMT across the globe. Its European operations are taking the longest to fix. Access to Microsoft’s Office 365 online suite of apps and its Xbox Live gaming facility are among services affected. The faults could set back the company’s efforts to sell Azure. Microsoft is attempting to make gains on the market leader, Amazon Web Services, as well as IBM, Google and others offering rival products.”
4) Google Glass future clouded as some early believers lose faith
The future ain’t what it used to be. Perhaps. The idea of Google Glass makes some sense though I am not entirely convinced it will ever have broad appeal. Setting aside the privacy issues (and potential bloody noses) most humans are unlikely to want to live in the same data rich environment as fighter pilots. After all, it takes brainpower to convert data into information, and all that thinking is bound to be very tiring. So the choice is to be confronted with large amounts of data on an ongoing basis, or switch the thing off. You can’t have it both ways, and, more likely than not, the device is bound to be useless for most people most of the time.
“After two years of popping up at high-profile events sporting Google Glass, the gadget that transforms eyeglasses into spy-movie worthy technology, Google co-founder Sergey Brin sauntered bare-faced into a Silicon Valley red-carpet event on Sunday. He’d left his pair in the car, Brin told a reporter. The Googler, who heads up the top-secret lab which developed Glass, has hardly given up on the product — he recently wore his pair to the beach. But Brin’s timing is not propitious, coming as many developers and early Glass users are losing interest in the much-hyped, $1,500 test version of the product: a camera, processor and stamp-sized computer screen mounted to the edge of eyeglass frames. Google Inc itself has pushed back the Glass roll out to the mass market. … Of 16 Glass app makers contacted by Reuters, nine said that they had stopped work on their projects or abandoned them, mostly because of the lack of customers or limitations of the device. Three more have switched to developing for business, leaving behind consumer projects.”
5) Google Glass Commercial Launch Set For 2015
On the other hand (see item 4) perhaps a more cost effective version of Google Glass combined with imaginative applications will fill some market need. After all there is not much money in developing for a platform which largely does not exist as Google Glass supplies were sharply limited. Frankly, I remain skeptical.
“Google Glass was the first project to emerge from Google’s Project X doors some two years ago. Glass is a wearable headset designed to project information in front of the right eye using an augmented reality style interface. The hardware consists of a dual core Texas Instruments OMAP 4430 processor (the same processor that was used in the first Android-powered Motorola Droid RAZR), 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB of onboard storage, a 2,100 mAh battery, a bone conduction transducer in place of a speaker, plus a plethora of sensors including a microphone, accelerometer, gyroscope, ambient light, proximity and magnetometer. It’s controlled by a mix of voice command and a touchpad and communicates with the wearer through sound (that natty bone conduction transducer) and projection onto a small lens set above the right eye at a resolution of 640 by 360 pixels. Glass includes built-in WiFi and Bluetooth and also has a 5 MP camera, capable of recording video at 720p resolution.”
6) Wearable Tech: Consumer Interest On The Up: [NEW INFOGRAPHIC]
Well, that would be one interpretation, but what people say they are interested in and what they actually buy in are frequently significantly different things. For example, it is well and good that folks might be interested in an Apple “smart watch” but that interest might wane once they discover they have to own an iPhone 6 and that it really doesn’t do very much. In any event, I find the figures to be triflingly small and are more likely a result of Apple’s adept marketing than anything else.
“New consumer research from Futuresource Consulting highlights a significant increase in the consumer’s intent to purchase wearable devices. Interviewing more than 8,000 people across two waves this year (May and October) in the USA, UK, France and Germany, the study saw interest in fitness trackers and smartwatches rise by 50% and 125% respectively. However, interest in smartglasses and heart rate monitors has stalled. The overall wearables market has seen significant growth so far in 2014, with Futuresource forecasting full year sales of over 51 million units worldwide. However, it’s only just warming up, and wearables sales are expected to accelerate from 2015 as new brands enter the space.”
7) Attack reveals 81 percent of Tor users but admins call for calm
A system which promises anonymity 19% of the time isn’t very anonymous, unless you are especially lucky. Of course, I don’t understand what led to this result, but if it truly was low-latency one could imagine a countermeasure which would introduce a pseudo-random delay into the system, helping confound analysis. All this, of course, presupposes that Tor is not a ‘honey-pot’ as it might, in fact, be (see Item 8)
“The Tor project has urged calm after new research found 81 percent of users could be identified using Cisco’s NetFlow tool. A research effort led by professor Sambuddah Chakravarty from the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in Delhi found that well-resourced attackers such as a nation-state could effectively reveal Tor users’ identity with a false-positive rate of six percent, while an autonomous system could reveal about 39 percent of users. Chakravarty’s research, run on a high performance research server within the University, worked in part due to the low-latency design of Tor.”
8) How leading Tor developers and advocates tried to smear me after I reported their US Government ties
Conspiracy theories are jolly good fun and it is easy to mock those who believe in them. Intelligence agencies do, in fact, engage in pretty amazing activities, as proved by the Snowden revelations. One might imagine that Tor was a benign system to allow spies to hide or a “long game” honey-pot designed to easily identify the sorts of people spies want to watch. It is hard to tell, but I favor the “honey pot” explanation. Regardless, the claims of a smear campaign against this author do nothing to reinforce or negate this hypothesis. Smear campaigns are, pretty much the name of the game nowadays. The amount of nonsense (founded or otherwise) I read about Uber, Tesla, Apple, etc., suggest the objectivity of bloggers may be almost as impeachable as those in the traditional media.
“My article traced the history of Tor and the US military-intelligence apparatus that spawned it—from Tor’s initial development by military researchers in the mid-1990s at the US Naval Laboratory in Washington DC, through its quasi-independent period after it was spun off as a nonprofit in 2004 but continued to receive most of its funding from a variety of government branches: Pentagon, State Department, USAID, Radio Free Asia. My article also revealed that Tor was created not to protect the public from government surveillance, but rather, to cloak the online identity of intelligence agents as they snooped on areas of interest. But in order to do that, Tor had to be released to the public and used by as diverse a group of people as possible: activists, dissidents, journalists, paranoiacs, kiddie porn scum, criminals and even would-be terrorists — the bigger and weirder the crowd, the easier it would be for agents to mix in and hide in plain sight.”
9) Bell Labs Chief Slams ‘Toy’ Networks
The alleged efforts by Google, Facebook, and SpaceX do get a fair bit of coverage on the interwebs while criticism tends to attract far less interest. Balloons, drones, and satellites, have a nice ring to them but they present major problems as well. Any wireless technology which covers a wide area has to use a lot of valuable spectrum or operate at very low bit rates, or both. Any of the proposed systems are bound to have relatively high down times, meaning that people will probably not be able to rely on them. Meanwhile other technologies, most notably mobile services continue to evolve at a rapid pace, which brings into question whether any of these proposals will ever get off the ground. Pro-tip: few space based technologies for which there is a terrestrial alternative ever succeed. The few which succeed – such as satellite TV are a regulatory arbitrage.
“Bell Labs president Marcus Weldon has condemned Silicon Valley firms for “trivializing” networks with their plans to provide connectivity with drones or balloons. Talking at the Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) Technology Symposium in New Jersey last week, Weldon said companies such as Facebook and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) “don’t value the network as it should be valued. They are talking about networks as if they’re trivial to build and based on balloons and drones. “That’s just ridiculous. That’s what you build when you don’t know how to build networks. You build toy networks.””
10) What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change
A tiny, very tiny, injection of reality into the “alternative energy” discussion. Massive subsidies at all levels have convinced a surprising number of people that windmills and solar panels can replace centralized generation in a modernized industrial economy. “Alternative energy” schemes simultaneously bleed real utilities of cash flow by forcing them to pay full retail for solar power whether they need the electricity or not, and then pay others to take the electricity off their hands, all the while leaving the grid (whose operation is never funded by alternative energy schemes) deteriorate. Eventually, of course, the chickens will come home to roost, however, don’t expect years of neglect of the grid to be fixed over night.
“Google’s boldest energy move was an effort known as RE<C, which aimed to develop renewable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants do. The company announced that Google would help promising technologies mature by investing in start-ups and conducting its own internal R&D. Its aspirational goal: to produce a gigawatt of renewable power more cheaply than a coal-fired plant could, and to achieve this in years, not decades. Unfortunately, not every Google moon shot leaves Earth orbit. In 2011, the company decided that RE<C was not on track to meet its target and shut down the initiative. The two of us, who worked as engineers on the internal RE<C projects, were then forced to reexamine our assumptions.”
11) What To Expect Next From Sync
I guess we can now understand BitTorrent’s business model for Sync: a “Pro” version is coming down the pipes which it believes will compete with DropBox, Google Drive, and other cloud storage apps. I actually believe Sync is superior because you don’t have to rely on a third party to look after your data and maintain security. Of course, that means it is now your problem. Hopefully BitTorrent will continue to offer a free version of Sync forever, but you can’t rely on that sort of thing. There are a number of Open Source projects which hope to replicate the functionality of Sync, and hopefully will be available in the event the free version is discontinued.
“We’re continuing to invest more and more into Sync and there’s a lot of great features coming in Sync 2.0. We’re improving the free edition over what’s available in version 1.4 and we’re introducing new functionality that will be a part of a new Pro edition. Intended for individuals needing to sync and share a lot of data and those participating in collaborative professional workgroups, Sync Pro provides additional functionality necessary to help you get the job done. Capabilities like having access to very large folders, controlling ownership and permissions for shared folders, and keeping information automatically consistent across your desktop and mobile devices will now be possible.”
12) Nielsen Ratings Could Become a Major Headache for Netflix
I tried to figure out who owns Time Magazine, but it doesn’t matter really. Almost all media are either owned by vertically integrated media conglomerates or hope to be owned by them, so I never expect unbiased reporting on the likes of Netflix. In any event, the article is complete rubbish: because Netflix’s business model does not rely on advertizing the only thing which matters is the number of paying subscribers and what they are paying per month. Any actor worth his/her salt will overcome whatever reservations they might have about doing anything provided enough dollar bills are waved at them. The same goes for any content provider as well.
“House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black are wildly popular hits that prove Netflix can make shows that compete with the best of cable programming…right? That’s been the narrative around the streaming service over the last year, but hard proof has been harder to come by. Netflix has never provided concrete data validating that its shows are watched by large numbers of viewers. Soon Nielsen, the standard-bearer for TV ratings, may change that.”
13) Laser-Radio Links Upgrade the Internet
Sigh. I was thinking of exactly this sort of system the other day. You see, the cable and telephone companies are extracting rent because of their historical position as monopolists and continue to do so do to inept (and arguably corrupt) regulation. They do nothing of value except to exploit government given rights of way. In North America, which has a third world telecommunications infrastructure, this is a situation which screams for a solution. Very high speed, relatively long haul, wireless point to point technology with, say, WiFi access points would allow rapid deployment of high speed internet service over wide areas, short-circuiting the monopolists’ rights of way. This, or something like it, should work.
“The rise of Wi-Fi and cellular data services made Internet access more convenient and ubiquitous. Now some of the high-speed backhaul data that powers Internet services looks set to go wireless, too. Technology that uses parallel radio and laser links to move data through the air at high speeds, in wireless hops of up to 10 kilometers at a time, is in trials with three of the largest U.S. Internet carriers. It is also being rolled out by one telecommunications provider in Mexico, and is helping build out the Internet infrastructure of Nigeria, a country that was connected to a new high-capacity submarine cable from Europe last year.”
14) Owner of ‘Polygraph.com’ Indicted for Allegedly Training Customers to Lie During Federally Administered Polygraph Examinations
This is not really a tech story, but it is funny as hell. Polygraphy is a completely debunked pseudoscience which is recognized as such by almost everybody except some US federal agencies. Besides providing no useful information – “lie detectors” cannot, in fact detect lies – it is easily spoofed through simple training or by effective liars. What is the crime here? Is training somebody to spoof a gizmo which does not do what it is supposed to do somehow a crime? How so?
“Douglas Williams, 69, of Norman, Oklahoma, was charged in a five-count indictment in the Western District of Oklahoma with mail fraud and obstruction. According to allegations in the indictment, Williams, the owner and operator of “Polygraph.com,” marketed his training services to people appearing for polygraph examinations before federal law enforcement agencies, federal intelligence agencies, and state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as people required to take polygraph examinations under the terms of their parole or probation.”
15) Facebook gives its server racks a Tesla touch
I’d really like to see the math behind this. Lead-acid “chargers” are neither complex nor expensive (basically a 14V power supply) and the batteries are cheap as dirt, especially compared to Lithium Ion. Furthermore, battery backup is rarely used, and even then, generally as a bridge to a diesel generator starting up. Note further that, besides the statutory nod to Tesla (all hail Tesla) these batteries are, in fact, not at all like the ones used in EVs. Possibly the answer lies in the short discharge time: by allowing for only 90 seconds of backup, more than enough time to start a generator, they are able to get away with much less capacity. This would hold for lithium ion or any other battery technology capable of meeting the load requirements.
“Facebook has just started testing lithium-ion batteries as the backup power source for its server racks and plans to roll them out widely next year. Lithium-ion has been too expensive until now, Corddry says, but its use in electric cars has changed the economics. It’s now more cost effective than the bulky, lead-acid batteries widely used in data centers today.”
16) This is why the iPhone 6 doesn’t have a sapphire screen
I wish I could access the original Wall Street Journal article but hell hasn’t frozen over yet so I am not going to pay for it. Long story short, if you dance with the devil, sometimes you are going to get burned. Besides, as a general rule of thumb, small tech companies rarely make technological breakthroughs on time and on budget. That should be written on a stone tablet somewhere.
“The iPhone 6 was supposed to have a sapphire display. More than a year ago, Apple turned to GT Advanced Technologies, the now-bankrupt supplier, to solve its longstanding problems with scratched and cracked displays. But as soon as the two companies signed an agreement, their relationship became riddled with complications. In the ensuing year, as chronicled in detail by the Wall Street Journal, everything shifted. Apple originally wanted to buy furnaces with which to make sapphire itself, before changing its mind and deciding to simply buy the produced sapphire from GT. But GT couldn’t make sapphire at the volume and quantity Apple wanted, and the relationship splintered over and over until it broke.”
17) Corning’s newest Gorilla Glass gets twice as tough
Shattered displays are a big problem, but they are mainly due to the desire to have no bezel. In my experience, devices rarely fall “face down” but “edge on” (hence the need for a shock absorbing bezel), so I am rather skeptical of the idea this product will somehow be that much of an improvement. The invocation of “artificial sapphire” as a competitor is rather amusing given the fate of GT Advanced Technologies (see item 16).
“Corning is working on saving your phone from the dreaded front-screen spider web. The company on Thursday unveiled Gorilla Glass 4, the latest version of its leading hardened cover glass for smartphones and tablets. Corning claims the new material is about twice as tough as its predecessor, Gorilla Glass 3, which should help prevent even more cracked screens.”
18) Futuristic fuel cell charger still no match for old-fashioned batteries
Let’s see: its extremely expensive, heavy, large, and one cartridge is good for 5 charges, though probably less than that, which at £10 ($17) ain’t cheap, so I don’t expect to see long lineups to buy this thing. I do wish people would give up on the “hydrogen is a clean energy source” thing. It is nothing of the sort. It is expensive, hard to produce and transport, and is usually made from fossil fuels or electricity which is produced from fossil fuels.
“Clean energy could change the world, which is why lots of people are excited about fuel cell technology. The Upp fuel cell charger is one of the first consumer fuel cell products, converting hydrogen into electricity without any harmful by-products to charge your phone when you’re far from home. The Upp is a USB charger into which you plug a cartridge£ containing hydrogen, forming a Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cell. It works by creating a chemical reaction that produces electricity. The only by-products are heat and water vapour.”
19) Monkeys Steer Wheelchairs With Their Brains, Raising Hope for Paralyzed People
The article actually covers a broader discussion than cyborg monkeys, so if you are interested in human/brain interfaces and the potential to help paralyzed people you should click through. The technology is moving at a remarkable pace and there is reason to be hopeful these systems will find there way onto the market within the next five years. I strongly suspect non-invasive systems are likely to be adopted before those requiring brain surgery, however, that probably depends on the degree of disability.
“Experimental wheelchairs and exoskeletons controlled by thought alone offer surprising insights into the brain, neuroscientists reported on Monday. Best known for his experimental exoskeleton that helped a paralyzed man kick the opening ball for June’s World Cup in Brazil, Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis presented the latest “brain-machine interface” findings from his team’s “Walk Again Project” at the Society for Neuroscience meeting.”
20) Android 5.0 Feature: Google Updates Smart Lock on Lollipop to Include Trusted Places
My smartphone updated itself yesterday so I am just starting to get used to the bells and whistles of Android 5.0. It would be helpful if the instructions provided by Google somehow even indirectly reflected what you are supposed to do to use updated apps, etc., but that is to dream. This feature does appear to be particularly useful, even though I can’t get “trusted places” to work because of a major bug in Google Maps.
“When Android 5.0 “Lollipop” went into a final preview build shortly after being announced by Google, we ran through a series of features to make sure you knew all about the awesomeness that was about to grace your phone or tablet. One of those features was Smart Lock, which is Google’s take on Trusted Devices, a feature that uses Bluetooth or NFC (or your face in Lollipop) to allow you to bypass secure lock screens when you are near, but securely lock the device when you need it most. We are happy to report today that Google has added a new and incredibly useful feature to Smart Lock, thanks to the latest Google Play Services 6.5 update that began rolling out yesterday. That’s right, Smart Lock just got better without a system update.”