The Geek’s Reading List – Week of December 26th 2014
I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.
I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 10 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.
They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!
Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!
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!
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.””
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.””
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”