The Geek’s Reading List – Week of January 30th 2015
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 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.
They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!
Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!
This has been a very slow week for tech news as much of it was dominated by caompanies such as Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon reporting financial results. There were a number of interesting articles about self driving cars and some interesting scientific developments, but no really exciting (or amusing) stories. This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
1) Germany Set to Open Up Autobahn to Self-Driving Vehicles
While Google has gotten a lot of press for its efforts developing self driving cars, such a thing must, first and foremost, be a car, and cars are not as easy to make as some would have you believe. I have complete confidence it is easier to add technology to a car than it is to make a car around technology, therefore the market will be led by automobile manufacturers and not tech companies. The Germans take their auto industry very seriously, which is a good thing to know if you have ever driven on the autobahn. Opening up a stretch of that roadway for real world testing is an important signal as to how important the industry takes the project. Note that both the road and the vehicle will be in communication, which is probably how things will go eventually.
“Prototypes of driverless cars are set to get the go-ahead on a stretch of Germany’s busy A9 autobahn. For years, the country’s car makers have been developing models with “autonomous driving” technology —passenger vehicles and trucks that can self-drive in cities and on highways without human interference. According to an internal memo, Germany’s traffic ministry hopes to create a network in which traffic jams and pollution can be reduced, while road safety will be increased. “We will start with a digitization of the test section,” a spokesman for the ministry told NBC News. “The goal is to introduce measuring points with which we will allow vehicle to vehicle and road to vehicle communication.””
2) If a Car Is Going to Self-Drive, It Might as Well Self-Park, Too
From what I have observed, the act of parking appears to be the greatest challenge faced by most drivers. It seems difficult to actually manage to position your vehicle between the lines, rather than diagonally, and, more or less centered without blocking other people’s doors. And don’t get me started about parallel parking. This solution seems a bit contrived (after all, having a map of the parking lot and all) and I rather doubt a Dick Tracy style watch to chat with your vehicle is likely to catch on. Of course, these numerous deficiencies and limitations will eventually be worked out.
“TECHNOLOGY may soon render another skill superfluous: parking a car. Sensors and software promise to free owners from parking angst, turning vehicles into robotic chauffeurs, dropping off drivers and then parking themselves, no human intervention required. BMW demonstrated such technical prowess this month with a specially equipped BMW i3 at the International CES event. At a multilevel garage of the SLS Las Vegas hotel, a BMW engineer spoke into a Samsung Gear S smartwatch.”
3) Net neutrality: CRTC bans Bell from subsidizing data usage for mobile TV app
This was such a blatant example of anticompetitive business practices I was shocked to see it continue as long as it did. Well, not so much shocked because Canadian regulators have the get up and go of a sloth with the collective competence to boot. Note how, rather than fining the companies (or, at a minimum, demanding they disgorge their ill gotten games) and demanding they immediately stop the service they regulator very kindly offered them to continue until the end of April 2015. Welcome to the Broadband Backwater of Canada.
“Canada’s telecom regulator has ruled against a billing practice by cellphone providers that exempts certain television content streamed on wireless devices from customers’ monthly data caps. The decision, which applies specifically to mobile television applications offered by Bell Mobility Inc. and Videotron Ltd., sets a new limit on how companies that own both media and communications businesses can use television and sports content to bolster their wireless or Internet divisions.”
4) James Webb Space Telescope Deployment In Detail
The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to Hubble. It has a much larger mirror, meaning it can gather much more light and have much higher resolution than Hubble. This is a comparison of the mirrors of Hubble and JWST http://i.imgur.com/MluczLu.jpg. I was very curious as to how they managed to fit such a large mirror array on a spacecraft and found this fascinating video.
“This video shows in-depth what will happen when James Webb Space Telescope deploys after launch. For more information, see this description on our website: http://jwst.nasa.gov/faq.html#howdeploy”
5) The language of T lymphocytes deciphered, the ‘Rosetta Stone’ of the immune system
An understanding of the “language” of a major part of the immune system is key to understanding immune responses as well as, potentially, developing treatments which direct the immune system in specific ways to attack disease or even limit inflammation response. In other words, this has the potential to be an important bit of research.
“The study describes a new approach that allows deciphering the language of T lymphocytes, which are cells of the immune system that protect us from pathogens and tumours. Combining methods of Next Generation Sequencing with in vitro stimulation and analysis of specific T cells, the researchers were able for the first time to establish a complete catalogue of the immune response to pathogens and vaccines. In particular, they have catalogued all the clones that respond to a particular microorganism, determining their specificity and their functional properties, for example their ability to produce inflammatory mediators (cytokines) or to migrate to different tissues.”
6) College Claims Copyright On 16th Century Michelangelo Sculpture, Blocks 3D Printing Files
I thought this story was representative of the lunacy which intellectual property law has become (I could just have easily gone with Taylor Swift’s – who is, apparently, a pop star – lawyers from trademarking English words and phrases (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/taylor-swift-trademarks-this-sick-beat-and-other-1989-phrases-20150128). Of course, all it takes is a lawyer and a defendant without the financial resources to fend off litigation. Why the bright sparks at Augustana College thought this would be a good idea is beyond me, but they must have asked a lawyer’s opinion and lawyers often give stupid advice.
“Jerry Fisher, a photographer in Sioux Falls South Dakota, was interested in 3D printing and 3D image capture. So he went and photographed two local bronze casts of Michelangelo statues, one of Moses which is on display at Augustana College and is co-owned by Augustana and the City of Sioux Falls, and another of David, which is in a local city park. He documented his efforts to take the photos and turn them into 3D printer plans. However, the folks at Augustana College demanded that he stop, arguing a bizarre mix of copyright and… “we don’t like this.” Fisher asked the city of Sioux Falls for its opinion and got back a ridiculous response …”
7) Smart Neural Stimulators Listen to the Body
This article looks at how the technology behind implanted neural stimulators is progressing, and how these devices are being used to treat a number of serious conditions. One drawback with this sort of approach is that it involves surgery, meaning only serious problems which can’t be treated by other means are likely to be treated with these systems.
“It’s an electrifying time to be in neuroscience. Using implanted devices that send pulses of electricity through the nervous system, physicians are learning how to influence the neural systems that control people’s bodies and minds. These devices give neurologists new ways to treat patients with a wide range of disorders, including epilepsy, chronic pain, depression, and Parkinson’s disease.”
8) Prosecutors Trace $13.4M in Bitcoins From the Silk Road to Ulbricht’s Laptop
I continue to look upon Bitcoin with some amusement though it doesn’t generate quite as many funny stories as it used to. In case you don’t recall Mr. Ulbricht is alleged to have run the Silk Web website which purportedly allowed drug dealers and other criminals to ply their trade using modern technology. He is also has alleged to have ordered the contract killing of at least one person, using Bitcoin no less. Funny story: it turns out that some master criminals are a little better at covering tracks than others, and his laptop apparently provided more or less a general ledger of his transactions. I am sure his criminal customer base is even more delighted than his defense team.
“If anyone still believes that bitcoin is magically anonymous internet money, the US government just offered what may be the clearest demonstration yet that it’s not. A former federal agent has shown in a courtroom that he traced hundreds of thousands of bitcoins from the Silk Road anonymous marketplace for drugs directly to the personal computer of Ross Ulbricht, the 30-year-old accused of running that contraband bazaar. In Ulbricht’s trial Thursday, former FBI special agent Ilhwan Yum described how he traced 3,760 bitcoin transactions over 12 months ending in late August 2013 from servers seized in the Silk Road investigation to Ross Ulbricht’s Samsung 700z laptop, which the FBI seized at the time of his arrest in October of that year. In all, he followed more than 700,000 bitcoins along the public ledger of bitcoin transactions, known as the blockchain, from the marketplace to what seemed to be Ulbricht’s personal wallets. Based on exchange rates at the time of each transaction, Yum calculated that the transferred coins were worth a total of $13.4 million.”
9) Stick-On Tattoo Measures Blood Sugar Without Needles
This looks like another potentially promising medical development: setting aside the discomfort associated with blood sugar measurement, this sensor could also ensure continuous (vs. discrete) monitoring, which is almost certainly better from a medical perspective. Furthermore, the system would work for people, such as children, who are unable to do their own measurements. No doubt considerable testing will be required before this thing can hit the market: after all, the consequences of a failed or inaccurate sensor could be severe.
“Diabetics often prick their fingers up to eight times a day to check their blood sugar. Researchers have long looked for a solution that provides constant monitoring without being so invasive, and researchers at the University of California San Diego have come up with a new needle-free design that could turn out to be less painful, yet just as effective, as the finger-prick method. The UCSD team printed electrodes onto standard temporary tattoo paper and paired it with a sensor. After each meal, the electrodes generate a current for about 10 minutes. The current draws the glucose—a type of sugar that diabetics have trouble breaking down—up near the skin’s surface, allowing the device to read the glucose levels. The glucose is carried by sodium ions, which have a positive charge. By measuring how strong the charge is just under the skin, the sensor estimates how much glucose is in the bloodstream.”
10) 25% of Android devices are dual-SIM, but not everywhere
It may be hard for a North American to grasp, but there are many places in the world where mobile services are a competitive market. For example, a consumer might have the choice of a dozen or so providers, some of whom specialize in certain areas (data vs. long distance for example). In some places, only one carrier operates while a completely different single carrier runs the system a few miles away. Multi-SIM (usually dual-SIM) phones offer the consumer the ability to easily switch providers by simply deciding which SIM to use to connect to the network. These are still pretty rare in North America, where unlocked phones are only now becoming more common, but we are starting to see some units in shops.
“Staying connected is a challenge, which is why our mission is to help people find the best network so that they can optimise the time they spend with a mobile signal. Many differing solutions have been suggested for improving mobile network coverage, with a recent idea in the UK being to force networks to share infrastructure in order to reduce ‘partial notspots’ (areas where there is coverage from at least one operator but not all). But what if you didn’t have to choose one network? What if you could choose two, or even more? This is one of the ideas behind multi-SIM devices (usually dual) – which allow one device to access different mobile networks by using multiple sim cards within the device. The technology to do this exists, but we had always regarded these phones as a bit exotic and therefore not a workable mass solution. In the UK and US dual SIM devices are uncommon, used by under 5% of the population and so we presumed it was about the same everywhere. We were wrong.”
11) UCI, fellow chemists find a way to unboil eggs
That’s nothing: what the world needs is a way to unscramble eggs. Actually the researchers appear to have devised a technique which cost effectively misfolded proteins and allows them to fold properly. They provide an example of cancer antibodies which are produced in hamster ovary cells in order than they are properly folded. Production with yeast or bacteria would be much cheaper, however, many of the proteins would then be incorrectly folded, making them useless. In principal, this technique would allow the volume production of proteins is cheap bio reactors, with a rapid and cost effective post production step to correctly fold them.
“Like many researchers, he has struggled to efficiently produce or recycle valuable molecular proteins that have a wide range of applications but which frequently “misfold” into structurally incorrect shapes when they are formed, rendering them useless. “It’s not so much that we’re interested in processing the eggs; that’s just demonstrating how powerful this process is,” Weiss said. “The real problem is there are lots of cases of gummy proteins that you spend way too much time scraping off your test tubes, and you want some means of recovering that material.””
12) Credit card study blows holes in anonymity
This is an example of the use of big data, and the value of metadata to everybody from marketers to spies. This is not exactly news, except, perhaps, to consumers and governments who seem to take the issue of privacy less seriously by the day. Since it seems unlikely to me that the necessary regulatory changes will emerge, more likely than not our children can look forward to being endlessly hounded by marketers armed with their personal data.
“De Montjoye’s team analyzed 3 months of credit card transactions, chronicling the spending of 1.1 million people in 10,000 shops in a single country. (The team is tightlipped about the data’s source—a “major bank,” de Montjoye says—and it has not disclosed which country.) The bank stripped away names, credit card numbers, shop addresses, and even the exact times of the transactions. All that remained were the metadata: amounts spent, shop type—restaurant, gym, or grocery store, for example—and a code representing each person. But because each individual’s spending pattern is unique, the data have a very high “unicity.” That makes them ripe for what de Montjoye calls a “correlation attack.” To reveal a person’s identity, you just need to correlate the metadata with information about the person from an outside source.”
13) Gartner Says By 2020, a Quarter Billion Connected Vehicles Will Enable New In-Vehicle Services and Automated Driving Capabilities
As usual I caution readers to take whatever Gartner or any other industry research group has to say with a cowlick of salt – their predictions are inevitably bullish and almost always wrong. Nevertheless, the Internet of Things (IoT) is real, however, I believe it to be over hyped. For the most part, IoT devices will be as cheap and as exciting as light switches (in fact one IoT application). Application of IoT and wireless technologies to automobiles makes perfect sense and Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) has tremendous potential. Of course, V2V will only have measurable benefit with a significant portion of the fleet is thus equipped, which will take at least a decade or two.
““The connected car is already a reality, and in-vehicle wireless connectivity is rapidly expanding from luxury models and premium brands, to high-volume midmarket models,” said James F. Hines, research director at Gartner. “The increased consumption and creation of digital content within the vehicle will drive the need for more sophisticated infotainment systems, creating opportunities for application processors, graphics accelerators, displays and human-machine interface technologies,” said Mr. Hines. “At the same time, new concepts of mobility and vehicle usage will lead to new business models and expansion of alternatives to car ownership, especially in urban environments.” Gartner forecasts that about one in five vehicles on the road worldwide will have some form of wireless network connection by 2020, amounting to more than 250 million connected vehicles. The proliferation of vehicle connectivity will have implications across the major functional areas of telematics, automated driving, infotainment and mobility services.”
14) COB LED market to grow from $1.5bn in 2014 to $4.4bn in 2020, driven by directional and high-lumen applications
I have to do a bit of translation here: Chip On Board (COB) LEDs are pretty much LEDs – in this case white high power LEDs – which are installed with a minimal package. Since packaging costs are significant these are cheaper, however the approach requires the designer to deal with power dissipation which is a significant factor in LED liamp design. Long story short, the reason I included the article is to show growth in demand for LEDs for general lighting, a trend we forecast many years ago. One thing to remember is that LEDs last a very long time and in the no so distant future the market will saturate and demand will go negative.
“The market for chip-on-board (COB) LEDs and multi-chip array COBs will grow significantly from $1.5bn in 2014 to $4.4bn in 2020, including 40% growth from 2014 to 2015, according to the report ‘The World Market for COB LEDs in General Lighting’ from market research firm Strategies Unlimited. Long-term growth is due mainly to the increased penetration of COBs into directional and high-lumen applications. “COBs have a better light distribution and design flexibility than other package types, which makes them more adapted to applications where you need to direct light, need a large quantity of usable lumens, or both,” comments research analyst Martin Shih.”
15) Scientists use 20 billion fps camera to film a laser in flight
This article has another very cool video, this time showing a very short pulse of light bouncing off mirrors in ultra super duper slow motion. It is pretty much what you would expect to see, but it is nontheless, cool to actually see it.
“We’ve all been spoiled by the flashy lasers in science fiction to the point that the real thing can seem a little mundane. A laser, by definition, is tightly focused and all but invisible to the human eye. However, a team of physicists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK have managed to film a laser bouncing off mirrors with a new type of high-speed camera. It looks like something out of Star Wars, but it actually happened in real life.”
16) FCC Warns Businesses WiFi Blocking is Illegal
Well surprise, surprise, surprise: interfering with radios is illegal! Actually this has been illegal for decades and you might have thought the hotel in question and whoever sold them the equipment would have known as much. Nevertheless it is always nice to see that sometimes regulators can come up with the right answer.
“Willful or malicious interference with Wi-Fi hot spots is illegal. Wi-Fi blocking violates Section 333 of the Communications Act, as amended.1 The Enforcement Bureau has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal Wi-Fi hot spots on the commercial establishment’s premises. As a result, the Bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference,” the Federal Communications Commission said in a statement issued this week.”
17) Unilever Leverages 3D Printing Injection Molds, Slashing Lead Times for Prototype Parts by 40%
Most of what we read about 3D printing revolves around the production of small volume parts or those which simply cannot be made any other way. This press release covers an angle I had not seen before, namely the production of molds using 3D printing. Molds are typically made of steel using Electric Discharge Machining (EDM) which takes a fair bit of time. Depending on the steel, the resultant mold can produce tens of thousands of parts, however, it would be nice ot know if the mold itself could be improved. This quick turnaround 3D printed mold process results in molds which probably have very short production lives, but the process can prove the design of the mold. Since metal 3D printing has been possible for some time, it is not hard to imagine that 3D printing will displace EDM just as EDM displaced traditional mold making techniques.
“Stratasys 3D printing technology, we can design and print a variety of injection molds for different parts that can undergo functional and consumer testing, all on the same day,” explains Stefano Cademartiri, R&D, CAD and Prototyping Specialist at Unilever. “Before, we would have to wait several weeks to receive prototype parts using our traditional tooling process; not only would this lengthen lead times, it would also increase costs if iterations were required. With 3D printing we’re now able to apply design iterations to the mold within a matter of hours, enabling us to produce prototype parts in final materials such as polypropylene, 40% faster than before.”
18) Exclusive: WinSun China builds world’s first 3D printed villa and tallest 3D printed apartment building
This is another 3D printing story, but a very different one. I suspect 3D printing will become a big part of the home building business, however, it is not clear that this building was, in fact, 3D printed in the time they suggested. Based on the photographs, it appears they (possibly) 3D printed sections and those prefabricated sections were assembled on site. Many industrial buildings are actually made in a similar fashion using precast concrete sections, so the only advantage here might be in design flexibility. I believe on site in situ printing of structures, in particular foundations, is likely how things will go.
“On March 29, 2014, ten 3D printed houses, each measuring 200 square meters, appeared in Shanghai, China. The buildings were created entirely out of concrete using a gigantic 3D printer, and each costs only 30,000 RMB ($4,800). Today, just ten months after the initial project, the company behind these 3D printed buildings, Shanghai WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co, made a new announcement that will take 3D printed buildings to a whole new level: they have built the highest 3D printed building, a 5-storey residential house and the world’s first 3D printed villa. The villa measures 1,100 square meters and even comes complete with internal and external decorations.”
19) What will Your House Look like in 10 Years?
It is hard to tell whether this article is serious or not: after all there is a lot of interest in futurology, which is, more or less, writing or talking about the future without having a firm grasp on the present. One might argue that the dream world/nightmare portrayed in the article is possible today, provided the consumer has the money. More realistically, such a future would imply several things, none of which are on the horizon. For example, open standards would be needed to create such an environment unless all the bits and pieces happened to come from a single vendor. Anybody who has ever tried to get a Samsung TV to talk to a Sony Blu-ray player using all the advanced features would know what the odds of that are. Another thing would be some sort of “permanent cloud” whereby all the various gizmos would continue to work even after the respective vendors have gone bankrupt or lost interest in the service. Since I can’t get software updates for an Audivox Bluetooth car radio a couple years after launch you can imagine what I figure the chance of that is.
“From the moment you wake up in the morning, the house reacts to your needs. The automated lights turn on slowly to wake you up at a scheduled time. From the comfort of your bed, you switch on your coffee machine so your morning cup is fresh and hot by the time you arrive downstairs for breakfast. You enter the bathroom and stand in front of your intelligent mirror. The mirror’s reflective surface springs to life with all the information you need to kick-start your day, including the weather and the morning’s top news. The device also plays your favorite music so you are always guaranteed to start the day in a good mood.”
20) FTC Warns of the Huge Security Risks in the Internet of Things
Setting aside the issues of open standards and cloud services (see item 19) one other challenge for IoT devices will always be security. Not so much that I am concerned a thermostat might be hacked but, as IoT applications expand, the odds of them being, in aggregate, secure seem pretty remote. Gadgets do not usually sell on the basis of how secure they are, and once they are off the shelf security rarely interests vendors. So you can look forward to a future in which you toaster can be hacked by the kid down the street, just for giggles.
“There’s danger lurking in the Internet of Things. At least, that’s the word from the Federal Trade Commission. On Tuesday, the government watchdog released a detailed report urging businesses to take some concrete steps in protecting the privacy and security of American consumers. According to the FTC, 25 billion objects are already online worldwide, gathering information using sensors and communicating with each other over the internet, and this number is growing, with consumer goods companies, auto manufacturers, healthcare providers, and so many other businesses investing in the new breed of connected devices.”