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

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

Hello,

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!

A very, very slow week in tech news. Expect next week to be as bad. Again a significant portion of news was related to the Sony hack (yawn), however, we did see a lot of coverage of different aspects of driverless cars. As has become customary, Tesla made an earth shattering announcement (actually two) because we can’t have a week without a cynical attempt to garner attention.

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.

Happy belated Winter Solstice celebration and Happy New Year!

 

Brian Piccioni

 

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1) Rockstar litigation, a high-water mark in patent wastefulness, is over

You might recall that one of the highlights of the Nortel bankruptcy was the auction of its patents. Auctions are interesting things because the “winner” is actually the loser, having decided to pay more than any other participant for the asset in question. Certainly publicly traded patent licensing companies actually got a valuation lift as a result of the stupid sum of money paid by the likes of Microsoft, Apple, and Blackberry (which, at the time, actually had cash flow to waste on this sort of stupidity). It is pretty clear that most of the money was wasted, though lots of patent attorneys made out like bandits as a result of the litigation. These days Blackberry is probably happier to have the money rather than the patents.

“In 2011, a group of five companies spent the remarkable sum of $4.5 billion to purchase thousands of patents from Nortel, a bankrupt Canadian telecom. Microsoft, Apple, Ericsson, Sony, and Blackberry formed “Rockstar Bidco,” successfully keeping the patents out of the hands of Google. … Now Rockstar is retiring from the stage. A group of more than 30 companies operating under the aegis of RPX, a defensive patent aggregator, paid $900 million to acquire the approximately 4,000 “patent assets,” a phrase that includes both US and international patents, as well as patent applications. The group of buyers includes companies involved in active litigation with Rockstar: most notably, Cisco and Google. RPX itself paid $35 million of the purchase price.”

http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/12/rockstar-litigation-a-high-water-mark-in-patent-wastefulness-is-over/

2) The Future: A Cat Litter Box and DRM

I have a small herd of cats and bought a robot litter box. I didn’t know at the time it was made by a subsidiary of Black & Decker and, like most all of their products it didn’t work properly and broke at the first opportunity (typical of Black & Decker companies they did not respond to my inquiries about a warranty claim. Caveat emptor). It appears some people have had some success with certain robot litter boxes, however. This is the sage of a cat person who discovered theirs had built in “Digital Rights Management”. Fortunately, others have found a workaround.

“I took the SmartCartridge and realized I could just open it up, and fill it myself. Great, I’ll order new ones and get it by Tuesday and I’ll just fill this one up with water for now. So I filled it up with water, and put it into the machine. It didn’t stop beeping, it knew this wasn’t it’s SaniSolution. Somehow it knew. I wasn’t able to even force it to run without the solution. I did some Googling, and I found that the “Smart” in SmartCartridge is that it has an RFID chip inside of it to keep track of how much solution it has, and once it runs out, well, you can’t refill it. I honestly did not believe this and tore one of the cartridges apart, and there it was, looking back at me, a tiny chip holding up it’s little metal finger.”

https://medium.com/@jorge_lo/the-future-a-cat-litter-and-drm-6dbda26428f8

3) Tesla’s three-minute battery swap pilot for Model S cars sets a new bar for EV charging

When I first saw this I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to do – after all the Achilles Heel of any Electric Vehicle (EV) is the staggeringly expensive, and short lived battery. By swapping, owners would be getting a different battery (or at least not wearing out the one they had). What was Tesla thinking? Then I noticed the charge (which is probably going to be higher than the $50 mentioned in the article and it made perfect sense: since the batteries would never be empty, most owners would be paying much more than the equivalent of a tank of gas for much less than a tank’s distance, and they would be paying double for the battery, albeit one charge at a time. In other words, they would be paying for the depreciation of a battery with every swap, having already paid for a new battery when they bought the damned car. Talk about double dipping! Of course, there is even a back story over and above that: as several commentators have pointed out, the real motive may be to maximize California Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) credits, which are a major part of Tesla’s business model (which includes numerous other subsidies). See http://seekingalpha.com/article/2776025-teslas-battery-swapping-station-carries-great-benefits and http://doubtingisthinking.blogspot.ca/2014/11/tesla-keeps-zev-scam-aliveby-building.html. Like all “alternative energy” companies the goal is to milk taxpayers. Its even better when that privilege is paid for by hapless customers deluded into believing they are saving the world.

“Tesla is cutting the Gordian Knot of electric vehicles: the time it takes to recharge the batteries. In a Friday blog post, the company said it would begin piloting a battery swap program this week for “invited Model S owners.” According to Tesla, the automated swap of a spent battery for a fully charged one will take about 3 minutes, compared to about 20 minutes to charge a Model S at a Supercharger station. While it costs nothing to use a Supercharger station, however, the battery swap will have a price: “slightly less than a full tank of gasoline for a premium sedan,” according to the company. At Monday’s national average for premium fuel of $2.80 per gallon (and falling), and assuming a 20-gallon tank, let’s call that about $50 per swap.”

http://www.pcworld.com/article/2862210/tesla-will-pilot-battery-swap-program-for-model-s-cars-starting-this-week.html

4) Google Unwraps First Fully-Functional Driverless Car Expected To Hit NorCal Streets In 2015

I saw an excerpt of industry research (which, unfortunately, I could not locate) which appeared to suggest driverless cars would be commonplace within 10 years. This is almost certainly nonsense, unless you have a very imaginative definition of what a driverless car is. Heck, industry analysts have to earn their pay and it isn’t through accuracy. Nevertheless, you might expect to see widespread availability of these vehicles within 20 years, though it is possible that might be reduced if highways and signage are modified to provide beacons for example. Nevertheless, within 30 years they should be commonplace.

 
“Google unveiled the first real build of the company’s self-driving vehicle prototype Monday. The car, first revealed to the world in May, was an early mock-up that lacked real headlights. A month earlier, Google said self-driving cars had already started to master the navigation of city streets and the challenges they bring, from jaywalkers to weaving bicyclists. Since then, the company has been working on a multitude of prototypes to integrate usual car functions such as steering and braking with self-driving technology like sensors that keeps cars in their lanes.”

http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2014/12/23/google-unveils-first-fully-functional-self-driving-car-expected-to-start-zipping-around-northern-california-in-2015-prototype-driverless-x-driving/

5) California puzzles over safety of driverless cars

One of the issues with driverless cars is, obviously, the legal context. After all, if a vehicle can drive itself and gets into a collision is the “driver” who wasn’t driving responsible or is the manufacturer responsible? One can’t expect a driver who isn’t driving to be as attentive as one who is, however, it seems likely that, at least for a couple decades, the systems in driverless cars will not be capable of dealing with all eventualities. A legal frameworks is needed, however, you can’t help but believe the issue will be settled in courts.

“California’s Department of Motor Vehicles will miss a year-end deadline to adopt new rules for cars of the future because regulators first have to figure out how they’ll know whether “driverless” vehicles are safe. It’s a rare case of the law getting ahead of an emerging technology and reflects regulators’ struggle to balance consumer protection with innovation. Safety is a chief selling point, since self-driving cars—thanks to an array of sensors—promise to have much greater road awareness and quicker reaction time than people. Plus, they won’t text, drink or doze off. Though the cars are at least a few years away from showrooms, seven companies are testing prototypes on California’s roads, and regulators have questions: Do they obey all traffic laws? What if their computers freeze? Can they smoothly hand control back to human drivers?”

http://phys.org/news/2014-12-california-puzzles-safety-driverless-cars.html

6) LG will build a stereo camera system for driverless Mercedes-Benz cars

The consumer electronics industry is in a bit of a funk: large screen TVs have reached saturation, smartphone revenue is set to plummet on lower prices, and there really isn’t anything new on the horizon. I can see two opportunities: domestic robots (not androids, but automated washer, cleaners, lawnmowers, etc.) and increased exposure to the auto sector. After all, the electronics content of cars have increased steadily and self-driving vehicles will essentially transform a car into a robot. Expect to see more of these types of announcements in the future.

“The future of driving, it appears, won’t require much driving at all. LG and Mercedes-Benz have this morning announced plans to co-develop a stereo camera system to be used in future autonomous vehicles. Using multiple cameras to detect what’s in front of the car, and how far out in front, is the first step to giving it the self-awareness necessary to take the burden of driving away from the driver. It’s also the first step in what both companies hope will be a productive and long-lasting partnership. In an emailed statement to The Verge, LG explains that it will be responsible for providing the “core components” of the driverless Mercedes-Benz cars of the future.”

http://www.theverge.com/2014/12/25/7448935/lg-mercedes-benz-driverless-car-stereo-camera

7) Driverless cars could cripple law enforcement budgets

The article makes a good point then spoils it by citing Elon Musk who has no domain expertise in the subject, let along the manufacture of reliable vehicles. US law enforcement has demonstrated a remarkable degree of entrepreneurship to deal with shrinking budgets including legalized “confiscation” (i.e. outright theft) of cash from innocent citizens. In countries where such activity might be frowned upon the proper response would be to simply reduce the number of police officers dealing with highway safety. Note that the SANS charts on the page have nothing to do with the story – sloppy editing on Boxing Day.

“Justice Department data shows that seizures in marijuana-related cases nationwide totaled $1 billion from 2002 to 2012, out of the $6.5 billion total seized in all drug busts over that period. This money often goes directly into the budgets of the law enforcement agencies that seized it. One drug task force in Snohomish County, Washington, reduced its budget forecast by 15% after the state voted to legalize marijuana, the Wall Street Journal reported in January. In its most fruitful years, that lone task force had seen more than $1 million in additional funding through seizures from marijuana cases alone, according to the report. Naturally, this dynamic is something law enforcement either is or should already be preparing for as driverless cars make their way onto the roads. Just as drug cops will lose the income they had seized from pot dealers, state and local governments will need to account for a drastic reduction in fines from traffic violations as autonomous cars stick to the speed limit.”

http://www.networkworld.com/article/2226966/opensource-subnet/driverless-cars-could-cripple-law-enforcement-budgets.html

8) Location services: How GPS delivery is changing shopping

I developed a couple dispatch systems a number of years ago before GPS systems were affordable or widely available. They aren’t that complicated, and it would be pretty easy to integrate one with a GPS system. Knowing the exact GPS coordinates of a customer is a lot better than knowing an address because it is not subject to misinterpretation, especially if transmitted electronically. One problem might be arranging delivery to a moving target such as a vehicle. After all, the customer may not be aware you need them to stop moving to effect the delivery.

“In 2015, after you’ve paid for your Mocha Frappuccino on your mobile, Starbucks will experiment with bringing it straight to you. Own a Volvo? Since February, Volvo On Call pilot Roam has let couriers leave parcels and groceries in the boot of your car. And in parts of the US, crowdsourced couriers, location data and top secret algorithms seem to be taking the place of dispatchers with two-way radios. We have seen the future, and it is wearing a GPS device.”

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-30442712

9) 256-Pixel LED Shows Promise in Smart Automotive Headlamps

We starting writing about LED lighting about 10 years ago. As we expected, it has made considerable headway in commercial and residential lighting, however, as we have noted in the past, you can do stuff with LEDs you just can’t do with normal lighting. For example, in this case, by creating a light out of numerous smaller lights, you can make a headlamp which, for example, provides excellent lighting while not blinding oncoming drivers (in other words, instead of high and low beams, the vehicle adjusts lighting according to the traffic). Similarly, the spectrum of the light might be adjustable, increasing red and lowering blue for fog, for example.

“Technological advances in intelligent LED headlamps continue to improve illumination of roads for automobiles while distributing the light to avoid distracting other drivers. In this vein, the team behind a μAFS research project, coordinated by Osram Opto Semiconductors, created a prototype LED chip with an array of 256 pixels. Its development makes serious strides in the mission to formulate technical principles for a new class of energy-efficient LED lamps.”

http://electronicdesign.com/leds/256-pixel-led-shows-promise-smart-automotive-headlamps

10) A New Way to Reach Mars Safely, Anytime and on the Cheap

There has been a fair bit of discussion about manned trips to Mars, including a one way, commercially sponsored trip. The latter is, most likely, a publicity stunt since the passengers would essentially be committing public, slow motion suicide – after all, the Antarctic in winter is a more benign environment. Nevertheless, a manned science mission is a good idea even if I probably won’t live to see it. As the article indicates, ballistic capture would be great for robotic missions as well as for supply vessels, and so on. For example, you could send a Martian lander, food, oxygen, etc., on a slow ballistic capture flight path in advance of the people so they would have stuff available in orbit when they arrived. (Since Mars is a much longer flight and it has significant gravity, it is doubtful you could replicate Apollo where all the things they needed went on a single spacecraft.)

“This brute force approach to attaining orbit, called a Hohmann transfer, has served historically deep-pocketed space agencies well enough. But in an era of shrinking science budgets the Hohmann transfer’s price tag and inherent riskiness look limiting. Now new research lays out a smoother, safer way to achieve Martian orbit without being restricted by launch windows or busting the bank. Called ballistic capture, it could help open the Martian frontier for more robotic missions, future manned expeditions and even colonization efforts. “It’s an eye-opener,” says James Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “It could be a pretty big step for us and really save us resources and capability, which is always what we’re looking for.””

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-new-way-to-reach-mars-safely-anytime-and-on-the-cheap/

11) Hotel group asks FCC for permission to block some outside Wi-Fi

It is hard to believe the FCC would permit Marriott to jam WiFi signals, but, unfortunately, many such decision boil down to who has the deeper pockets. It would be a terrible precedent which would possibly lead to the end of public WiFi. It would also also likely result in the end of Marriott’s paid WiFi as hackers would no doubt delight in jamming their signals as well.

“In that petition, the hotel group asked the agency to “declare that the operator of a Wi-Fi network does not violate [U.S. law] by using FCC-authorized equipment to monitor and mitigate threats to the security and reliability of its network,” even when taking action causes interference to mobile devices. The comment period for the petition ended Friday, so now it’s up to the FCC to either agree to Marriott’s petition or disregard it.”

http://www.networkworld.com/article/2862474/wireless/hotel-group-asks-fcc-for-permission-to-block-some-outside-wifi.html

12) In fossilized fish eye, rods and cones preserved for 300 million years

The fact scientists can actually see the rods and cones is pretty cool, however, the result itself should not be surprising. After all, if fish and terrestrial animals have rods and cones and they are more or less of the same genetic origin, then they were almost certainly present in the common ancestor, namely fish. Still, it is quite neat when they find proof.

“Scientists have discovered a fossilized fish so well preserved that the rods and cones in its 300-million-year-old eyeballs are still visible under a scanning electron microscope. It is the first time that fossilized photoreceptors from a vertebrate eye have ever been found, according to a paper published Tuesday in Nature Communications. The researchers say the discovery also suggests that fish have been seeing the world in color for at least 300 million years.”

http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-fossilized-fish-rods-cones-20141223-story.html

13) Samsung TVs will play PlayStation games without a PlayStation in 2015

The video game business is a software business where the hardware platforms are often sold at a loss or heavily subsidized. Proprietary hardware makes games perform better but also serve as a sort of DRM system as well. Given Sony’s challenges over the past few years it is, frankly, surprising they have made this rather intelligent strategic move, especially since it is with their arch-rival Samsung – after all, the more outlets for games the more game royalties you get.

“Sony and Samsung are teaming up to offer gamers a festive treat: PlayStation games without a PlayStation on Samsung smart TVs. Samsung’s Internet-connected TVs in the US and Canada will be able to access the PlayStation Now service in the first half of next year. PlayStation Now enables you to stream games from the Web straight to the TV without needing a PlayStation console. You do need a Sony Dualshock controller, but once that’s plugged in all you have to do is fire up an app on the TV and you can choose from over 200 PS3 games to start playing immediately.”

http://www.cnet.com/au/news/samsung-tvs-will-let-you-play-playstation-games-without-a-playstation-in-2015/

14) Diabetes Patients Are Hacking Their Way Toward a Bionic Pancreas

I thought this was very interesting: as more medical devices offer some level of web interaction the opportunity for hacking arises. Of course, most coverage of hacking of medical devices has focused on the “black hat” variant, however, there is no reason patients can’t come up with improved services. Needless to say, you can almost hear a tort lawyer smacking his chops at the prospect, but I doubt he’ll sue the hackers – more likely the medical device manufacturers for “permitting” it.

“A few days after Costik tweeted about his app for viewing continuous glucose numbers on his phone, another tech-savvy father duplicated his efforts. In the following year, a dozen more parents followed suit. Then, in February of 2014, a California programmer named Scott Leibrand blogged about an app he had created for his girlfriend, Dana Lewis. Leibrand’s app took the numbers pouring out of her device, cranked them through some simplified algorithms, and spit out automated recommendations for how much insulin she needed to correct a high, or how much sugar to take for a low. “I feel a huge difference,” Lewis says. “I don’t have to be constantly wondering how much insulin to take, or always checking my glucose level. Scott’s algorithm beeps me if I have to do something. And my time in the proper range has gone from around 60 percent to nearly 90 percent. It’s amazing.””

http://www.wired.com/2014/12/diabetes-patients-hacking-together-diy-bionic-pancreases/

15) New Year, New Rules for Internet Downloaders

It appears a new anti-piracy regime is being implemented in Canada in 2015. Parents should read the riot act to their kids: only pirate using Tribler or some other form of anonymizer …

“The longstanding debate over how Internet providers should respond to allegations of copyright infringement by their subscribers was resolved in Canada several years ago with the adoption of a ”notice and notice” system. Unlike countries that require content takedowns without court oversight or even contemplate cutting off subscriber Internet access, the Canadian approach, which has operated informally for over a decade but will kick in as the law in 2015, seeks to balance the interests of copyright holders, the privacy rights of Internet users, and the legal obligations of Internet providers.”

http://thetyee.ca/Mediacheck/2014/12/24/New_Year_New_Rules_Internet_Downloaders/

16) MIT unifies Web development in a single, speedy new language

Programming languages come and go, with only a small portion ever becoming mainstream. Web programming is currently a hodgepodge of various languages and tools which opens up all kinds of potential for bugs and security holes. Ur/Web sounds promising in that it offers the potential of a one size fits all solution with strong type checking, etc.. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee it will be successful, but it would be interesting to get the tools as they come available.

“Building a moderately complex Web page requires understanding a whole stack of technologies, from HTML to JavaScript. Now a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has wrapped these technologies into a single language that could streamline development, speed up performance and better secure Web sites. The language, called Ur/Web, provides a way for developers to write pages as self-contained programs. It incorporates many of the most widely used Web technologies, freeing the developer from working with each language individually.”

http://www.itworld.com/article/2863674/mit-unifies-web-development-in-a-single-speedy-new-language.html

17) First direct evidence that a mysterious phase of matter competes with high-temperature superconductivity

Superconductivity is a promising phenomenon, however it has been poorly understood which means it has progressed in fits and starts. Apparently, part of the problem has been that scientists didn’t know if a particular phenomenon actually helped or hindered superconductivity. It now seems that question has been resolved, although whether or not anything can be done about it remains to be seen.

“Scientists have found the first direct evidence that a mysterious phase of matter known as the “pseudogap” competes with high-temperature superconductivity, robbing it of electrons that otherwise might pair up to carry current through a material with 100 percent efficiency. The result, led by researchers at Stanford University and the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, is the culmination of 20 years of research aimed at finding out whether the pseudogap helps or hinders superconductivity, which could transform society by making electrical transmission, computing and other areas much more energy efficient.”

http://phys.org/news/2014-12-evidence-mysterious-phase-high-temperature-superconductivity.html?utm_source

18) Why String Theory Still Offers Hope We Can Unify Physics

The original title on the web page was, I swear, Is String Theory About to Unravel? as represented in the URL. Something tells me Greene (the author) called up and tore a strip off the editor because, while the original might have been clever (i.e. unravel could be come apart or be demystified) the article itself is somewhat more hopeful. Besides, non-string theorists mock string theorists, which make the latter rather touchy. Setting all that aside, it makes for a good read and you can comment at the New Years Eve party how you just read an article on string theory.

“The idea underlying string unification is as simple as it is seductive. Since the early 20th century, nature’s fundamental constituents have been modeled as indivisible particles—the most familiar being electrons, quarks and neutrinos—that can be pictured as infinitesimal dots devoid of internal machinery. String theory challenges this by proposing that at the heart of every particle is a tiny, vibrating string-like filament. And, according to the theory, the differences between one particle and another—their masses, electric charges and, more esoterically, their spin and nuclear properties—all arise from differences in how their internal strings vibrate.”

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/string-theory-about-unravel-180953637/?no-ist

19) Another threat from climate change: bad-tasting shrimp

Oh global warming: is there nothing you cannot do? No looming disaster you cannot be responsible for? No frivolous research you cannot fund? Here we have science of the highest order: raise shrimp – for three weeks – in an artificial environment, cook them, then feed them to “connoisseurs” to see how they taste. Based on a small group of “connoisseurs” you can then raise questions as how cod would react (presumably cod have as refined a palate as Swedish “connoisseurs”) because it is well known cod eat for the pleasure of it and not because they are hungry. Recall the Swedes consider Surströmming (“fermented” fish) a delicacy. The Nobel Committee awaits.

“They tested shrimp raised for three weeks in seawater of average pH versus shrimp raised in acidic waters, similar to conditions that may prevail as the continued emission of excess carbon dioxide turns the oceans more acidic. They found that acidic conditions make the shrimp distinctly less palatable to human tasters. The researchers offered each of a panel of 30 local Swedish connoisseurs a plate of shrimp prepared by a professional chef, and asked them to rank the shellfish. Shrimp from the normal waters were more likely to be judged the best on the plate, while those from acidic waters were more likely to be judged the worst.”

http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-mh-badtasting-shrimp-20141222-column.html

20) The World Is Not Falling Apart Never mind the headlines. We’ve never lived in such peaceful times.

I figured I would end 2014 on a more cheerful note. After all, while all the news seems bleak and discouraging, the data say otherwise. Happy New Year!

“It’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Crimea, Donetsk, Gaza, Burma, Ebola, school shootings, campus rapes, wife-beating athletes, lethal cops—who can avoid the feeling that things fall apart, the center cannot hold? Last year Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a Senate committee that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.” This past fall, Michael Ignatieff wrote of “the tectonic plates of a world order that are being pushed apart by the volcanic upward pressure of violence and hatred.” Two months ago, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen lamented, “Many people I talk to, and not only over dinner, have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world. … The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.” As troubling as the recent headlines have been, these lamentations need a second look.”

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/12/the_world_is_not_falling_apart_the_trend_lines_reveal_an_increasingly_peaceful.single.html

 

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of December 19th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of December 19th 2014

Hello,

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 week’s tech news was dominated by the Sony hack and the fact Apple had withdrawn from the Russian market due to the weakness of the ruble. The Sony hack is less about technology than it is about inept corporate practices, which, given Sony’s recent history, should scarcely be a surprise. I saw countless articles regarding Apple’s decision to suspend sales in Russia, most of which suggested this was, somehow important. One cannot help but wonder whether the average Russian is going to be more concerned with buying food this winter than upgrading to an iPhone 6.

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.

Brian Piccioni

 

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1) Spanish Newspaper Publishers’ Association Now Asks Government To Help Stop Google News Closure

Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. The back story to this was that Spanish newspapers figured that Google was stealing their intellectual property by linking to their news sites via Google News. Inflated by moral outrage, they lobbied for, and got, a law compelling payment. Google, which claims to make no revenue from the service, decided that paying to provide traffic to Spanish newspapers didn’t make much sense, so they shut down the site. Not surprisingly, traffic to the Spanish newspapers promptly dropped, resulting in the Spanish newspapers losing ad revenue. You could not make this up.

“The main media lobby behind Spain’s new intellectual property law, which caused Google to announce late on Wednesday night that it was to close Google News in Spain, has now said it wants the Spanish government and European competition authorities to intervene to stop Google shutting down the service. The Spanish Newspaper Publishers’ Association (AEDE) issued a statement last night saying that Google News was “not just the closure of another service given its dominant market position”, recognizing that Google’s decision: “will undoubtedly have a negative impact on citizens and Spanish businesses”.”

https://www.thespainreport.com/13199/spanish-newspaper-publishers-association-now-asks-government-help-stop-google-news-closure/

2) Special Report: How Sony Systems Were Hacked

When hackers are portrayed in the movies, it is often as quirky geniuses with serious personality defects. Few hackers are that bright and they don’t have to be as most hacks start with pretty basic steps and exploit well known security holes. For example, when Sony illegally distributed a rootkit (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sony_BMG_copy_protection_rootkit_scandal), itself an example of corporate activity which would have led to prison time if a person had committed the act, it did not require the best and the brightest to do so. After all, they hacked Microsoft Windows. So it is not exactly surprising that the “geniuses” who hacked Sony used the old “steal the admin password” route. Why do I believe the admin’s password was “Password123”? You can rest assured numerous large litigation settlements will arise from this hack but the damage to Sony’s film business is probably terminal (see item 5).

“In late breaking news on Thursday, an unnamed U.S. government official told CNN that investigators have solved the vexing question of how the computer network Relevant Products/Services at Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked. Rather than a sophisticated system breach or an inside job, as hypothesized by many in the I.T. security Relevant Products/Services establishment, the answer was actually quite simple. The hackers apparently gained access to Sony’s systems by obtaining the login credentials of a high-level systems administrator in Sony’s I.T. department. Once the credentials were in the hands of the hackers, they were granted “keys to the entire building,” as stated by the U.S. official, who was reportedly privy to government briefings on the topic of the Sony hack.”

http://www.toptechnews.com/article/index.php?story_id=102003IOERUU

3) BlackBerry woos keyboard loyalists with launch of Classic

This announcement was made a few days before Blackberry announced “disappointing” financial results. I put quotes around disappointing because the expectations regarding the company’s operating performance do not appear to be founded by any sort of research or analysis, but probably winks and nods from the company itself. In any event, the fact the company would launch such a product shows hows deeply troubled it is (as if all recent announcements had not already established that). All the Classic does is provide an alternative for the rapidly shrinking number of Blackberry users who would even consider purchasing another device from the manufacturer, it would never convince a new adopter to move to the platform. I can buy a dual SIM UNLOCKED Android phone for C$149 at the local computer store, or pay a bit more for a similar unit at Staples. Why on earth would I buy a Blackberry?

“BlackBerry Ltd launched its long-awaited Classic on Wednesday, a smartphone it hopes will help it win back market share and woo those still using older versions of its physical keyboard devices. The Canadian mobile technology company said the new device, which bears striking similarities to its once wildly popular Bold and Curve handsets, boasts a larger screen, longer battery life, an expanded app library with access to offerings from Amazon.com Inc’s Android App store, and a browser three times faster than the one on its legacy devices.”

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/17/us-blackberry-launch-idUSKBN0JV1Q820141217

4) Tesla’s game-changing, lane-changing Autopilot? “Currently, there is no radar on the market that can achieve that,” Toyota engineer says

It’s almost become a tradition to carry an item on Tesla in the Geeks Reading List, just like it was for Bitcoin for a couple years. I suspect Tesla will be a longer duration story simply because of the massive amounts of capital, and obliviousness (the two are related) injected by Wall Street. Furthermore, it will take a number of years before owners realize the batteries – which are the most expensive component of the vehicle – don’t last wrong and, due to the replacement cost, 5 to 8 year old Teslas should have a zero resale value. Thanks to Alain Bélanger of Novacap for this item.

“Two months ago, Tesla launched its Model D. Not quite a new car, not even a refresh, but the webs went wild. The Model D sports an extra electric motor, and a sensor package. Any other automaker, and such non-news would not even elicit a yawn from the press, save for a few snarky blogs that would torture the maker for not delivering the software for the hardware. Come to think of it, no automaker would dare to deliver hardware sans software, for fear of getting their derrieres handed to them. Tesla is unlike any automaker. As a Silicon Valley company, Tesla has marketing rights to vapor ware. The Model D was feted like the second coming of the Model T, and it was pronounced as equally, if not more disruptive to the industry than the mass-produced Ford.”

http://dailykanban.com/2014/12/teslas-game-changing-lane-changing-autopilot-currently-no-radar-market-can-achieve-toyota-engineer-says/

5) Sony Attack Is Unraveling Relationships in Hollywood

Following on from Item 2, it is hard to feel too much pity for a company whose executives are, apparently, disdainful of the “talent” they so vigorously court and promote externally, or one which, allegedly, tolerates a culture of racist jokes, etc., which would not be permitted even at an investment bank (largely because they understand what happens when such things get leaked). Most significantly it seems likely that no actor, director, or producer will be willing to work with Sony on any film which is in any way controversial given their singular lack of backbone. Recall that Chaplin released “The Great Dictator” in 1940 (while the US still enjoyed peaceful relations with Germany) and that was an obvious attack on Adolf Hitler.

“The attack has disrupted the web of executive, business and talent relationships that stitches together Sony’s core moviemaking operation. Hollywood’s creative community fumed about what they saw as failure by Sony to make a stand for artistic freedom. Steve Carell called it “a sad day for creative expression,” while Zach Braff described Sony’s move as “a pretty horrible precedent to set.” The filmmaker Judd Apatow and the documentarian Michael Moore also took to social media to lament the demise of “The Interview” as caving to the hackers.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/19/business/media/sony-attack-is-unraveling-relationships-in-hollywood.html?ref=business

6) Ford dumps Windows for QNX in new in-car entertainment unit

At the time it was surprising Ford adopted Windows for its entertainment system, but it is not really that less strange they went for QNX. After all, an entertainment system is not exactly rocket science and Linux – or Android – is free. Besides, the industry is steadily moving towards automotive grade Linux in many other applications so it will be just a matter of time before Ford does the same.

“As foreshadowed in February, Ford has announced a new in-car entertainment and communications system that will run on BlackBerry’s QNX real-time operating system, not Windows as is the case for the company’s current efforts. Ford Sync 3 will offer touch-screen and voice recognition controls. The latter will allow drivers to command both their vehicle and apps on their phone. Siri control is another feature. The auto-maker’s offered a touch-screen system for some time now, but it’s widely regarded as one of its weak points. A complete refresh on a new operating system therefore looks like a good move.”

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/12/12/ford_dumps_windows_for_qnx_in_new_incar_entertainment_unit/

7) Google to Integrate Android Directly Into Cars (Report)

I am not convinced this particular strategy will work. Google may certainly want to tie auto vendors to its data gathering but I rather doubt they will comply (I suspect mass adoption of Apple’s alternative is even less likely, given that company’s history of slipping the blade into the back of its partners when convenient). Nevertheless, Android is an open source project and there is very little to prevent the auto or consumer electronics industries from adapting it to their needs while severing the Google proprietary link. You may then decide whether or not to pair your smartphone with your infotainment device, but since your smartphone is already providing Google and/or Apple with vast amounts of personal information, it is just a difference of semantics.

“Google knows that the next big platform war is going to take place behind the wheel, and it won’t necessarily need Android phones as a Trojan horse. A new report says the company has plans to integrate its operating system directly into vehicles in 2015. According to Reuters, Google wants Android to become the primary OS for your car’s infotainment system, which would allow drivers to get instant access to various services via a built-in Internet connection. The report also claims that Google would be able to make more use of a car’s camera, sensors, fuel gauge and more.”

http://www.tomsguide.com/us/android-auto-integration,news-20040.html

8) Forget Hydrogen Cars, and Buy a Hybrid

The purpose behind the introduction of fuel cell is not to help the environment but rather to conform to California’s Zero Emission Vehicle standards as well as similar purportedly environmentally friendly measures in other jurisdictions. Such measures tend to be very popular, although one has to question how popular they will remain is, as seems to be the case, oil returns to its trend line price range of $20 to $40/bbl. As we have written extensively the problem with fuel cell cars is not the fuel cells but the hydrogen. It is a bit challenging to articulate in a few sentences, however, hydrogen is extremely expensive to transport, and peak production efficiency only occurs in massive plants. So you can expensively produce hydrogen locally or produce it in a large plant and expensively transport it. At least unlike Tesla batteries, a fuel cell car should have a resale value in the future, assuming of course they still sell them and support the infrastructure.

“If you want to help cut greenhouse gas emissions, you should probably skip the hydrogen fuel cell cars now coming to market and buy a (much cheaper) hybrid instead.”

http://www.technol ogyreview.com/news/533186/forget-hydrogen-cars-and-buy-a-hybrid/

9) Knees: Meniscus regenerated with 3-D-printed implant

The meniscus is the bearing surface in joints, in particular in this case the knee joint. When that bearing surface goes you end up with bone on bone friction, leading to rapid deterioration of the joint. Although meniscus transplants are done, as I understand it the tissue is harvested from cadavers and therefore like a joint replacement the fit is bound to be imperfect. This technique shows great promise as it means they would be able to create a custom fitting meniscus in fairly short order. This could significantly improve quality of life and result in a reduction of joint transplants. I suspect it could also be applied to other joints in the body.

“Columbia University Medical Center researchers have devised a way to replace the knee’s protective lining, called the meniscus, using a personalized 3D-printed implant, or scaffold, infused with human growth factors that prompt the body to regenerate the lining on its own. The therapy, successfully tested in sheep, could provide the first effective and long-lasting repair of damaged menisci, which occur in millions of Americans each year and can lead to debilitating arthritis. The paper was published today in the online edition of Science Translational Medicine.”

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141210171356.htm

10) Amputee Makes History with APL’s Modular Prosthetic Limb

Obviously this is early stages – both in the treatment of this patient and the technology in general, but this is a pretty impressive step forward. In fact, the rather awesome video looks like something out of Terminator. I would be interested in knowing the cost as well as the duration of the battery pack.

“A Colorado man made history at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) this summer when he became the first bilateral shoulder-level amputee to wear and simultaneously control two of the Laboratory’s Modular Prosthetic Limbs. Most importantly, Les Baugh, who lost both arms in an electrical accident 40 years ago, was able to operate the system by simply thinking about moving his limbs, performing a variety of tasks during a short training period.”

http://www.jhuapl.edu/newscenter/pressreleases/2014/141216.asp

11) Researchers Make BitTorrent Anonymous and Impossible to Shut Down

I have been following Tribler for some time. It is a BitTorrent client which previously incorporated a search engine. Now it includes an anonymizer and a distributed file store, making it supposedly secure and impossible to shut down. Like the BitTorrent Browser, such a system can be used for good or evil, however, condemning the technology because of misuse is misplaced in my opinion. I have downloaded the software, however, I am not sure if it is working correctly. It may be that it functions like any other peer to peer system, namely the more users the more powerful it becomes.

“A team of researchers at Delft University of Technology has found a way to address this problem. With Tribler they’ve developed a robust BitTorrent client that doesn’t rely on central servers. Instead, it’s designed to keep BitTorrent alive, even when all torrent search engines, indexes and trackers are pulled offline. “Tribler makes BitTorrent anonymous and impossible to shut down,” Tribler’s lead researcher Dr. Pouwelse tells TF. “Recent events show that governments do not hesitate to block Twitter, raid websites, confiscate servers and steal domain names. The Tribler team has been working for 10 years to prepare for the age of server-less solutions and aggressive suppressors.””

http://torrentfreak.com/bittorrent-anonymous-and-impossible-to-shut-down-141218/

12) Crossbar says it’s ‘one step’ from delivering miracle RRAM

I thought this article was interesting as it outlines some of the technologies which hope to displace Flash memory. I know a lot more about memristors (HP’s contribution) and I have a suspicion that technology will win out. After all, very few novel memory technologies ever make it to market. Nonetheless, I am rather doubtful Flash will be around in 20 years. One interesting point, however: it may be important for a start up company to ensure its technology works with existing semiconductor manufacturing techniques but it is muck less important for a large established company which can afford to invest in large, new plants full of novel technologies.

“Crossbar has jumped a hurdle limiting the readability if its resistive RAM non-volatile memory tech and says commercialisation is getting closer. Crossbar’s resistive RAM (RRAM) tech is a 3D semi-conductor structure promising higher densities and faster access than NAND; closer to the fabled uniform memory that’s as fast as DRAM and as non-volatile as flash. Resistive RAM s one of a number of technologies, including Phase-Change Memory and HP’s Memristor concept that are jostling to take-over from NAND – which is hitting a scaling wall preventing it from getting denser or faster, shortening its endurance and weakening its reliability. This RRAM tech was unveiled when Crossbar came out of stealth in August last year and has had a read problem to deal with; so-called sneak path currents affected the readability of data from cells in the RRAM structure.”

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/12/18/crossbar_jumps_over_higher_rram_bar/

13) Skype Translator is the most futuristic thing I’ve ever used

I have used Google translate to communicate with Italian government agencies, though I suspect the English version I sent along was probably what they read. Nevertheless, automated translation software is pretty impressive stuff. I tend to be skeptical of spoken word translation since I can’t get my smartphone to understand a complete sentence in English without correction. In either event, this sounds pretty cool and potentially useful in a pinch. After all, people with rudimentary understanding of other languages can engage in conversation with enough repetition and correction.

“I don’t speak a word of Spanish—I took German at school instead—but with Skype Translator I was able to have a spoken conversation with a Spanish speaker as if I were in an episode of Star Trek (as long as that episode isn’t Darmok, amirite?). I spoke English. A moment later, an English language transcription would appear, along with a Spanish translation. Then a Spanish voice would read that translation. It took a moment to get used to the pacing of the conversation—the brief delay for the translation means that if you understand the language of the other person, there’s a temptation to respond immediately, without waiting for the voice to read the translation—but once this rhythm was learned, the conversation was fluent and continuous.”

http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2014/12/skype-translator-is-the-most-futuristic-thing-ive-ever-used/

14) Riding in Audi’s 150MPH self-driving RS 7, the anti-Google car

It is probably a pretty exciting – and disturbing – experience to sit in an autonomous car while it zips around a racetrack. However, it is worth noting that racetracks are probably a lot easier to navigate autonomously than any city street. I tend to believe it will be around 20 years before autonomous vehicles are plying the roads, although there will likely be a sort of sliding scale of autonomy as we get there. To reiterate, I firmly believe autonomous vehicles will lead to a sort of industrial revolution and restructuring of economies. Just not yet.

“Until last week, the sum of my autonomous driving experience was sitting behind the wheel while a car parked itself, and the sum of my track experience involved squeezing my lanky frame into a comically small go-kart. Audi changed that recently, giving me the opportunity to sit in its self-driving RS 7 Concept while it traversed the Ascari racetrack in southern Spain. It’s the same car that recently broke the autonomous speed record in Germany, hitting 240KPH (149MPH) at the Hockenheimring. Rather than aiming to improve on its record, Audi is at Ascari to test its “piloted driving” system against the circuit’s more-challenging corners. It’s also there to see how people react to being driven, at speed, around the track.”

http://www.engadget.com/2014/12/18/audi-self-driving-rs-7-concept-test-drive/

15) The Rise of a New Smartphone Giant: China’s Xiaomi

The article notes that Xioami hopes to penetrate a number of emerging markets due to its lack of a patent portfolio. Given the business model, this makes sense: patents are largely used by large companies to suppress competition even those most such patents are rubbish. Emerging markets tend to be less friendly to such tactics. One might conclude that sales in emerging markets will have no impact to large companies such as Apple and Samsung, but that is not the case as the sale of significantly less expensive, but equivalently functional, smartphones into those markets will greatly reduce sales. As noted in item 3) I can buy a dual SIM unlocked Android phone for C$149 at the local computer store, or pay a bit more for a similar unit at Staples.

“In China, the smartphone battle used to be Samsung versus Apple. But not anymore. Over the summer, a Chinese company, Xiaomi, took the No. 1 position in China’s competitive market and became the world’s third-largest phone maker in the process. Founded in 2010 as a lean start-up to sell smartly designed phones at cheap prices over the Internet, Xiaomi was decidedly late to the game. Its first handset came out around the time of the iPhone 4S. But a clever social media strategy and a business plan that emphasized selling services that work on the phone helped Xiaomi build frenzied support from young and trendy Chinese. With people in China expected to buy 500 million smartphones in 2015 — more than three times as many as will be sold in the United States, according to the research firm IDC — Xiaomi is poised to cement its place as one of the most powerful phone makers in the world’s most important market.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/15/technology/the-rise-of-a-new-smartphone-giant-chinas-xiaomi.html

16) Material Question: Graphene may be the most remarkable substance ever discovered. But what’s it for?

This article is a modest effort to de-hype graphene and it was certainly due. After all, scarcely a day goes by where we don’t read of a battery, solar, semiconductor, or whatever, breakthrough associated with graphene. What tends to get lost in the discussion is the fact these results are typically theoretical or involve microscopic amounts of this staggeringly expensive material. In other words, none of them represent a practical breakthrough of any sort. The real problem is the production of graphene, not what it can do. Even if there is a breakthrough, consider the following. I calculate that graphene weighs about 7.2 mg per square meter, meaning a single gram of graphene requires the production of 138 square meters of the stuff. Think of it as paper and consider that “wonder batteries”, etc., will require many several grams of the stuff per watt hour of capacity. So, even if it the raw materials were free, the production of, say the roughly 41 million square meters of graphene which would be required to produce a small 30 kilowatt hour electric vehicle battery, would be quite an undertaking.

“Geim placed a piece of the tape under the microscope and discovered that the graphite layers were thinner than any others he’d seen. By folding the tape, pressing the residue together and pulling it apart, he was able to peel the flakes down to still thinner layers. Geim had isolated the first two-dimensional material ever discovered: an atom-thick layer of carbon, which appeared, under an atomic microscope, as a flat lattice of hexagons linked in a honeycomb pattern. Theoretical physicists had speculated about such a substance, calling it “graphene,” but had assumed that a single atomic layer could not be obtained at room temperature—that it would pull apart into microscopic balls. Instead, Geim saw, graphene remained in a single plane, developing ripples as the material stabilized.”

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/12/22/material-question

17) Amazon’s cloud business a harder sell in post-Snowden era

A couple things of note: the Taser story is a red herring since, under the US Patriot Act, all US companies are required to hand data over to US law enforcement upon request, regardless of where that data happens to be stored. Furthermore, while there are certain business models which lend themselves to cloud hosting, storage of proprietary information, accounting, legal, etc., are decidedly not among them as a cloud represents a single point of failure for both operations and security. You also become “bound” to the SaaS (Software as a Service) provider which is what delights Wall Street so much. Private clouds are easy enough to set up, relatively cheap, and you are far more likely to be secure against any type of attack than if you rely on Amazon, Google, Microsoft, or any other large company.

“This spring, Taser International Inc won a small but high-profile contract to supply body cameras to the London police. But the deal nearly collapsed over one issue: where the video footage would be stored. In the end, the deal survived only after Taser dropped Amazon.com Inc as the data storage provider for the year-long project. The fact that Amazon did not have a data center in Britain was a deal breaker for British officials, according to Taser.”

http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2014/12/11/scientists-measure-speedy-electrons-in-silicon/

18) NASA Rover Finds Active and Ancient Organic Chemistry on Mars

This press release out of NASA led to a lot of speculation as to whether Curiosity had discovered evidence of life on Mars. While that may, indeed, be the case, organic chemistry does not mean chemistry from organisms. There are, after all, lots of ways you can make methane without wee beasties making it. Nevertheless, life is a potential explanation.

“NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around it and detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by the robotic laboratory’s drill. “This temporary increase in methane — sharply up and then back down — tells us there must be some relatively localized source,” said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, a member of the Curiosity rover science team. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.””

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4413

19) New law for superconductors

This sounds like an important theoretical result. Unfortunately, progress in actual applications for superconductors has been painfully slow.

“MIT researchers have discovered a new mathematical relationship — between material thickness, temperature, and electrical resistance — that appears to hold in all superconductors. They describe their findings in the latest issue of Physical Review B. The result could shed light on the nature of superconductivity and could also lead to better-engineered superconducting circuits for applications like quantum computing and ultralow-power computing. “We were able to use this knowledge to make larger-area devices, which were not really possible to do previously, and the yield of the devices increased significantly,” says Yachin Ivry, a postdoc in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, and the first author on the paper.”

http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/mathematical-relationship-in-superconductors-1216

20) The Darwin Awards: sex differences in idiotic behaviour

This is a rather entertaining read, though I am not entirely sure whether it is parody or science. The conclusions are not surprising: besides the fact that men tend to take on more hazardous work (whether due to economic need or a disregard for risk) I suspect the last words of far more males than females have been “hey watch this”.

“Sex differences in risk seeking behaviour, emergency hospital admissions, and mortality are well documented. However, little is known about sex differences in idiotic risk taking behaviour. This paper reviews the data on winners of the Darwin Award over a 20 year period (1995-2014). Winners of the Darwin Award must eliminate themselves from the gene pool in such an idiotic manner that their action ensures one less idiot will survive. This paper reports a marked sex difference in Darwin Award winners: males are significantly more likely to receive the award than females (P<0.0001). We discuss some of the reasons for this difference.”

http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g7094

 

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of December 12th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of December 12th 2014

Hello,

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!

There were good mix of tech news items this week, again with no dominant theme. As has become customary, Tesla executives made some outlandish comments about revolutionizing the battery industry, much like hydrogen fuel cell promoters did a decade ago. History may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.

Brian Piccioni

ps: I apologize for the uneven quality of this week’s GRL. I am in rural Michigan hunting and Internet access is spotty.

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1) Tesla’s electric man

Hubris, surely thine name must be Tesla – and even the Economist’s IQ drops 50 points when the word energy enters a story. Here we have a guy with no mass production experience in his resume, who works at a company which does not manufacture batteries, nor does it manufacture large volumes of anything (and the thing it does mention has a poor record of reliability) explaining how mass production of batteries will work. Actual battery experts, some of whom work in the Consumer Electronics industry (which produces massive volumes) be to differ. As long as there is slack jawed, fawning praise for Tesla – as well as huge amounts of money from taxpayers and investors, the dream persists. Reality eventually wins regardless.

“The idea is that, benefiting from economies of scale, the gigafactory’s cells will be significantly cheaper than those from more established manufacturers. “Over the next ten years, it’s going to change to the point where we’re focused on production to meet the world’s energy-storage needs rather than waiting for a cost reduction from a radical change in battery technology,” says Mr Straubel. Not everyone agrees. A report by Lux Research, a firm of technology analysts, has predicted that the gigafactory will bring about only a modest cut in battery costs and suffer more than 50% overcapacity. “Most other companies do not believe that battery volume will grow as fast as it’s going to,” Mr Straubel counters. “They don’t understand the tight linkage between cost and volume. We’re at this crossing-point where a small reduction in cost is going to result in a ridiculously big increase in volume, because the auto industry is so big.””

http://www.economist.com/news/technology-quarterly/21635332-jb-straubel-charged-more-electrifying-californian-carmaker-he

2) BC Transit’s $90M hydrogen bus fleet to be sold off, converted to diesel

This was intended to be a “green energy” project for the Vancouver Olympics, and it truly was if the green in “green energy” meant money. I recall reading that the hydrogen was imported from Quebec where it was produced with “renewable energy”, however, I would wager the diesel burnt in transportation more than offset whatever purported environmental benefit which might have resulted. In other words, more likely, this program did more damage to the environment than just using diesel would have. The problem with fuel cells has always been, and will always be, hydrogen, not fuel cells.

“Hydrogen buses that were once lauded as the future of clean transportation in B.C. are being replaced by old-fashioned diesel power. The 20 vehicles were part of a high profile, $90-million plan to showcase hydrogen power during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler. BC Transit is now taking bids on the buses and will either sell them off or have them converted to use diesel or other fuel. They have been in storage for several months and each has roughly 200,000 kilometres on the odometer.”

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bc-transit-s-90m-hydrogen-bus-fleet-to-be-sold-off-converted-to-diesel-1.2861060

3) Turns Out the Dot-Com Bust’s Worst Flops Were Actually Fantastic Ideas

This is what happens with a tech journalist tries to wrap his mind around basic business. You see, a good business is one which makes money and those flops did not, and for the most part do not. Furthermore, with few exceptions, web based businesses have few barriers to entry meaning (and this is basic business here) in the unlikely event they did make money, new entrants would drive the profitability down to minimal levels. In other words, even the Uber business model can easily be replicated as can grocery delivery, online cat food, or whatever. Some such businesses can persist as a niche, and the Internet is a wonderful resource for small businesses. But, for the most part, those were still stupid ideas.

“If you had to pick one really annoying sock puppet to represent the imploded excesses of the dot-com boom, it would be the microphone-wielding mascot of online pet food retailer Pets.com. For a few months back in the late 1990s, he was everywhere—the Super Bowl, Live with Regis and Kathy Lee—and then he was gone, sucked into a black hole of dot-com debt. But the bust was so big and so widespread, there are so many deliciously ideal symbols for this dark time in the history of the internet, a period when irrational exuberance trumped sound business decisions. Fifteen years on, people—particularly people in Silicon Valley—still talk about these epic failures. In addition to Pets.com, there was WebVan, Kozmo.com, and Flooz.”

http://www.wired.com/2014/12/da-bom/

4) The Rise of AdBlock Reveals A Serious Problem in the Advertising Ecosystem

I don’t know enough about French law to hazard a guess as to whether they have a case or not, but this is silly to the point of absurdity. Sites are loaded up with annoying, distracting, bandwidth sucking advertisements and it is hard to make a case that users should be forced to look at them. If so, what about people who throw out the sports or travel section of the newspaper. Even if, somehow, this effort is successful an open source Adlock alternative would promptly emerge. One thing of note: you can disable “Acceptable Ads” in AdBlock. I do and I see no ads. And I don’t feel guilty about it. Sue me.

“On grounds that it represents a major economic threat to their business, two groups of French publishers are considering a lawsuit against AdBlockPlus creator Eyeo GmbH. (Les Echos, broke the news in this story, in French). Plaintiffs are said to be the GESTE and the French Internet Advertising Bureau. The first is known for its aggressive stance against Google via its contribution to the Open Internet Project. (To be clear, GESTE said they were at a “legal consulting stage”, no formal complaint has been filed yet.) By his actions, the second plaintiff, the French branch of the Internet Advertising Bureau is in fact acknowledging its failure to tame the excesses of the digital advertising market.”

http://www.mondaynote.com/2014/12/08/the-rise-of-adblock-reveals-a-serious-problem-in-the-advertising-ecosystem/

5) Robots, Not Humans, Fake 23% of Web Video Ad Views, Study Finds

Its a little baffling they call this fraud. How is it fraud? Is there some sort of rule which says an ad has to be “enjoyed” by a human? What if a robot wants to buy a hamburger? As long as “pay per click” has been around, people in boiler rooms in places like India have been busy clicking away for profit. The bots are simply automating a “service” which has been around for some time. The only problem I see with this is that the bots are running on people’s computers without their permission. That being said I can see a business model where people are paid to host bots. Heck – isn’t technology wonderful?

“Computers being remotely operated by hackers account for almost one in four views of digital video ads worldwide, according to a study that estimates such fraud will cost advertisers $6.3 billion dollars next year. The fake views, which also account for 11 percent of other display ads, often take place in the middle of the night when the owners of the hijacked computers are asleep. The result is retailers, automakers and other companies paying for web advertisements that are never seen by humans, or are seen by fewer people than they are paying for, according to the report released today by the Association of National Advertisers, whose members include Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), Ford Motor Co. (F) and Wendy’s Co. (WEN).”

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-12-09/robots-not-humans-fake-23-of-web-video-ad-views-study-finds.html

6) Samsung’s virtual-reality kit, Gear VR, finally launches

You may recall that Facebook purchased Oculus VR in May 2014, for the staggering sum of $2 billion. Of course, only a paltry few hundred million of that was money with the rest being Facbook stock. How, exactly, the management of Facebook were somehow convinced this was a good idea will probably make a good business case study one day, except it has been eclipsed by other, much more expensive but equally baffling moves. “Virtual Reality” headsets have been around for some time, however, the technological infrastructure did not really exist until now. This market will be dominated by large consumer electronics firms. No doubt Apple will soon “invent” the technology.

“Samsung is making a big jump into virtual reality, and it hopes early adopters will follow along. The company’s first virtual-reality headgear, the Gear VR Innovator Edition, was made available on Monday through AT&T’s and Samsung’s websites for $199, but only in the US. It launched with 17 apps, including a few from partner Oculus, which Samsung worked with on the product, and a few other games.”

http://www.cnet.com/news/samsungs-virtual-reality-kit-gear-vr-finally-launches/

7) Number of UK homes with TV falls for first time

I don’t know what is behind this, but it sounds potentially significant. UK has a yearly TV tax which is used to fund things like the BBC. According to http://www.tvlicensing.co.uk/check-if-you-need-one “You need to be covered by a valid TV Licence if you watch or record TV as it’s being broadcast. This includes the use of devices such as a computer, laptop, mobile phone or DVD/video recorder.” If people find they can use a computer monitor to watch stuff, and that stuff isn’t being broadcast, they a tax is a strong incentive to not have a TV. If BBC revenues begin to drop you can imagine the tax will be redfined to cast a wider net.

“The number of UK homes with a TV has fallen for the first time, as viewers turn to alternatives including tablets and smartphones to watch programmes. Ofcom said that after years of consecutive growth, the number of households with a television set fell from 26.33m at the end of 2012 to 26.02m at the end of last year. The media regulator said that nearly one million homes have a broadband connection, but no TV, indicating that other internet-connected devices are being used to view content. Ofcom said catch-up TV content in particular is growing in importance and being watched on smartphones, tablets, computers and games consoles. In its Infrastructure 2014 report, Ofcom cites BBC figures which show that in July 47% of requests for BBC iPlayer content came from tablets or mobiles, up from just 25% in October 2012.”

http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/dec/08/number-uk-homes-tv-falls-first-time-ofcom

8) Big changes ahead for Windows: ‘We’ve got to monetize it differently,’ says Microsoft exec

It should seem obvious that if you have to give away an operating system to sell tablets which use it, that may be because not many people want that operating system. If not many people want the operating system, they aren’t likely to pay a subscription for it. Microsoft already effectively collects subscriptions from businesses on many of its products by complex licensing schemes so perhaps they are musing about extending that to consumers and small businesses. Frankly, it will be a cold day in hell before I pay a monthly Microsoft for an OS which happens to come installed on a computer I buy – especially when Playbooks and Linux are alternatives.

““The plan is to “monetize the lifetime of that customer through services and different add-ons that we’re (going) to be able to incorporate with that solution.” That sounds a lot like some form of subscription-based Windows. With Microsoft’s Windows 10 on the way next year, there have been various reports pointing to the possibility of a new pricing structure for Windows, where a basic level of the operating system would be free, and certain features would cost extra. Microsoft has already gone down this path with Office, making the productivity suite free on iPads, for example, and charging an annual subscription for advanced features. Turner didn’t go into specifics about the Windows plan, promising more details next year. But he made it clear during audience Q&A that the company doesn’t intend to lose money on Windows.”

http://www.geekwire.com/2014/big-changes-ahead-windows-weve-got-monetize-differently-says-microsoft-exec/

9) HP Will Release a “Revolutionary” New Operating System in 2015

This story provides an update to an emerging technology which is being brought forward by HP, of all companies. Memristors are potentially revolutionary devices which can be used in a number of different ways including “non-volatile” memory. Unlike traditional Flash memory, memristors have supposed to have very fast read and write times so they combine the characteristics of high speed memory and mass storage. A computer designed around memristors will work much faster if it abandons the traditional memory performance hierarchy which has been around since the dawn of computer. This could be a very big deal.

“The company’s research division is working to create a computer HP calls The Machine. It is meant to be the first of a new dynasty of computers that are much more energy-efficient and powerful than current products. HP aims to achieve its goals primarily by using a new kind of computer memory instead of the two types that computers use today. The current approach originated in the 1940s, and the need to shuttle data back and forth between the two types of memory limits performance. “A model from the beginning of computing has been reflected in everything since, and it is holding us back,” says Kirk Bresniker, chief architect for The Machine. The project is run inside HP Labs and accounts for three-quarters of the 200-person research staff.”

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/533066/hp-will-release-a-revolutionary-new-operating-system-in-2015/

10) Six-State Memristor Opens Door to Weird Computing

A bit of a follow on from the previous story but not as important. Memristors can act as analog (ie continuous) memory rather than a “1” or “0” as in traditional computer memory. Multi-state memory can increase density as you can store more bits in a memory cell, albeit at the cost of noise margin and, usually, speed. Don’t read too much into the idea of base 10 computers though: they might be more intuitive to people but they are a major pain in the butt to design since the circuitry gets extremely complex as you move up in radix.

“The newest fundamental electronic component, the memristor, still holds some surprises, it seems. Since researchers built the first memristor six years ago, this mysterious device has promised a host of applications—denser nonvolatile memories, new universal logic gates, and brainlike computers, among other things. Add to these another, according to Trinity College Dublin physicists: base-10 memory. Unlike transistor-based memories, which are designed to assume only binary states, the memristor can hold much more. The Trinity researchers constructed one that can remember six states, and there’s nothing to stop expanding that to 10 or more, they claim.”

http://spectrum.ieee.org/semiconductors/memory/sixstate-memristor-opens-door-to-weird-computing

11) Heathrow plane in near miss with drone

I wonder if people with model airplanes would be stupid enough to fly them in areas where $100 million aircraft full of people were also flying. Somehow I doubt it, but it seems to be the sort of thing enough “drone” (model airplanes that are easier to fly) owners do. I doubt an errant drone could bring down a commercial aircraft, but it probably could do millions in damage. Expect governments to impose fairly strict rules as to where and when drones can be used. I expect a legal requirement for a digital “stay away” system in any drone.

“An Airbus A320 pilot reported seeing a helicopter-style drone as the jet was 700 feet off the ground on its approach to the runway at 1416 GMT on 22 July. The CAA has not identified the airline or how close the drone came to the plane, which can carry 180 people. It gave the incident an “A” rating, meaning a “serious risk of collision”. This is the highest incident rating the CAA can give. Investigators were unable to identify the drone, which did not appear on air traffic control radar and disappeared after the encounter.”

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-30369701

12) New therapy holds promise for restoring vision

Gene therapies seem to have tremendous promise, in particular for congenital problems. The track record of the technique has been pretty uneven thus far, although that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a breakthrough. More likely, slow progress will be made as this finding suggests. The problem I see is that the short effective period of the treatment may be useful for experimental purposes, however, it would probably make it impractical for human use.

“A new genetic therapy not only helped blind mice regain enough light sensitivity to distinguish flashing from non-flashing lights, but also restored light response to the retinas of dogs, setting the stage for future clinical trials of the therapy in humans. In normal mice with working photoreceptors (PR driven), stimulating the retina produces a variety of responses in retinal ganglion cells, the output of the eye. This can be seen in the colorful lower square, where measurements of the activity of different retinal ganglion cells are shown in response to the same stimulation. Photoswitches inserted into retinal ganglion cells (RGC) of blind mice produce much less variety of response (all evenly red means the cells fire at the same time), while blind mice with photoswitches inserted into bipolar cells (ON-BC driven) exhibit much more variety in their retinal response to light, closer to that of normal mice.”

http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2014/12/08/new-therapy-holds-promise-for-restoring-vision/

13) It’s Time to Intelligently Discuss Artificial Intelligence

Musk (who is a businessman, not a scientist) and Hawking (who is an actual scientist and genius of the highest order, but not an expert in AI) have got a fair bit of press lately opining on the hazards of AI lately. Heck, even Margaret Atwood waded in lately (www.nytimes.com/2014/12/04/opinion/margaret-atwood-on-our-robotic-future.html). Unfortunately, knowng stuff doesn’t make you an expert, and it seems that people are concerned about what science fiction tells us about AI, not what AI experts actually know about AI. This is a counterpoint.

“Tesla CEO Elon Musk worries it is “potentially more dangerous than nukes.” Physicist Stephen Hawking warns, “AI could be a big danger in the not-too-distant future.” Fear mongering about AI has also hit the box office in recent films such as Her and Transcendence. So as an active researcher in the field for over 20 years, and now the CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, why am I not afraid? The popular dystopian vision of AI is wrong for one simple reason: it equates intelligence with autonomy. That is, it assumes a smart computer will create its own goals, and have its own will, and will use its faster processing abilities and deep databases to beat humans at their own game. It assumes that with intelligence comes free will, but I believe those two things are entirely different.

https://medium.com/backchannel/ai-wont-exterminate-us-it-will-empower-us-5b7224735bf3

14) iRobot Announces Create 2: An Updated, Hackable Roomba

Speaking of robots (which are also not what most people think they are), iRobot had the earliest mass volume domestic robot on the market. I didn’t know they also sold a “hackable” version, which they have now updated. Cool.

“Building and maintaining robots is one of the biggest obstacles in robotics research: when you’re spending all of your time just figuring out how to get a robot to work and then keeping it working, you end up spending none of your time teaching that robot to do anything useful. In 2007, iRobot came out with the Create, a vacuumless 400-series Roomba specifically designed to be used as a hackable mobile base. At a base price of US $129, it was rugged and reliable and relatively easy to program, and we still see iRobot Creates being used in robotics research.”

http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/diy/irobot-announces-create-2-an-updated-hackable-roomba

15) BitTorrent Inc Works on P2P Powered Browser

Traditional websites are hosted on servers, which may or may not be located at a specific location. If you take that/those servers offline, or block access ot them, the website goes offline, as numerous governments have shown. A BitTorrent based browser would keep websites in numerous chunks on numerous machines, and it would be very difficult practically to take those offline. In other words, this would be a nightmare for totalitarian governments and a very handy tool for the likes of terrorists and criminals.

““BitTorrent Inc. announced a new project today, a web browser with the ambition of making the Internet “people powered.” Project Maelstrom, as it’s called, is in the very early stages of development but BitTorrent Inc. is gearing up to send out invites for a closed Alpha test. The company hasn’t released a feature set as yet, but it’s clear that the browser will serve websites and other content through users. According to BitTorrent Inc. this can not only speed up websites but also boost people’s privacy. In addition, it should be capable of bypassing website blockades and other forms of censorship.””

http://torrentfreak.com/bittorrent-inc-works-p2p-powered-browser-141210/

16) Forgetting the Lesson of Cypherpunk History: Cryptography Is Underhanded

As the Snowden revelations clearly showed, all major tech firms are in cahoots with the security apparatus. This probably reassures some folks, but should scare the hell out of those who have read history. Some efforts have been made to develop open source alternatives, but it is impossible to know whether these are sincere, “honeypots”, or ultimately subject to compromise. Fundamentally, you can’t trust anyone, however, you might consider whether you want one of the large tech firms to profit from their continued misdeeds. Greenwald’s position is either one of ignorance or suggestive he has move to the dark side. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“There’s a general theme that recurs as the Snowden affair unfolds. Specifically, several high profile figures have openly extolled the virtues of commercial technology as a means of remediation, with the basic narrative that companies like Google and Apple, having conspicuously deployed encryption to protect user data, will encourage other vendors to do the same and gradually foster near universal internet privacy. Proponents of this narrative direct our attention to the recent outcry by officials like FBI director James Comey or GCHQ director Robert Hannigan. They presume that the uproar is evidence that encryption is a potent defense against government spying. But are high-level apparatchiks like Comey and Hannigan sincere in their protest or are they simply lending credibility to the high-tech industry’s marketing campaign to reassure users that their data is safe? After all, if the FBI or the GCHQ, Britain’s intelligence agency, makes a fuss then it must mean that Google’s encryption is solid, right?”

http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/27783-glenn-greenwald-forgets-cypherpunk-history

17) Excess Success for Psychology Articles in the Journal Science

The funding system for science is largely driven by the number of peer reviewed research articles which get published. There are inherent biases to what actually gets published (null results, results which should a particular experiment cannot be replicated, results which raise doubts regarding a favored hypothesis, etc., are much harder to get published than those which show a positive result, for example). Whether by accident or by design, researchers happily comply leading to the vast majority of “studies” (roughly 80%) being flat out wrong. Fortunately, some researchers have cottoned on and are now questioning the model. This is an example thereof.

“This article describes a systematic analysis of the relationship between empirical data and theoretical conclusions for a set of experimental psychology articles published in the journal Science between 2005–2012. When the success rate of a set of empirical studies is much higher than would be expected relative to the experiments’ reported effects and sample sizes, it suggests that null findings have been suppressed, that the experiments or analyses were inappropriate, or that the theory does not properly follow from the data. The analyses herein indicate such excess success for 83% (15 out of 18) of the articles in Science that report four or more studies and contain sufficient information for the analysis. This result suggests a systematic pattern of excess success among psychology articles in the journal Science.”

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114255

18) Quest for Quantum Computers Heats Up

Quantum computing is a potentially useful technology for certain scientific applications, as well as decrypting non-quantum codes. Since back doors, etc., seem to be an easier approach to spying, I assume the development of quantum decryption will not lead to much change. In any event applications like protein folding and the like may benefit, but you won’t see a desktop version for home use ever.

“The prospects for useful and profitable quantum computers are good enough to have drawn Google into the game, along with IBM and Microsoft, among others. Several academic groups are also pushing the technology in practical directions. At the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, for example, the government-backed QuTech Center is bringing researchers together with the Dutch high-tech industry. Delft physicist Ronald Hanson says that he will be able to make the building blocks of a universal quantum computer in just five years, and a fully functional—if bulky and inefficient—demonstration machine in a little more than a decade.”

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/quest-for-quantum-computers-heats-up/

19) How cheap does the Internet have to be to get everyone online?

Personally, I would not consider 70% of households “an overwhelming majority” – after all, would this be considered a big number if we were referring to electricity, refrigeration, or indoor plumbing? The fact that 2/3 of the 30% see no use in the Internet is not entirely surprising: who are you asking, the parents or the kids? With so much of modern life moving to the Internet, in particular access to government services, health and welfare programs, and so on, should there be any question that Internet access is an important aspect of modern life? In any event, yeah, lowering the cost should help. The most expensive plans should be a fraction of what they are and basic access should be near free.

“Although the vast majority of Americans have high-speed broadband of some kind these days, that optimistic figure comes with a few caveats: Most people can choose among only a couple of service providers. Many connections aren’t fast enough to handle next-gen services. And nearly one-third of U.S. households still have no broadband at all. So, how do we get this portion of the country connected to what’s become a crucial piece of the economy? The trick is to reduce the price of high-speed Internet, according to a recent federally funded study.”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2014/12/10/how-cheap-does-the-internet-have-to-be-to-get-everyone-online/?

20) A bright future for LEDs

We were well ahead of the curve with respect to the emergence of LED lighting as a replacement for incandescent or compact fluorescent. The quality and efficiency of LED lamps means they are a viable alternative even today. The interesting thing is, LEDs are so long lived the industry will rapidly reach saturation and there will be little in the way of a replacement market. This result is impressive: a 150 watt LED is the equivalent of about 1500 watts of traditional lighting. The quality of light should be much better, and it should be far more controllable. Not the sort of thing with much consumer application, but still very interesting.

“A single wafer-level LED chip that produces more than 150 Watts of light output has been made in work form China. This level of output from a single chip makes applications for LEDs in high power lighting from stadiums to runways feasible, and the researchers have long term plans for a new way to light buildings and towns. ”

http://phys.org/news/2014-12-bright-future.html

 

 

 

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of December 5th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of December 5th 2014

Hello,

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!

There were good mix of tech news items this week, with no dominant theme. “Low end” (mostly meaning low price) smartphones are gaining attention. Solid State Drives, which will render Hard Disk Drives obsolete in the same manner as flash drives replace floppies, are being recognized for their robustness. The price of cloud services offered by major vendors continues to plummet to zero, and Microsoft is hoping to save the world from Windows 8 by introducing Windows 10, eventually.

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.

Brian Piccioni

ps: I apologize for the uneven quality of this week’s GRL. I am in rural Michigan hunting and Internet access is spotty. Next week’s may be delayed, shorted, or simply not come out.

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1) The Market For Low-End Smartphones Is Looking Up

I continue to believe the top will drop out of the market for smartphones. By which I mean consumers will eventually realize “high end” phones are wildly overpriced and even carrier locked phones are a waste of money and negotiating position. You can purchase a good quality unlocked Android phone for less than C $200 nowadays and, even though you might have to live with the shame of not having an iPhone, you are paying a fraction of the price for pretty much the same functionality.

“Once upon a time when you walked into a store looking to buy a new cell phone, you were presented with three options. High-end devices like Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy line were cutting edge, but expensive. Mid-range phones like HTC’s Desire series were cheaper, but not nearly as powerful. Low-end phones were the most affordable, but also the most technologically limited of the bunch. Their processors were slower, their screens were less crisp, and their build quality often left much to be, well, desired. Looking at the market today, many things are the same. High-end phones are still pricey and aspirational while the midrange is still middling. Cheap smartphones, however, are in a state of disruption.”

http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/11/29/366929752/the-market-for-low-end-smartphones-is-looking-up

2) The SSD Endurance Experiment: Two freaking petabytes

Solid State Drives (SSDs) are frequently characterized as short-lived, however, such a comment must always be made within the context of the life of the end product and typical usage patterns. SSDs do tend to wear out after a large number of writes but the vast majority of access for the typical consumer are reads, not writes. SSDs are much, much faster, mechanically robust (try dropping a Hard Disk Drive (HDD)) and typically consume much less power. Almost any system benefits from an SSD upgrade and the HDD industry is doomed. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“More than a year ago, we drafted six SSDs for a suicide mission. We were curious about how many writes they could survive before burning out. We also wanted to track how each one’s performance characteristics and health statistics changed as the writes accumulated. And, somewhat morbidly, we wanted to watch what happened when the drives finally expired. Our SSD Endurance Experiment has left four casualties in its wake so far. Representatives from the Corsair Neutron Series GTX, Intel 335 Series, Kingston HyperX 3K, and Samsung 840 Series all perished to satisfy our curiosity. Each one absorbed far more damage than its official endurance specification promised—and far more than the vast majority of users are likely to inflict.”

http://techreport.com/review/27436/the-ssd-endurance-experiment-two-freaking-petabytes

3) Amazon cuts the cost of sending data out from its cloud by as much as 43%

From time to time we encounter companies who expect to “disrupt” the cloud services business. Most recently we reported on a company which had figured out a way to get consumers to cover its capital cost, which it paid back with “free” heat. The thing is, cloud services is a race to the bottom: there is little in the way of sustainable competitive advantage, meanwhile the cost of delivering MIPS (processing power) continues to decline. Above all it is a buyers market and may never be a good investment.

“Market-leading public cloud Amazon Web Services is at it again, reducing the price of its services. Today it’s networking costs that are getting lower. The new price cuts affect the process of pushing data from Amazon’s cloud services onto the Internet. Amazon is also decreasing the price of sending data out from its CloudFront content-distribution network onto the Internet. Percentages for the price cuts vary in each geographical region or cluster of Amazon data centers. In the Asia Pacific region, for instance, the cost of transferring data out is going down by 43 percent for the 40TB following the initial 10TB. But in the US West (Oregon) region, the price for that data transfer is falling by 6 percent.”

http://venturebeat.com/2014/12/04/amazon-cuts-the-cost-of-sending-data-out-from-its-cloud-by-as-much-as-43/

4) 600 Millions PCs Waiting for Windows 10

The abject fiasco which is Windows 8 continues to affect the PC industry. Microsoft’s efforts to promote that abomination means that if you buy a new PC you will have to learn a new, frustrating, and anti-logical user interface which will become obsolete once Windows 10 is released. So for the sake of all that is holy, do not buy a new PC if you can put it off. That is the real message of this article. That and the fact Microsoft appears to find novelty in listening to its customers.

“Windows 10 is still in development at Microsoft, but Redmond’s partners claim that interest in new PCs has increased lately, especially after the software giant released the very first Windows 10 Technical Preview for testers. What’s more, millions of PCs are waiting right now for Windows 10, as the new operating system is already seen as a breath of fresh air for the collapsing PC industry which has suffered from dropping figures in the last couple of years. Windows 8 didn’t help, many said, so Windows 10 could definitely boost shipments, Intel’s executives explained during a recent press conference.”

http://news.softpedia.com/news/600-Millions-PCs-Waiting-for-Windows-10-466567.shtml

5) Google Glass isn’t dead; Intel-powered hardware reportedly due in 2015

Hmmm. Google Glass may not be dead but it sure is coughing blood. Despite early promises to change life as we know it, few people have found much use for it. Somehow I can’t see how this is affected by the choice of the SoC: after all, most software is sufficiently abstracted to get around such a thing. Nope – I think Google Glass is a solution in search of a problem.

“Glass is not dead, though. A report from The Wall Street Journal claims that a new version of Google Glass is on the way, and unlike the minor revision that Google released last year, it has totally overhauled internals. According to the report, Glass will switch from its dead Texas Instruments SoC to a processor built by Intel and will get a full hardware refresh.”

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2014/12/google-glass-isnt-dead-intel-powered-update-reportedly-due-in-2015/

6) Google overtakes Apple in the US classroom

It pains me to hear that scarce education budget dollars are going into iPads. Frankly, it is not at all clear any tablet is a solution to any educator’s problem, but, if you are going to waste money on tablets for the school, at least get more and less expensive tablets. After all, you can get 2 to 3 Android tablets for the price of an equivalent iPad. At least Chromebooks make a bit more sense, and they are somewhat cost effective. One has to wonder where such efforts leave the less well off students who can neither afford computers not Internet services.

“Apple has lost its longstanding lead over Google in US schools, with Chromebook laptop computers overtaking iPads for the first time as the most popular new device for education authorities purchasing in bulk for students. Google shipped 715,500 of the low-cost laptops into US schools in the third quarter, compared with 702,000 iPads, according to IDC, the market research firm. Chromebooks, which sell for as little as $199, have gone from a standing start two years ago to more than a quarter of the market.”

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/5cbede9c-78b0-11e4-b518-00144feabdc0.html

7) Army of Amazon robots ready to help fulfill orders on Cyber Monday

I for one welcome our robot overlords! Seriously though, “robots” in this sense are simply a continuation of the industrial revolution, which has been going uninterrupted for a couple hundred years or more. Despite the bad press, a “robot” is no more of a threat to jobs than the threshing machine was. In any event this makes for an interesting read and a cool video.

“This holiday season, Amazon’s little helper is an orange, 320-pound robot called Kiva. The robots — more than 15,000 of them companywide — are part of Amazon’s high-tech effort to get orders to customers faster. By lifting shelves of Amazon products off the ground and speedily delivering them to employee stations, the robots dramatically reduce the time it takes for workers to find items and put them into boxes for shipment.”

http://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-amazon-warehouse-cyber-monday-20141130-story.html

8) Luca Guala: Why “personal rapid transit” evolves into fixed route transit

This is a two part story with the excerpt from the second story, but it makes no sense unless you’ve read the first one. I can see the value of driverless buses, however, bus drivers are as much an authority figure as a driver on a bus. Without drivers, bus passengers would be at the mercy of whatever hooligans decide to do on the bus. Unlike, say, a train, there are plenty of avenues of easy escape on a bus. Its a good idea, if not for human nature.

“So what did I learn from all of this? That driverless cars very likely have a bright future, but cars they will always be. They may be able to go and park themselves out of harm’s way, they may be able to do more trips per day, but they will still need a 10 ft wide lane to move a flow of 3600 persons per hour. In fact, the advantage of robotic drivers in an extra-urban setting may be very interesting, but their advantages completely fade away in an urban street, where the frequent obstacles and interruptions will make robots provide a performance that will be equal, or worse than, that of a human driver, at least in terms of capacity and density.”

http://www.humantransit.org/2014/11/luca-guala-why-personal-rapid-transit-evolves-into-fixed-route-transit.html

http://www.humantransit.org/2014/11/luca-guala-driverless-buses-will-be-more-transformative-than-driverless-taxis.html

9) Google Fiber’s new gear lets you watch more shows on more TVs

It never occurred to me before that Google Fiber would require proprietary hardware in order to tap the full benefits of the service. I had figured the US giant would simply have imported whatever gear was being used in other parts of the world. Of course, from a business perspective proprietary hardware makes a great deal of sense: it would give the company considerable access to user data without the risk of having to share it.

“If gigabit internet isn’t reason enough to tempt Austinites to sign up for Google Fiber, they can chew on this: Austin Texas will be the first Fiber city to enjoy the benefits of Google’s latest in-home hardware devices. Today Google officially revealed its new Fiber router, a single unit that consolidates the existing network and storage boxes into one device. This is the same router that rolled out to Kansas City residents in Google’s beta program earlier this year — but there’s a little more going on here than mere device consolidation. It’s true, the new Network+ Google Fiber box is an amalgamation of the service’s existing router and DVR devices, but it’s also a complete internal redesign.”

http://www.engadget.com/2014/12/03/google-fibers-new-gear-lets-you-watch-more-shows-on-more-tvs/

10) Intel Upgrades Stephen Hawking’s Portal to the World

Intel has been working with Hawking for some time to maintain his ability to communicate despite his ongoing loss of ability. It is both heartwarming that Intel should do this and encouraging for others with major neurological deficiencies. The decision to open source the effort is particularly promising.

“Movie audiences who went to theaters this fall to see The Theory of Everything got a glimpse of the challenges physicist Stephen Hawking has overcome to deliver his groundbreaking insights into the nature of black holes, space and time. Tuesday the world gets a peek at how new technology will let the scientist and author continue to share his discoveries with the world as he battles the degenerative motor neuron disease that has degraded his ability to communicate over the past five decades.”

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2014/12/02/intel-upgrades-stephen-hawkings-portal-to-the-world/

11) See it, touch it, feel it

This technology is probably the sort of thing which has to be experienced to believe. Essentially it adds “touch” to the image which you might be presented through virtual reality goggles. One can easily imagine applications in training (simulators) as well as games. Of course, it would take a Sony or Nintendo to commercialize something like this.

“Technology has changed rapidly over the last few years with touch feedback, known as haptics, being used in entertainment, rehabilitation and even surgical training. New research, using ultrasound, has developed a virtual 3D haptic shape that can be seen and felt. The research paper, published in the current issue of ACM Transactions on Graphics and which will be presented at this week’s SIGGRAPH Asia 2014 conference [3-6 December], demonstrates how a method has been created to produce 3D shapes that can be felt in mid-air.”

http://www.bris.ac.uk/news/2014/december/haptic-shapes-using-ultrasound.html

12) Apple removed songs from iPods without telling customers

In an era of legal scrutiny of the efforts by large corporations to use dirty tricks to maintain market share it is rather hard to believe a company would do such a thing, however, megalomania causes people to do strange things. Time will tell whether or not this actually happened, and, if so, whether it broke the law. If it did, then it should have.

“The Wall Street Journal reports that between 2007 and 2009, Apple deleted music from users’ iPods that originated from competing digital music services. It didn’t just remove the music, instead it produced an error message that instructed users to restore their iPod when music from rival services was detected. Once the restore was complete, the music from competitors would not sync back with the iPod.”

http://thenextweb.com/apple/2014/12/04/apple-removed-songs-ipods-security-reasons-without-telling-customers/

13) Discarded Laptop Batteries Keep the Lights On

At first blush this seems like a pretty stupid idea: after all, who is going to collect and reassemble all those batteries. Nonetheless, recycling is a comparatively big business in some developing economies and why not use that to re-purpose batteries to a higher use?

“Many of the estimated 50 million lithium-ion laptop batteries discarded every year could provide electricity storage sufficient to light homes in poor countries, researchers at IBM say. In work being aired this week at a conference in San Jose, researchers at IBM Research India in Bangalore found that at least 70 percent of all discarded batteries have enough life left to power an LED light at least four hours a day for a year.”

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/532896/discarded-laptop-batteries-keep-the-lights-on/

14) DIY Exoplanet Detector

Not quite the sort of DIY the average person would be able of pulling off, but probably the sort of thing a dedicated star-watcher could do. One can imagine that many parts of the solution could become consumer grade products without too much effort, especially if accompanied by complete instructions. To think that it wasn’t even 20 years ago the first exoplanet was discovered and now an amateur can replicate one such discovery. Ain’t technology wonderful?

“Since 1995, when astronomers announced the discovery of a planet orbiting the star 51 Pegasi, exoplanets—which orbit stars other than the sun—have been a hot topic. I knew that dedicated amateurs could detect some of these exoplanets, but I thought it required expensive telescopes. Then I stumbled on the website of the KELT-North project at Ohio State University, in Columbus. The project’s astronomers find exoplanets not with a giant telescope but by combining a charge-coupled-device (CCD) detector with a Mamiya-Sekor lens originally designed for high-end cameras. That got me wondering: Might I be able to detect an exoplanet without a telescope or a research-grade CCD detector? I discovered that one amateur astronomer had already posted online about how he had detected a known exoplanet using a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera outfitted with a telephoto lens. He was able to discern the dip in the brightness of a star as an orbiting planet passed in front of it—a technique known as transit detection.”

http://spectrum.ieee.org/geek-life/hands-on/diy-exoplanet-detector

15) Adblock Plus can now prevent Facebook from telling senders you read their messages

I avoid social media as much as possible so I can’t say how profound a development this is. What I can say is that it would be pretty straightforward for Facebook to develop a counter-measure which would simply limit your access if you enable this feature. Frankly, I figure if you have trouble with Facebook spying on you then you should hang up on Facebook.

“Adblock Plus, an open-source content-filtering and ad blocking plugin for all major browsers, today announced a new feature for Facebook users: the ability to turn off read receipts. In short, you can now prevent Facebook from telling senders you saw their messages. If you already have Adblock Plus installed, all you have to do is click here and then hit “Add.” Doing so will enable the “Message ‘seen’ Remover for Facebook” filter in your Adblock Plus preferences.”

http://venturebeat.com/2014/12/02/adblock-plus-can-now-prevent-facebook-from-telling-senders-you-read-their-message/

16) Fraudulent apps stalk Apple’s App Store

This is another surprising Apple related story. The purported “protected sandbox” offered by Apple is part of the reason people pay 2 to 3x the value of their products. However, scammers are endlessly imaginative and will always find their way through. The good news is, victims in a sandbox are the most gullible victims of all: they may not even realize they are victims.

“Many people think that the sort of scams Microsoft cleared out of its mobile app store this year could never affect Apple. But how tight is Apple’s review process for the App Store? If you’re competing with Apple, it seems to be very tight, and the rules are constantly changing. But if you’re a scammer looking to make a fast buck, it appears that Apple process can be defeated. The scale of the problem became apparent in an open source project where I volunteer, the Apache OpenOffice community. For several months, the user support mailing list has been bothered with apparently random questions — some very angry — from people seeking support for an iPad app. The community has been confused by these questions, since they have nothing to do with any work at Apache; Apache OpenOffice doesn’t even have an iOS version.”

http://www.infoworld.com/article/2854754/mobile-apps/fraudulent-apps-stalk-apples-app-store.html

17) Driverless cars set to be tested in four English cities

It is going to take a lot of testing and retesting before any degree of driverlessness is permitted in the wild. Therefore, this announcement is welcome but is simple a small step in a very long journey. I continue to believe driverless cars will become mainstream, but more likely on a 20 year horizon than a 10 year one.

“The four English locations picked to test driverless cars have been named. Greenwich, in south-east London, and Bristol will each host a project of their own, while Coventry and Milton Keynes will share a third. The decision was announced by the quango Innovate UK, after George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. The chancellor also announced an additional £9m in funding for the work, adding to the £10m that had been announced in July. The businesses involved will add further funds.”

http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30316458

18) Google is killing CAPTCHA as we know it

I can’t wait for CAPTCHAs to be eliminated. I don’t think they work that well and they can frustrate the heck out of me – I can take three or four tries to “get it right” while any self respecting bot is much better. Besides, they make the web hard to use for people with disabilities and that hardly seems fair. Perhaps people should develop bots for the disabled if they haven’t already done so.

“If you’ve signed up for an account recently, you’ve probably seen it: a quick test that gives you a few distorted words and asks you to type them back in plaintext. The official name is CAPTCHA, a test designed to weed out the automated scripts used for spam, but it’s been broken for a long time. Google recently showed off a system that could crack it 99.8 percent of the time, and most spammers are happy to run their scripts knowing just one in ten will slip through. But even though everyone knows CAPTCHA is broken, there hasn’t been a clear idea of what might replace it. This morning, Google is unveiling the best answer yet. It’s called No-CAPTCHA, a new approach built on a new API, and it’s already been adopted by Snapchat, WordPress and Humble Bundle, among other partners.”

http://www.theverge.com/2014/12/3/7325925/google-is-killing-captcha-as-we-know-it

19) Atmospheric carbon dioxide used for energy storage products

When I see headlines – and articles – like this I have to wonder whether the scientists are so humiliated by what the publicity people have done to their research, or whether it is some sort of game which is played to make fun of the rubes who write this stuff. You see, the tricky bit is not where you get the carbon from. Carbon is surprisingly abundant. And cheap. You can get carbon from potatoes, or cat litter, or fast food wrappers. The tricky bit is not where you get the carbon for the nanomaterials from, but, rather, making the actual nanomaterials. Folks who figure that out will go down in history while the folks who claim some sort of advance in making a few nanograms from using atmospheric CO2 will be justly derided by their peers.

“Chemists and engineers at Oregon State University have discovered a fascinating new way to take some of the atmospheric carbon dioxide that’s causing the greenhouse effect and use it to make an advanced, high-value material for use in energy storage products. This innovation in nanotechnology won’t soak up enough carbon to solve global warming, researchers say. However, it will provide an environmentally friendly, low-cost way to make nanoporous graphene for use in “supercapacitors” – devices that can store energy and release it rapidly. Such devices are used in everything from heavy industry to consumer electronics.”

http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2014/dec/atmospheric-carbon-dioxide-used-energy-storage-products

20) World’s First Artificial Enzymes Created From Synthetic Genetic Material

The last paragraph may be the most interesting one: if you can use XNAs therapeutically, you might be able to do so with less concern over the possibility these “unnatural” genes would affect regular ones.

“Scientists have made a breakthrough in the field of synthetic biology by creating, for the first time, enzymes from artificial genetic material that does not exist in nature. This exciting new work not only offers new insights into the origins of life on Earth, but also has implications for our search for extraterrestrial life on other planets.”

http://www.iflscience.com/chemistry/first-artificial-enzymes-created-synthetic-genetic-material