The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 27th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 27th 2015

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 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 was a slow week for tech news – Probably the most significant development was the decision by the US FCC to regulate Internet services in a limited sense as a utility and to enforce net neutrality. Ultimately this is a political decision which will pit the well monied carriers and large Internet companies (some of whom gain if there is no net neutrality) against lowly consumers and businesses. This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.

Brian Piccioni

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1) FCC votes for net neutrality, a ban on paid fast lanes, and Title II

This was, no doubt, the big tech story of the week. Certain countries, notably the US and Canada do not regulate Internet services. In a competitive market this might no be necessary, however, in North America, as in most places, there is no competition. As a consequence, carriers use their monopoly/duopoly position to maximize returns, which means higher costs and lower service. It is not coincidence that Internet service providers in Canada and the US are unusually profitable despite offering substandard service along with high prices relative to areas where regulation is in effect. A loss of Net Neutrality further restricts competition by establishing barriers against competition for Internet services since new entrants would lack the funds to pay off the carriers to carry their offering. I believe Internet services should be fully regulated as a utility such as electricity is. Unfortunately, this is not done yet: no doubt well funded lobbyists will make a sincere effort to reverse the move.

“The Federal Communications Commission today voted to enforce net neutrality rules that prevent Internet providers—including cellular carriers—from blocking or throttling traffic or giving priority to Web services in exchange for payment. The most controversial part of the FCC’s decision reclassifies fixed and mobile broadband as a telecommunications service, with providers to be regulated as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. This decision brings Internet service under the same type of regulatory regime faced by wireline telephone service and mobile voice, though the FCC is forbearing from stricter utility-style rules that it could also apply under Title II.”

http://arstechnica.com/business/2015/02/fcc-votes-for-net-neutrality-a-ban-on-paid-fast-lanes-and-title-ii/

2) Android Captures Tiny 11% Share of Global Smartphone Profit in Q4 2014

The way to make money in technology is to establish a closed, proprietary, standard. This explains the success of Apple, Microsoft, and Intel. It is not surprising that Apple earns most of the money from the smartphone market as they are the only company with significant market share to have established such a position. It is worthwhile noting that Apple’s position was gained when it was perceived as a technological leader, rather than the follower it currently is. Consumers will eventually get wise to the situation and prices (and thereby profits) will plunge. Needless to say, none of this will motivate vendors to move to Firefox, Microsoft, or some other OS vendor because those will neither be profitable nor have measurable market share.

“Global smartphone operating profit grew 31 percent annually from US$16.2 billion in Q4 2013 to US$21.2 billion in Q4 2014. Android hardware vendors combined took a record-low 11 percent global smartphone profit share, down from 29 percent one year ago. In contrast, Apple iOS captured a record-high 89 percent profit share, up from 71 percent in Q4 2013. Apple iOS continues to tighten its grip on the smartphone industry. Apple’s strategy of premium products and lean logistics is proving hugely profitable. Android’s weak profitability for its hardware partners will worry Google. If major smartphone manufacturers, like Samsung or Huawei, cannot make decent profits from the Android ecosystem, they may be tempted in the future to look at alternative platforms such as Microsoft, Tizen or Firefox.”

http://blogs.strategyanalytics.com/WSS/post/2015/02/26/Android-Captures-Tiny-11-Share-of-Global-Smartphone-Profit-in-Q4-2014.aspx

3) Kill the Wireless Contract! Buy Your Own Phone

I admit to being perplexed that so many consumers preferred to remain indentured to a mobile carrier rather than buying an unlocked phone. Most carriers will offer a discount if you “bring your own device” and you end up with significant bargaining power once you have the option of switching carriers at any time. Do not, however, pay the full shot for a phone from carrier: in Canada, for example, Rogers was charging 20% more for a “locked” Nexus 5 than what you would pay for an unlocked version directly from Google.

“I am an idiot. I signed a two-year contract to get my iPhone 6. Without much thought, I did what most Americans do every two years: I agreed to be locked in by a multibillion-dollar wireless company. With pricey contracts and confusing add-ons, they make it incredibly hard to leave, let alone take our phones with us. I deserve to walk around with “Property of Verizon” stamped on my forehead. We sign on the dotted line because we presume it will save us money on that new shiny phone and our monthly service. But here’s the thing they don’t want us to know: Neither is necessarily true anymore.”

http://www.wsj.com/articles/kill-the-wireless-contract-buy-your-own-phone-1424807865

4) Rogues Falsely Claim Copyright on YouTube Videos to Hijack Ad Dollars

Can there be no more vile crime than asserting copyright over another person’s cat video? Well, not so much crime because it is not clear they are doing anything illegal. After all, Google has no interest as to whether you or the Russian mob owns your cat video, so long as the advertising dollars keep spending. They set up an automated process for “take down” notices which essentially transfer the burden off proof to the original owner rather than the guy making the allegation. Nevertheless, this may be civil fraud and not criminal. I am surprised there hasn’t been a class action suit on the matter.

“Cat videos are all the rage on YouTube, so much so that a Russian company hijacked a recent cute clip of a feline named “Pepper” in order to steal the ad revenue. Kidnapping YouTube videos, which anecdotal evidence suggests has happened thousands of times, is as easy as it gets. A Russian company called Netcom Partners and others are taking advantage of YouTube’s copyright-control filters, known as Content ID. It’s not clear how much money the scammers are stealing from YouTube videomakers. But if you judge by the volume of complaints about the hijacking on Google’s forums, it’s likely Netcom and others are doing pretty well making money for nothing.”

http://www.wired.com/2011/11/youtube-filter-profiting/all/

5) Strong legislation that will weaken the ability of the trolls to shake down innovators is likely to pass Congress, but more should be done

One man’s patent troll is another man’s inventor. Oddly enough, in media coverage titanic corporations such as Apple (which is notorious for appropriating technology) is characterized as a victim of trolls when sued and a victim when shamelessly using patented, albeit banal, technology to limit competition. Nevertheless, most tech company managers would tell you that being shaken down by a patent troll for a few tens, or hundreds, of thousands dollars, is normal course of business nowadays so it is a problem, unless you happen to be a lawyer. Calling for the abolition of patents is absurd: the root problem is the decision to allow patents on things like software, as well as poor quality patents in general.

“There’s finally light at the end of the dark, troll-invested tunnel, and it isn’t an oncoming train. Congress is likely to pass a bill that will take money out of the pockets of innovation-sucking patent trolls (aka “nonpracticing entities”) despite opposition from lawyers, the pharmaceutical industry, and a few tech companies that hold large numbers of patents.The Innovation Act isn’t an ideal fix for the program patent system. “It’s largely a measure to reform patent litigation, but it doesn’t do enough to improve the quality of patents,” says Daniel Nazer, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which would prefer to see software patents abolished. But provisions in the proposed law, like one that will make trolls pay legal costs if their claims are rejected, will remove a good deal of the risk that smaller companies face when they decide to resist a spurious lawsuit.”

http://www.infoworld.com/article/2889194/patents/patent-trolls-are-on-the-run-but-not-vanquished-yet.html

6) After iPad initiative failure, school supe says LA can’t buy computers for all

You might recall my incredulity when this program was announced a while back. On its face, it was a dumb idea: give students expensive, fragile, first generation computing devices when you could have given them much more computing power at less than one third the cost in a cheap laptop. Not that a laptop would have been a good idea because those would have been damaged or destroyed in short order as well. Besides which, even if the program had been run at a fraction of the cost, the educational benefits would have been questionable. Something tells me a forensic audit of all concerned might be in order.

“Speaking to a group of reporters on Friday, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) superintendent Ramon C. Cortines said that the city can’t afford to buy a computer for every student. The statement comes after intense controversy over a $1.3 billion initiative launched by Cortines’ predecessor, former superintendent John Deasy, in which every student was supposed to be given an iPad loaded with content from educational publisher Pearson.”

http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2015/02/after-ipad-initiative-failure-school-supe-says-la-cant-buy-computers-for-all/

7) A New Physics Theory of Life

Its not really a theory as much as an hypothesis, and it is not necessarily the case that life in this context would be “life as we know it” as Dr. McCoy (Star Trek) might describe it. For example, the complexity of a system is bound to be related to the resources and environment of that system. It is hard to believe shining a light on sand is going to result in a long term transformation to a plant. No doubt abiogenesis obeys the laws of physics but proving it is an inherent outcome of very laws is another matter, even if the math works.

“From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.”

https://www.quantamagazine.org/20140122-a-new-physics-theory-of-life/

8) Why SSDs are obsolete

We have noted in the past that mass storage, notably Hard and Solid State Disk Drives (HDD and SSD) are deliciously primitive in the way they are used in modern computers. In summary, your modern solid state drive. They have an architectural and software legacy dating back over 30 years. This is particularly ludicrous because an SSD tries very hard to pretend it is a HDD at the cost of performance. All this is due to the nature of the operating systems, in particular Windows but including Apple and Linux. The time has come to rethink the OS’s relationship to mass storage and, perhaps, make HDDs pretend they are SSDs instead.

“SSDs were built because there are billions of SATA and SAS disk ports available. Filling some of those ports with SSDs promised to be quite profitable – a promise fulfilled in the last 5 years. But now that non-volatile memory technology – flash today, plus RRAM tomorrow – has been widely accepted, it is time to build systems that use flash directly instead of through our antique storage stacks. The various efforts to decrease latency – SATA 3, NVMe, and others – still add layers of software between our applications and our data, creating complexity and wasting CPU cycles. A recent PhD thesis got me to thinking about this.”

http://www.zdnet.com/article/why-ssds-are-obsolete/

9) The China Smartphone Market Picks Up Slightly in 2014Q4, IDC Reports

We continue to believe smartphone pricing is under pressure, a situation which will significantly impact high end vendors such as Apple. Concurrently, growth in the developing world will be mitigated by the emergence of low end Chinese vendors as well as the spreading presence of Xiaomi, a company which has managed to establish itself through adept marketing. Apple investors may wish to hedge their downside risk.

Xiaomi’s focus on selling low-cost phones with decent specifications, as well as the hype that it created through its flash sales, helped it to obtain the top position in both 2014Q4 and 2014. Apple had a jump to the second position in 2014Q4 as its iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models were only launched in China in the last quarter of the year. Huawei was ranked third in terms of smartphone shipments as it had a wide range of models in the low-end and mid-range segment that did well in 2014Q4. Lenovo finished off as the fourth in 2014Q4 with its strong focus on <US$150 phones while Samsung dropped to the fifth position in 2014Q4 as it faced immense competition from Xiaomi and the other Chinese vendors in the low to mid-end segment of the market.”

http://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prHK25437515

10) Augmented and Virtual Reality Devices to Explode from 3 Million Units in 2015 to 55 Million in 2020

I repeat my usual caveats regarding the value of industry research, in particular with respect to forecasts. Nevertheless, it seems credible to me that Head Mounted Displays, which can provide an immersive experience are cheap enough to make that they will become popular among gamers. Unfortunately, as per 3D movies, the experience is not a visually comfortable one, and this may limit game play. After all, two displays in front of your face is not reality and even though it can look pretty good for a while the human brain is not used to this sort of visual experience.

“The augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) markets are seeing much action, from new devices and new content, to existing content adapting to make use of the new medium. Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) will be the prevailing form-factor for both AR and VR devices, but AR will see varied form-factors as the technology progresses into more applications. “Among the three categories of devices defined by ABI Research—standalone, mobile-reliant, and tethered—mobile-reliant devices like the Samsung Gear VR will see the most success early, while tethered devices like the Oculus Rift and standalone devices like those manufactured by ODG for industrial applications will need more time to mature before establishing a large user base,” comments Eric Abbruzzese, Research Analyst. Virtual reality will be most popular in the gaming market, because of the high level of immersion possible in VR, as well as the high demand for interactive experiences. Augmented reality will be most successful in the enterprise market, for applications in logistics, engineering, and automotive. Applications such as education, travel, and design are served well by both AR and VR, and success depends more on specific needs than general application.”

https://www.abiresearch.com/press/augmented-and-virtual-reality-devices-to-explode-f

11) China removes top U.S. tech firms from government purchasing list

The Snowden/NSA revelations simply confirmed what could be extrapolated from the US Patriot Act, namely that large tech firms were vigorously colluding with intelligence agencies. Of course, the cat is out of the bag, and people are actually looking for evidence of such programs – and finding the. Meanwhile the large tech firms have gone past damage control mode to active theater to make it look like they actually care about privacy. This should work for friendly governments, consumers and businesses, however, unfriendly governments are, logically, looking for alternatives. This is bound to result in lesser growth than would otherwise have been the case and lead to strengthened competitors.

“China has dropped several top U.S. technology companies, including Cisco and Apple, from a list of brands that are approved for state purchases, amid a widening rift with the United States about cyberspace. The move, reported by the Reuters news agency Thursday, comes in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about a massive U.S. cyber-espionage program code-named PRISM. It also comes as China is energetically bolstering what it calls its “cyber-sovereignty.””

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/china-bars-top-us-technology-firms-from-government-list/2015/02/26/ebd4282c-bda1-11e4-9dfb-03366e719af8_story.html

12) Keeping Atherosclerosis In-Check with Novel Targeted Inflammation-Resolving Nanomedicines

Despite the dreadful reference to drones (they are not drones and have nothing to do with drones) this is an intriguing development. Most drugs circulate freely meaning diseased tissue only receives gets a dose by coincidence while healthy tissue is exposed to all the risks and side effects which come from any drug. If a delivery system such as this can specifically target diseased tissues, the dose delivered to the target area can be higher while avoiding exposure to healthy tissue. Most likely, this approach can be extended to other drugs such as chemotherapy.

“In mouse models with advanced atherosclerosis, researchers administered nanomedicines and relevant controls. Following five weeks of treatment with the nanomedicines, damage to the arteries was significantly repaired and plaque was stabilized. Specifically, researchers observed a reduction of reactive oxygen species; increase in collagen, which strengthens the fibrous cap; and reduction of the plaque necrotic core, and these changes were not observed in comparison with the free peptide or empty nanoparticles.”

http://www.newswise.com/articles/keeping-atherosclerosis-in-check-with-novel-targeted-nanomedicines

13) US regulators try to tame ‘wild west’ of DNA testing

This is probably a good thing for the industry as it will limit the number of charlatans. DNA testing is a powerful, albeit imperfect, tool, however, it the results are probabilistic, not deterministic, which confounds interpretation. It is remarkable the FDA is interested in taking action on this science based service while homeopathy, chiropractic, naturopathy, vitamin supplements, and other fraudulent practices are more or less unfettered.

“So far, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved genetic tests only for specific conditions. This includes the approval on 19 February of a test developed by 23andMe of Mountain View, California, to determine whether people carry a gene variant that could lead to their offspring developing Bloom syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by small stature and multiple health problems. With the massive number of genome-based diagnostics that are possible, the agency cannot practically continue with the painstaking approach it has taken in approving these tests. So on 20 February, the FDA is running a workshop at which scientists, doctors and regulators will discuss a strategy put forward by the agency in December that aims to allow the technology to flourish but clamp down on a ‘wild west’ atmosphere in which some companies are making unproven claims about how well the tests can predict health patterns.”

http://www.nature.com/news/us-regulators-try-to-tame-wild-west-of-dna-testing-1.16962

14) Men have hands amputated and replaced with bionic ones

This is an interesting approach for those who have lost the use of a limb but still have it: train a bionic replacement then have the useless appendage amputated. Of course, this would only work for certain types of injuries but it is impressive. Needless to say there is the risk a mechanism for repairing nerve damage might be developed which would call into question the decision to amputate. For those who refuse to install Flash, here is a link to an HTML 5 version of the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgu6ajeiwnk.

“The procedure, dubbed “bionic reconstruction”, was carried out by Oskar Aszmann at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria. The men had all suffered accidents which damaged the brachial plexus – the bundle of nerve fibres that runs from the spine to the hand. Despite attempted repairs to those nerves, the arm and hand remained paralysed. “But still there are some nerve fibres present,” 0says Aszmann. “The injury is so massive that there are only a few. This is just not enough to make the hand alive. They will never drive a hand, but they might drive a prosthetic hand.””

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27024-men-have-hands-amputated-and-replaced-with-bionic-ones.html

15) New research signals big future for quantum radar

As with anything else concerning quantum physics I only have a vague understanding of what they are talking about here. It seems they are using quantum entanglement to derive an optical signal from a microwave scan, which could lead to a completely non-invasive imagining system. In other words MRI without the enormously powerful (and expensive) magnets and there respective complications or, alternatively, CA scans without the ionizing radiation. Before dismissing this as science fiction, recall that MRI is itself a quantum imaging technique.

“A prototype quantum radar that has the potential to detect objects which are invisible to conventional systems has been developed by an international research team led by a quantum information scientist at the University of York. The new breed of radar is a hybrid system that uses quantum correlation between microwave and optical beams to detect objects of low reflectivity such as cancer cells or aircraft with a stealth capability. Because the quantum radar operates at much lower energies than conventional systems, it has the long-term potential for a range of applications in biomedicine including non-invasive NMR scans.”

http://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2015/research/quantum-radar/

16) Cable Channels Speed Up TV Shows To Cram In More Ads

I rarely watch anything that I do not record first so I rarely see advertizing. Nevertheless, you can typically notice the amount of advertizing on some channels is much greater than others because of number of times you hit the ‘skip forward’ button. There is nothing particularly novel about editing out content and adding commercials but this approach can be fully automated, meaning it will probably become more common. Ultimately this will lead to more ‘cable cutting’, however, in the interim it will make quarterly results look a bit better.

“Anyone who’s watched a syndicated TV show on basic cable is already familiar with some methods of trimming the fat off of shows — shorter opening credits, sped-up closing credits that may overlap on-screen ads or the next show — but what you may not have noticed is that some cable networks are actually speeding up shows and movies to squeeze in more commercials. This is according to the Wall Street Journal, which reports that TBS and others are using compression technology to play content back at a slightly faster clip in order to get a few more seconds of air time for ads.”

http://consumerist.com/2015/02/19/cable-channels-speed-up-tv-shows-to-cram-in-more-ads/

17) Talking drone offers aviation safety boost

I have never used a voice recognition system I didn’t want to smash so I can imaging the frustration this would cause air traffic controllers. Regardless, voice is a rather inefficient means to communicate, even if it is what humans are good at. If drones become more common, an automated or at least digitally controlled system is what would be required. Alternatively, banning drones from commercial airspace is a safer option.

“In a world first, RMIT University researchers have developed a talking drone that can converse with air traffic controllers just like a normal pilot. The development is a critical step towards the full integration of unmanned aircraft systems – or drones – into civil airspace. The project, part of a larger research initiative that aims to address safety and efficiency issues related to drones and air traffic management, is the result of a partnership between RMIT, Thales Australia and the company’s Centre for Advanced Studies in Air Traffic Management (CASIA), and UFA Inc. View and embed a video of the system in action: bit.ly/talkingdrone.”

http://phys.org/news/2015-02-drone-aviation-safety-boost.html

18) Ad Company Reportedly Utilizing Drones Across SFV As Part Of Experiment

Drones are in the news a lot lately. If you think about it, this approach is not really any different than using a drone to violate privacy by taking pictures or having Google photograph your neighborhood. Most people do not appreciate being spied upon, especially if they do not realize that they are being spied upon. I am frankly surprised nobody offers a surface to air anti-drone missile yet. After all, drones are pretty fragile and it wouldn’t take much to bring them down (a net, for instance) and a guidance system could probably be made for a couple dollars.

“An advertising company has been utilizing drones experimentally to monitor cellular and Wi-Fi signals across the San Fernando Valley, according to a new report. As CBS2’s Erica Nochlin reports, the small drones are apparently buzzing around the Valley and have reportedly been monitoring signals all month long to pinpoint the location of mobile devices and their owners, according to VentureBeat. “The idea that there are drones flying around, that’s kinda terrifying,” said one resident in reacting to this report. “Invasion. Invasion of privacy.” According to Nochlin, AdNear is the marketing company that’s responsible and says it’s only an experiment for now, but one day those drones could be used to send out location-based ads faster.”

http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2015/02/26/ad-company-reportedly-utilizing-drones-across-sfv-as-part-of-experiment/

19) The best—and worst—places to drive your electric car

The excitement over Electric Vehicles (EVs) is an intriguing phenomenon as most consumers have direct experience with the limitations of batteries: they have short lives, are expensive, and do not perform well at extreme temperatures. All this is true, regardless of the misrepresentations of company executives and their marketing shills. It is, after all, a matter of chemistry. Batteries do not function well when cold and they die an early death when hot. As is generally the case, people will figure this out, eventually. Just don’t be the guy who spends his own money to learn. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

In terms of driving range, electric cars in California and the Deep South travel the farthest, as the balmy temperatures yield the best energy efficiency and therefore longer trips before they must be plugged in again. (That’s a lucky break for Golden Staters, who also purchase the most green vehicles in the nation.) Vehicles in cold places, in contrast, have less battery capacity and thus shorter range. The average range of a Nissan Leaf on the coldest day drops from 112 km in San Francisco to less than 72 km in Minneapolis, according to the study, published online this month in Environmental Science & Technology.”

http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/02/best-and-worst-places-drive-your-electric-car

20) Toyota unveils hydrogen-powered electric car Toyota Mirai that charges in just 180 seconds

Needless to say, you fuel Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) you don’t charge them. The massive subsidies which have propelled demand for Electric Vehicles (EVs) have provided an opportunity for FCVs, which at least do not have the battery problems of EVs. The Achilles Heal of FCVs is hydrogen, which is inherently expensive to make and transport. For example, a tube-truck (a mid-sized tractor trailor) carries enough hydrogen for about 25 ‘fill-ups’ and the gas is very expensive to make on site. Nonetheless, you feed the ducks while the ducks are quacking and if governments are willing to give away money so people can pretend they are driving a Zero Emission Vehicle, so be it. The good news is EVs could become viable if and when battery technology advances while the bad news is, hydrogen isn’t going to get any easier to make or transport.

“Toyota Mirai which can travel for about 300 miles is cinched to be the first ever mass-market car that uses electrical energy extracted from compressed hydrogen. This would imply that it will exhaust fume that is actually water vapor. With the help of the hydrogen fuel cells technology, the sleek car need not long hours of charging, as it can be charged in about 180 seconds (3 minutes). The founder of Tesla Motors and the one who opened up the floodgate for electric-cars, Elon Musk, had just hurled brickbats on Toyota Mirai. Musk commented that hydrogen is not a very reliable source of energy for cars and even called the hydrogen fuel cells “extremely silly.” He said that hydrogen is too hard to store, generate and transform into fuel and this technology turn away the attention from better sources of clean energy.”

http://www.esbtrib.com/2015/02/27/6511/toyota-unveils-hydrogen-powered-electric-car-toyota-mirai-that-charges-in-just-180-seconds/

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The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 20th 2015 (corrected)

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 20th 2015

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 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 was a very slow week for tech news – News was dominated by rumors – which developed into speculation and then into “fact” Apple was going to start manufacturing cars. Why the world’s largest company, which operates a business model involving subcontracting, would want to enter a low margin, capital intensive business is probably be not asked. This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.

Brian Piccioni

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1) Apple said to be targeting car production as soon as 2020

As noted in our summary, tech news was dominated by rumors, which were breathlessly enhanced by speculation based on wild ass guessing, that Apple would be entering the car business. Frankly, I believe it would be a stupid move, but experience has show that you should never eliminate the possibility of an acquisition or business decision by a tech company simply because it makes no financial or strategic sense. This is particularly true of companies with large cash balances who generally prefer to blow the money rather than give it all to shareholders.

Apple Inc., which has been working secretly on a car, is pushing its team to begin production of an electric vehicle as early as 2020, people with knowledge of the matter said. The time-frame – auto makers typically spend five to seven years developing a car – underscores the project’s aggressive goals and could set the stage for a battle for customers with Tesla Motors Inc. and General Motors Co., both of which are targeting a 2017 release of an electric vehicle that can go more than 200 miles on a single charge and cost less than $40,000.”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/apple-laying-groundwork-for-electric-car-project-sources-say/article23111889/

2) Why Tesla’s battery for your home should terrify utilities

Does nobody understand even basic electricity? Let’s see 10 kilowatt hour battery for two days, that’s 208.3 watts per hour, roughly the load of a desktop PC, or four lights, per hour. Mind you the average US household uses almost 30 kwhr per day so maybe this is for doghouses. And all that for the low, low price of only $3,000 (http://cleantechnica.com/2014/11/03/solarcity-tesla-storage-system-cost/). Grid scale batteries have some potential if, as, and when, durability and cost are dramatically improved and that sure isn’t going to come with Lithium Ion batteries.

“SolarCity is also running a pilot project with 500 homes in California, according to the company’s director of public affairs, Will Craven. The project uses Tesla’s 10-kilowatt-hour battery packs and can power homes for about two days in the event of an outage, Craven says.

http://www.theverge.com/2015/2/13/8033691/why-teslas-battery-for-your-home-should-terrify-utilities

3) 1.2B Smartphones Sold In 2014, Led By Larger Screens And Latin America

We continue to believe that the smartphone pricing will come under considerable pressure as the market is largely saturated and the devices themselves have reached “feature saturation” meaning there is only minor incremental benefit to a new device. This should have a profound impact on growth and large companies like Samsung and Apple will no be immune. As usual, we note that industry research should be approached with due caution.

“Apple is reaping the biggest rewards right now when it comes to selling its smartphones and other devices, but the overall picture for the smartphone market in the year ahead may be a little less rosy. According to the analysts at Germany-based GfK, in 2014 there were 1.2 billion smartphones sold, up 23% on the year before and crossing the billion-unit point for the first time. But they predict sales will slow down to 14% growth in 2015, working out to total sales of 1.368 billion devices. The reason? More countries are reaching their smartphone saturation point, and so the industry is looking ever more for growth in two places: emerging markets where smartphone adoption is still at an early stage; and among consumers flocking to buying newer models with larger screens.”

http://techcrunch.com/2015/02/16/1-2b-smartphones-sold-in-2014-led-by-larger-screens-and-latin-america/

4) Russian researchers expose breakthrough U.S. spying program

One consequence of the Snowden/NSA revelations is that investigators are actually looking for malware in places in places they never would have considered otherwise. After all, previously, malware was assumed to be installed by criminals despite the best efforts of manufacturers whereas now it is clear that malware is often installed by governments with the cooperation of the large technology companies. The sad thing is that once identified, malware can frequently be used by people you did not expect to use it, including “real” criminals.

“The U.S. National Security Agency has figured out how to hide spying software deep within hard drives made by Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba and other top manufacturers, giving the agency the means to eavesdrop on the majority of the world’s computers, according to cyber researchers and former operatives. That long-sought and closely guarded ability was part of a cluster of spying programs discovered by Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based security software maker that has exposed a series of Western cyberespionage operations.”

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/02/16/us-usa-cyberspying-idUSKBN0LK1QV20150216

5) US and UK accused of hacking Sim card firm to steal codes

This is just more of the same sort of stuff we’ve been seeing for the past year or two. Western spy agencies seem hell bent on penetrating all widely used systems at the same time as their respective government lament more crudely executed hacking and cyber espionage by the Chinese. The companies involved usually act outraged when the news breaks, and pledge to make their systems more secure but that is all theater. The net result is increasingly that countries such as China and Russia are realizing that Western technology is untrustworthy and will work to displace Western suppliers to the extent they can. Furthermore, since most of the stuff in made in China, you can bet there is some reciprocation due.

“Each Sim card has an individual encryption key, installed by the chip manufacturer, that secures communications between the handset in which it inserted and mobile phone masts. This means that if anyone were to snoop on conversations or text messages, they would receive garbled, unintelligible data. That is, of course, unless those carrying out the surveillance get hold of the encryption key. With that information, they can even decrypt previously intercepted communications. However, this tactic only works for phone conversations and text messages. Communications through mobile applications such as Whatsapp, iMessage and many email services have separate encryption systems.”

http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31545050

6) Driverless car beats racing driver for first time

This is not an entirely meaningless exercise although it does not imply such a system would be immediately useful on the roads. There are two general problems with self driving cars, namely the driving and the navigating. Driving is largely technical and is dependent on navigating. Navigating isn’t just getting around it also means avoiding other cars, pedestrians, and so on. For the most part, navigating on a race track is pretty straightforward, especially if there are no other cars on the track. Nonetheless, driving at speed can be tricky and good navigation is not of much use if course corrections can’t be handled skillfully. Regardless, navigation is a more difficult problem by one or two orders of magnitude.

“To get the cars up to speed, the Stanford team have been studying drivers, even attaching electrodes to their heads to monitor brain activity in the hope of learning which neural circuits are working during difficult manouvres. And they have used the results to make a car that can drive even better than expert motorists. They predict that within the next 15 years, cars which can drive with the skill of Michael Schumacher could be driving children to school.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11410261/Driverless-car-beats-racing-driver-for-first-time.html

7) The hype over driverless cars: is it overdone?

This article covers most of the points I think are relevant when I say that these are likely 20 years into the future, not 5 or 10 years. In particular I believe roads will have to be enhanced to include navigation aids, but I do not agree that an automotive auto-pilot will be “will be orders of magnitude harder than developing a pilotless airliner”. After all, airplanes have to keep flying, meaning they can’t just slow down to a crawl or dead stop in the event of a difficult problem or system failure. Also, I believe self driving would greatly reduce congestion through much more efficient use of infrastructure and smaller vehicles.

“As Nair’s remarks made clear, we’re still a long way from having robotic chauffeurs that can reliably drive cars through any traffic scenario without the aid and oversight of a capable human being. While it may be relatively straightforward to design a car that can drive itself down a limited-access highway in good weather, programming it to navigate chaotic city or suburban streets or to make its way through a snowstorm or a downpour poses much harder challenges. Many engineers and automation experts believe it will take decades of further development to build a completely autonomous car, and some warn that it may never happen, at least not without a massive and very expensive overhaul of our road system.”

http://fortune.com/2015/02/18/the-hype-over-driverless-cars-is-it-overdone/

8) Why Are Taxpayers Subsidizing Elon Musk’s $100,000 Tesla?

Musk has pretty much mastered the art of getting money from taxpayers through various businesses and politicians seem happy to oblige for some reason. The best example I can think of is Norway where EV subsidies are such that the cost to buy a new Tesla is in line with a Honda Accord, and there are numerous other benefits in terms of various privileges, etc.. Unfortunately, other car companies want to get on the gravy train if for no other reason than manufacturing their own Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) credits and they are all tooling up for – or already selling – EVs of their own. After all, building an EV is much easier than building a normal car. Why governments should be subsidizing the production of any type of vehicle is a matter for voters to decide.

“Elon Musk, all-purpose impresario of the future, is enthusiastic about electric cars. “Eventually,” he says in the forthcoming issue of Bloomberg Markets magazine, “all cars will go electric.” As the founder and head honcho of Tesla Motors, he would say that. But he has some evidence on his side. Electric cars are culturally modish. They’re by most accounts fun and safe to drive. And their sales have been holding up lately, even as the price of oil has sunk and Tesla’s stock has had a bumpy ride. One problem: The success of electric cars generally — and of Tesla in particular — is due in no small part to a government mandate. And that mandate is distorting the auto market without clear evidence that it’s going to achieve its stated purpose.”

http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-02-17/elon-musk-s-teslas-don-t-need-a-government-subsidy

9) Your old phone could be refurbished, end up as part of 120-million strong market by 2019

I’ve bought refurbished phones in the distant past before new unlocked phoned became readily available so I knew this market existed, however, I had no idea it was as big as it is. Presumably, many of the “recycled” phones are replaced because the consumer’s contract is up and they are “eligible for an upgrade” (in other words the carrier is happy to let them pay finance the phone in exchange for being indentured for another couple years. Frankly, I’m surprised the environmentalists haven’t cottoned on this yet. Ultimately, I believe what happens is that, for example 3G phones which might be obsolete as 4G is rolled out in one country, end up in areas where 3G is being rolled out.

“In fact, the latest finding from technology research house Gartner suggest that 60% of US and German consumers admit to replacing their smartphones because they are interested in additional functionality, or they “just want” a new device. As a consequence of this, the research house says, the worldwide market for refurbished phones that are sold to end users will grow to 120 million units by 2017, with an equivalent wholesale revenue of around US$14-billion. This is up from 56-million units in 2014, with an equivalent wholesale revenue of US$7-billion.”

http://memeburn.com/2015/02/your-old-phone-could-be-refurbished-end-up-as-part-of-120-million-strong-market-by-2019/

10) FAA seeking drone rules favorable to commercial operators

For those who don’t know, drones are somewhat autonomous aircraft though mostly they are flown by remote control. Some have a degree of intelligence in that they can follow a flight path, return to home, or whatever. Drones can be as small as a sparrow or as large as a 747 but most drones with this context are relatively small hexacopters (helicopters with six blades). They are quite popular among researchers and hobbyists and you hear quite frequently of companies such as Amazon which want to do amazing and mre or less impractical things with them. Any object weighing more than a couple ounces falling from a great height has the potential to be dangerous so it was a matter of time before regulators caught up with the technology and began restricting their use. This is probably a good thing for the industry.

“The government is readying rules largely favorable to companies that want to use small drones for commercial purposes, according to a federal analysis, potentially leading to the widespread flights by unmanned aircraft performing aerial photography, crop monitoring, inspections of cell towers and bridges and other work. … The regulations would apply to drones weighing less than 55 pounds. They would improve safety by using small, lightweight unmanned aircraft instead of heavier, manned aircraft that “pose a higher level of risk,” the analysis said. It notes that between 2004 and 2012, there were 95 fatalities involving climbers working on cell and other towers.”

http://bigstory.ap.org/article/22073ebdb1be4acf9201c6529abeb566/faa-seeks-drone-rules-favorable-commercial-operators

11) Grounded, Farmers Wait On Drone Rules

This is a bit of a follow on to item 10, above and provides further examples of the sorts of applications ‘pro-sumer’ drones might be applied to. One might imagine that regulations might be relaxed for farms provided the drone’s altitude is restricted to below aircraft flightpaths and the range limited to the farmer’s property.

“Farmers see drones as a way to get a birds-eye view of their fields to find problem patches with crops. That information can allow farmers to be more precise with fertilizers and pesticides and, ultimately, save them money. But getting them in the sky without running afoul of federal regulation is proving to be a challenge. Commercial use of drones is still widely banned in the U.S., though some companies have secured exemptions. Other farmers have gone rogue, flying drones over their property without all the proper permissions, daring federal regulators to put a stop to it. But the new federal rules, once approved, are expected to usher in a new era of farm machinery.”

http://indianapublicmedia.org/eartheats/grounded-farmers-wait-drone-rules/

12) Goodbye Google: A tale of digital independence

Apparently Google reported disappointing results recently and, as a consequence, there were lots of articles about how the company has lost its way, etc.. I have been concerned with Google’s assault on privacy ever since I learned of the company, though I admit that the Snowden revelations clearly show that substantially all large tech companies collude with the secrete police, which I believe represent more of a threat to privacy than Proctor and Gamble. Nevertheless I prefer their search engine though I tend to use Duckduckgo.com more and more and I have been ‘spreading out’ my systems much as this author describes. Has Google lost its way? Well it is a large megacorporation, not a charity, so as long as it makes money it is fulfilling its mission.

“I’m not saying Google is an evil, manipulative power that wants to control the universe, but I won’t outrule it either. The point is: while I don’t have anything to hold against them, I get this scary feeling in my intestines when I think of how much they know about me. That’s why I have decided for myself that 2015 is going to be the year I’m claiming my digital independence. And I start with moving away from as many Google products as I can.”

https://medium.com/@digindipendent/goodbye-google-a-tale-of-digital-independence-6c1d65abad6d

13) Lenovo caught installing adware on new computers

Sometimes you look at decisions companies make and you ask yourself what types of drugs the ‘deciders’ were on. Lenovo, which, despite being a Chinese company, is a mainstream supplier to corporate IT departments, figured that adding “adware” (which is better characterized in this context as malware) to their laptops would be a good idea. Not only that, by the adware installed a security certificate, giving it the same security level as the operating system. Not surprisingly, this itself was cracked, giving free access to the PCs (see http://www.theverge.com/2015/2/19/8069127/superfish-password-certificate-cracked-lenovo). Well done, Lenovo executives – now put away the crack pipe.

“… Other users are reporting that the adware actually installs its own self-signed certificate authority which effectively allows the software to snoop on secure connections, like banking websites as pictured in action below. This is a malicious technique commonly known as a man-in-the middle attack, where the certificate allows the software to decrypt secure requests, yet Lenovo appears to be shipping this software with some of its products out of the box. If this is true — we’ve only seen screenshots so far — Superfish could be far more dangerous than just inserting advertising.”

https://www.thenextweb.com/insider/2015/02/19/lenovo-caught-installing-adware-new-computers/

14) Military May Soon be Able to Copy & 3D Print Exact Replicas of Bones & Limbs For Injured Soldiers

The US military and its related programs provide massive subsides to the technology sector through various development programs. Some of those programs end up being very positive for the US economy, which goes to show that socialism works, some times. This is an intriguing idea: do whole body scans of people so you can 3D print replacement parts as necessary. Of course, an even better idea might be to not send people to places where they might end up losing those body parts that is just plain silly. The idea is workable in a civilian context where you might imagine that people might want to keep their blueprint on file, provided prices get low enough. As for the military, well, having a replacement femur when you are missing most of the rest of the leg is probably of small benefit.

“The idea is to image someone when they are in a healthy state so that the data is available if it’s needed at a later point,” explained Mah. “We have soldiers who get injured. They lose limbs and other tissues and it’s a challenge to reconstruct them in the field. but if they are imaged beforehand, you can send that over the internet and have a 3D printer in the field to produce the bone,”

http://3dprint.com/44793/copy-and-3d-print-bones/

15) Revolutionary new probe extends survival times for brain cancer patients

One of the challenges of brain surgery is that brain tissue is pretty homogenous to it can be hard to figure out what to cut and what to leave. This is a particular challenge with tumors because if you cut too much you kill or disable the patient and if you cut too little the tumor grows back. This probe allows surgeons to detect the diseased tissue and ensure they only cut out what they have to and cut out all of what they have to. Very impressive. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“Brain cancer patients may live longer thanks to a new cancer-detection method developed by researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital – The Neuro – at McGill University and the MUHC, and Polytechnique Montréal. The collaborative team has created a powerful new intraoperative probe for detecting cancer cells. The hand-held Raman spectroscopy probe enables surgeons, for the first time, to accurately detect virtually all invasive brain cancer cells in real time during surgery. The probe is superior to existing technology and could set a new standard for successful brain cancer surgery.”

http://publications.mcgill.ca/reporter/2015/02/revolutionary-new-probe-extends-survival-times-for-brain-cancer-patients/

16) Stopping HIV with an artificial protein

This is another impressive medical advance, although, since it has only been tested in a small number of monkeys it is still pretty much untested. The idea is to infect people with a genetically modified virus which produces a designed molecule which frustrated the infection mechanism of the HIV virus. Since the virus cannot replicate it would essentially cure the disease. If this works a similar approach could be developed for other serious conditions as well.

“In test-tube experiments, eCD4-Ig outperformed all known natural HIV antibodies at stopping the virus from infecting cells, Farzan’s team reports in this week’s issue of Nature. To test how it works in animals, they then put a gene for eCD4-Ig into a harmless virus and infected four monkeys; the virus forces the monkey’s cells to mass produce the construct. When they “challenged” these monkeys and four controls with successively higher doses of an AIDS virus for up to 34 weeks, none of the animals that received eCD4-Ig became infected, whereas all of the untreated ones did.”

http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2015/02/stopping-hiv-artificial-protein

17) High-tech contact lenses zoom with a wink of an eye

There were quite a few optics related stories this week. Although this is in the research stage of development, it has potential for those suffering from poor or deteriorating vision. The idea is to magnify (on demand) and allow the visually impaired to use their limited vision to see details as needed. Then they could remove the magnification and see a wider field of view as appropriate.

“The wearer winks with the right eye to activate the telescope, and with the left eye to deactivate it. “We think these lenses hold a lot of promise for low vision and age-related macular degeneration,” a vision disorder that affects older people, Tremblay said. “At this point this is still research, but we are hopeful it will eventually become a real option for people with AMD.” The device magnifies objects 2.8 times, meaning AMD patients can read more easily and better recognize faces and objects with its help.

http://www.france24.com/en/20150214-high-tech-contact-lenses-zoom-with-wink-eye/

18) Perfect colors, captured with one ultra-thin lens

This is another optics related article and kind of ties in to item 17. After all, a very thin lens is probably a better contact lens than a somewhat thicker one. Its a bit hard to understand but traditional lenses also work as prisms, meaning colours focus onto different planes. Better optical design makes an effort to correct this, however, that adds cost, weight, and complexity, especially if the lens has a large diameter and/or ‘zooms’. This technology uses very fine patterns on the glass surface to make a very flat, lightweight lens which does not have chromatic (colour) distortion. If this approach can be perfected and applied generally, it would have a disruptive effect on most systems which use lenses.

“Most lenses are, by definition, curved. After all, they are named for their resemblance to lentils, and a glass lens made flat is just a window with no special powers. But a new type of lens created at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) turns conventional optics on its head. A major leap forward from a prototype device demonstrated in 2012, it is an ultra-thin, completely flat optical component made of a glass substrate and tiny, light-concentrating silicon antennas. Light shining on it bends instantaneously, rather than gradually, while passing through. The bending effects can be designed in advance, by an algorithm, and fine-tuned to fit almost any purpose.”

http://www.seas.harvard.edu/news/2015/02/perfect-colors-captured-with-one-ultra-thin-lens

19) Optics: Supervision

And this make the third optics related story, although this is unlike the other two. I once followed a company called ART Advanced Research which tried to make a medical imaging system using short pulses of laser light. The results were impressive bu the company ran out of money before it was able to commercialize the product. This uses a similar but different approach: rather than using a ‘streak camera’ and complex math to reconstruct the path of the photon they use a type of adaptive optics which I do not understand. This probably has great potential, however, as ART discovered, lab results do not always translate promptly into a clinically useful imaging system.

“It seemed too good to be true, says Allard Mosk. It was 2007, and he was working with Ivo Vellekoop, a student in his group at the University of Twente in Enschede, the Netherlands, to shine a beam of visible light through a ‘solid wall’ — a glass slide covered with white paint — and then focus it on the other side. They did not have a particular application in mind. “I really just wanted to try this because it had never been done before,” Mosk says. And in truth, the two researchers did not expect to pick up much more than a faint blur. But as it turned out, their very first attempt1 produced a sharp pinprick of light a hundred times brighter than they had hoped for. “This just doesn’t happen on the first day of your experiment,” exclaims Mosk. “We thought we’d made a mistake and there must be a hole in our slide letting the light through!””

http://www.nature.com/news/optics-super-vision-1.16877

20) Raspberry Pi is UK’s best selling computer

The Raspberry Pi is essentially a mobile ARM computer based System on a Chip assembled only a PCB. It has become a ‘go to’ produce for ‘Makers’ of all sorts and has been applied to 3D printers, drones, and thousands of other projects. As a long time hardware guy myself I find its success heartwarming.

“The humble Raspberry Pi has become the biggest selling UK computer, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has announced. The stripped-back microcomputer designed for education has now sold five million units in the three years since its inception. In an era in which computers in the traditional sense of the word have seen declining sales in a market diluted by mobile devices, the success of the tiny Pi is remarkable.”

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-02/18/raspberry-pi-5-million

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The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 13th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 13th 2015

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 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 was a very slow week for tech news – indeed it was a struggle to find enough articles this week, let alone find good ones. There was no theme and really nothing of significance happened in technology. Nonetheless, we managed to find a number of articles covering batteries, smartphone market share, science, and medicine. This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.

Brian Piccioni

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1) Why We Don’t Have Battery Breakthroughs

This is more or less a book review, however, it would seem to me that investors interested in the space would do well buy studying spectacular flame outs like Envia and A123. One caveat would be to treat the comments about cost improvements to the Tesla battery pack with a very large grain of salt, in particular because people are prone to extrapolate from this. The real mystery regarding battery breakthroughs is how many get vast amounts of funding despite a history of failure in the industry. It would be far more reasonable to throw large amounts of money scaling up production of a technology only after it has been proven, not while there are a few (inevitably fatal) details to work out.

“LeVine describes what went wrong. In 2006 Envia had licensed a promising material developed by researchers at Argonne National Laboratory. Subsequently, a major problem was discovered. The problem—which one battery company executive called a “doom factor”—was that over time, the voltage at which the battery operated changed in ways that made it unusable. Argonne researchers investigated the problem and found no ready answer. They didn’t understand the basic chemistry and physics of the material well enough to grasp precisely what was going wrong, let alone fix it, LeVine writes.”

http://www.technologyreview.com/review/534866/why-we-dont-have-battery-breakthroughs/

2) 4Q 2014 Smartphone OS Results: Android Smartphone Shipments Fall for the First Time

This article caused some degree of hysteria in Apple fanboz ranks, including such deep thinking as this article from Business Insider (Apple is now an existential threat to Android http://www.businessinsider.com/apple-is-an-existential-threat-to-android-2015-2). As a general rule, I suggest that extrapolation from a single data point is unwise, especially when that single data point refers to a single point in time and is obtained from industry research, which is in general utterly unreliable. Furthermore, Apple release iPhone 6 in the period and the accompanying boost in sales is more or less predictable. Apple’s strategy thus far has been to offer a premium priced product but the market is headed steadily down in price. Thus company has been fortunate in that, despite becoming an industry follower, its customer base places a high value on the brand and seem reticent to migrate to other platforms. Time will tell if this is a sustainable position.

“ABI Research reports that certified Android smartphone shipments fell quarter-on-quarter for the first time in 4Q 2014. In what is traditionally a shipment spike quarter, certified Android shipments fell from 217 million in 3Q 2014 to 206 million in 4Q 2014, mainly due to Apple iOS’ 90% growth from 39.3 million to 74.5 million iPhones shipped, but also due to forked Android. “Google’s Android is being attacked by Apple’s iOS at the high end and forked Android and AOSP at the low end in high growth emerging markets. The Android One initiative has slowed forked Android and AOSP growth outside China, but Apple’s success has taken the high end of the market away from certified Android’s premium tier vendors,” said Nick Spencer, Senior Practice Director, Mobile Devices, ABI Research.”

https://www.abiresearch.com/press/4q-2014-smartphone-os-results-android-smartphone-s

3) Interstellar Travel Not Possible Before 2200AD, Suggests Study

All of my grandparents were born in an era when heavier than air flight was impossible and yet they watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Of course, interstellar travel is not trivial: besides the challenges imposed by distance and relativity, you have to deal with things like hitting a speck of dust at relativistic speeds (the kinetic energy released is similar to a small atomic bomb). Perhaps humanity will remain forever tethered to our solar system, however, as the pace of scientific progress continues to accelerate, these sorts of predictions are best not taken seriously.

“The big problem, of course, is distance. In the past, scientists have studied various factors that limit our ability to traverse the required lightyears. One is the speed necessary to travel that far, another is the cost of such a trip. By looking at the rate at which our top speed and financial clout are increasing, and then extrapolating into the future, it’s possible to predict when such missions might be possible. The depressing answer in every study so far is that interstellar travel is centuries away. Today, Millis takes a different approach. He looks at the energy budget of interstellar missions. By looking at the rate at which humanity is increasing the energy it has available and extrapolating into the future, Millis is able to estimate when we will have enough to get to the stars.”

http://www.technologyreview.com/view/422320/interstellar-travel-not-possible-before-2200ad-suggests-study/

4) HBI researchers find new therapy dramatically benefits stroke patientsNew therapy improves end results for stroke patients

Incredibly, this finding only got a minute or so of coverage on the news. Unfortunately, the article leaves out a few details such as the difficulty in doing the procedure – it is probably similar to coronary stent placement, which is routine. The dramatic improvement in outcome and reduction in mortality is very encouraging.

“Overall, positive outcomes for patients increased from 30 per cent to 55 per cent. In many cases, instead of suffering major neurological disability, patients went home to resume their lives. The overall mortality rate was reduced from two in 10 patients for standard treatment of care to one in 10 patients – a 50 per cent reduction with ET. “This is the most significant and fundamental change in acute ischemic stroke treatment in the last 20 years. These results will impact stroke care around the world,” says Dr. Michael Hill, the senior author of the study, professor in the Cumming School of Medicine’s departments of clinical neurosciences, and radiology and a neurologist with the Calgary Stroke Program of Alberta Health Services (AHS).”

http://www.hbi.ucalgary.ca/news/hbi-researchers-find-new-therapy-dramatically-benefits-stroke-patients

5) Rapid and Unexpected Weight Gain After Fecal Transplant

Obesity is generally characterized as a moral failing, or ascribed to industrial food production and a sedentary lifestyle. While calories in/calories out is clearly very important, there have been suggestions intestinal bacteria may play a role. This is only a single case, however, the findings seem to align with mouse studies (http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/37367/title/Obesity-via-Microbe-Transplants/). If you think about it, causing obesity might be in the best evolutionary interest of a bacteria as it could result in a more suitable environment and a larger population of bugs. One can imagine an experiment where various bacteria are introduced to mice with a view to determining which strains, if any, might be responsible for obesity. Doctors could administer a “shock treatment” to wipe the system clean and reset it with a more appropriate ecosystem.

“Fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) is a promising treatment for relapsing C. difficile infections, a common cause of antibiotic-related diarrhea that in severe cases may be life-threatening. The case suggests that clinicians should avoid selecting stool donors who are overweight. The report also raises questions about the role of gut bacteria in metabolism and health. At the time of the woman’s fecal transplant in 2011, her weight was stable at 136 pounds, and her Body Mass Index (BMI) was 26. Then 32 years old, she had always been of normal weight. The transplant used donor stool from the woman’s overweight but otherwise healthy teenage daughter, administered via colonoscopy, to restore a healthy balance of bacteria in the woman’s gut, curing her C. difficile infection.”

http://www.idsociety.org/FMT_Weight_Gain/

6) ‘Virtual virus’ unfolds the flu on a CPU

Protein folding and the assembly of biomolecules is a very, very, hard problem from a computational perspective. The interactions between various atoms is such that there are a near infinite number of potential solutions even though the process is deterministic (thermodynamics means a protein will always fold a certain way in a certain environment). Massive computer clusters and game algorithms have been used to arrive at answers such as these, however, the real solution probably lies in quantum computing. After all, folding is a quantum level problem.

“By combining experimental data from X-ray crystallography, NMR spectroscopy, cryoelectron microscopy and lipidomics (the study of cellular lipid networks), researchers at the University of Oxford have built a complete model of the outer envelope of an influenza A virion for the first time. The approach, known as a coarse-grained molecular dynamics simulation, has allowed them to generate trajectories at different temperatures and lipid compositions — revealing various characteristics about the membrane components that may help scientists better understand how the virus survives in the wild or find new ways to combat it.”

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150208152758.htm

7) Mysterious Galaxy X Found Finally? Dark Matter Hunters Would Like To Believe So

We like to think physicists have everything sorted out, and they do, but the niggling detail that 95% of the universe is made up of dark energy and dark matter (http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-is-dark-energy/) which they have absolutely no explanation for and which do not fit into any of their models. Of course, this doesn’t really invalid what they know, but until some explanation, the assumptions made in, for example item 3 regarding space travel may remain uncertain. One promising development is the fact they they have been able to crudely image the stuff by taking account its gravitational influence. Unfortunately, as an emerging field most dark matter experimental results have been brought into question. It is intriguing to consider this one might be real.

“Astronomers have long suspected strange ripples in hydrogen gas in the disk of our Milky Way galaxy are caused by the gravity of an unseen dwarf galaxy dominated by dark matter — and now they think they’ve found this “Galaxy X.” The prediction of an invisible dark matter dwarf galaxy orbiting our Milky Way, made in 2009, may have had its “observational confirmation,” say researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.”

http://www.techtimes.com/articles/31643/20150208/mysterious-galaxy-x-found-finally-dark-matter-hunters-would-like-to-believe-so.htm

8) Smart TVs Are a Great Idea. Too Bad TV Makers Are Ruining Them

The consumer electronics industry prospered mightily during the transition to HDTV, investing large amounts of money in ever larger plants to built flat screen TVs which now mostly sell at well below $1,000. It is understandable they would want to transform their businesses into something other than what it is, namely a capital intensive business with large volumes but low margins. There has been a lot of excitement over smart TVs this week (see item 9) because, while they might be spying on you they are also sometimes foisting advertising on you. The spying may be blocked by government as most governments have privacy laws preventing anybody but the secret police from spying on you. There is the possibility the ads will stay for the same reason people continue to see Internet ads: they don’t know how to turn it off.

“There’s no reason smart TVs can’t be great. But they’re not great right now. You shouldn’t buy one. It’s all because TV manufacturers looked at that screen in the center of your house, where you spend hours a day, and saw only dollar signs. So they cynically turned “Smart TV” into a platform for unwelcome data collection and intrusive, inappropriate advertising. Somewhere in there, they also forgot to actually make something we’d want to use. They’re not giving users a reason to upgrade. They’re actually making me miss the 32-inch Polaroid TV my family bought for $1,000 a decade ago—sure, sometimes it makes a screeching noise and I have to restart it, but at least it’s not interrupting my movie to show a Pepsi ad.”

http://www.wired.com/?p=1729463&preview_id=1729463

9) It’s not just your TV listening in to your conversation

Somebody actually read through Samung’s smart TV disclaimer and discovered the company essentially reserved the right to listen in on conversations and do pretty much whatever it wanted with the data. As this article points out, this is all part of a larger trend which is, purportedly, due to the increased use of voice recognition (VR) technology. Frankly, I have found VR to be utterly useless as it immediately devolves into me swearing at the device (resulting in further misinterpretation). Of course we should have no privacy fears from mega corporations like Apple, Google, or Samsung, history to the contrary, however, since most consumer electronics are manufactured in China by companies with ties to the Red Army, the truly paranoid might wonder if that is something to worry about.

“But, in recent years, voice recognition systems have changed. To deal with the limited processing power present in smartphones (and TVs), and to increase voice recognition accuracy, many voice recognition systems now record what you have said. They then upload this to a server in the cloud for analysis, before returning the result to your smartphone for action. Those with an iPhone will have noticed this due to the fact that Siri cannot take your commands when you are not on the internet, even if the request is a local one (like setting a timer). While this does increase accuracy and saves your phone’s processor, it also means that any request you make is being sent over the cloud, possibly to a third party organisation. Combined with the ability of devices to listen all the time, this may cause some people to worry that the machines are keeping track of everything we say.”

http://phys.org/news/2015-02-tv-conversation.html

10) Five technologies that betrayed Silk Road’s anonymity

The Silk Road drug dealer website was brought down by the FBI and its operator has been found guilty for running it. That may be the least of his problems as he is also alleged to have tried to arrange contract killings of several people and that trial is pending. One generally thinks of computer criminals as masterminds, but as this article suggests, they may be very good at being drug dealers but not so much at being computer geniuses. The one exception I would make would be to the folks who run bitcoin sites since they appear to be pretty adept at getting away with “stealing” hundreds of millions worth of bitcoin and converting that into cash money. I put stealing in quotes because it is not clear that taking peoples’ bitcoin is even a crime.

“Pro tip for any would-be online drug kingpins: Don’t post vacation pictures on Facebook. Ross Ulbricht was convicted in a Manhattan federal court last week for his role operating the Silk Road online marketplace. He could serve 30 years or more behind bars. The market Ulbricht built was based on an expectation of anonymity: Silk Road servers operated within an anonymous Tor network. Transactions between buyers and sellers were conducted in bitcoin. Everything was supposedly untraceable. Yet prosecutors presented a wealth of digital evidence to convince the jury that Ulbricht was Dread Pirate Roberts, the handle used by the chief operator of the site.”

http://www.itworld.com/article/2881775/four-technologies-that-betrayed-silk-roads-anonymity.html

11) This is how App Store rankings are manipulated

One thing about the Internet is that if there is a ranking or rating system, somebody will figure out a way to game it. Heck if you can game the NY Times bestseller list (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers/evangelical-authors-buy-their-way-onto-new-york-times-bestseller-list-giving-poorer-authors-the-moral-highground/) with the help of “marketing” companies, why would a virtual store be any different? What I have discovered is that it is best to completely ignore positive comments (which may or may not have been bought and paid for) but focus on the negative ones, which are more likely, but not certainly, real.

“In past years Apple has said it’s cracking down on the manipulation of App Store rankings through bot programs, but a recent image from Chinese social media site Weibo suggests the trade is alive and well using actual iPhones. The photo is captioned “hardworking App Store ranking manipulation employee,” and shows a young woman sat in front of a bank of around 50 iPhone 5Cs, all hooked up with a nest of cables. There’s an identical bank of iPhones on her right and what looks like two more smartphone-laden desks facing away from her on the other side of the room.”

http://www.theverge.com/2015/2/12/8024861/top-10-app-store-manipulation-photo

12) iPhone 6 Plus Owners Use Twice as Much Data as iPhone 6 Owners

It seems reasonable that larger screens lead to more data usage, especially since video, which is a data pig, is more compelling from a larger screen. Unfortunately neither the article nor the Citrix report bother to compare data usage between iPhones and Android devices with similar sized screens and in similar markets. In other words, is it an iPhone 6 Plus phenomenon or the fact that Apple users finally seen why big screen Android phones have been popular for years and are catching up? The PDF contains a number of interesting facts, figures, and infographics you might also be interested in.

“There’s a new mobile analytics report out from Citrix [PDF] and it’s filled with interesting data on mobile usage, including a tidbit that suggests iPhone 6 Plus owners use far more data than other iPhone owners. People who own the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus consume twice as much data as people who own the smaller 4.7-inch iPhone 6, and iPhone 6 Plus data usage is 10 times higher than data usage on the 3.5-inch iPhone 3GS. That last statistic isn’t surprising — along with a small screen, the iPhone 3GS is much slower with hardware that’s almost six years old.”

http://www.macrumors.com/2015/02/11/iphone-6-plus-data-usage/

13) Xiaomi’s plan to take over the world: One handset, tablet at a time

Xiaomi is a rapidly expanding Chinese company which is starting to look like a Chinese version of Apple. Not because they seem to like knocking off Apple features (many of which are copied from other vendors anyway) but because they have a growing fanboy customer base keen on everything Xiaomi. The company’s success in the developing world may blunt efforts by all smartphone companies to continue growing, however, the real damage might come if and when they enter major markets in the developed world. This announcement implies as much, however, it appears they will not actually be selling mobile devices, possibly because of intellectual property concerns.

“Top Xiaomi executives announced plans to enter the American market this year, minus handsets—at least for now. “We intend to launch mi.com in the US in a few months,” Hugo Barra, a Xiaomi vice president, told reporters at a press event on Thursday. Mi.com is the Chinese startup’s answer to Amazon—a one-stop online shop currently only available in China where users can buy a vast assortment of consumer electronics under the Xiaomi brand. The company, previously known for making smartphones and tablets in China (and for frequently copying Apple’s designs), clearly wants to build a dominating ecosystem to sell products and services.”

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2015/02/xiaomis-plan-to-take-over-the-world-one-handset-tablet-at-a-time/

14) 5 Years to 5G: Enabling Rapid 5G System Development

This is a highly technical article and the last page more or less focuses on the solutions offered by the employer of one of the authors. It goes over the technical details at a high level and notes that the specification hopes to include low-speed, power efficient, communications for Internet of Things (IoT). Although I believe the overwhelming majority of IoT applications will use something like WiFi to operate, there is probably some need for such a system for applications outside the home or factory. Regardless, 5G will probably be standard for mobile devices within 10 years, provided they can work out the technical challenges.

“The goal of 5G is to provide a 1,000x increase in capacity, supporting 100+ billion connections with data rates up to 10Gbps and less than 1ms latency. However, these new networks will not just support the fastest links and fattest data pipes; they also aim to improve upon the capabilities of current networks. For example, today’s wireless networks lack support for the low data rates and long battery life required for M2M (machine-to-machine) and sensor-type technologies. Developing 5G networks that meet these goals will require a combination of existing systems such as LTE-Advanced and WiFi, combined with revolutionary technologies designed to support new uses such as the Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality, immersive gaming, and UHD (ultra-high-definition) streaming video.”

http://www.eetimes.com/author.asp?section_id=36&doc_id=1325670

15) Tablet magazine starts charging commenters

I was outraged when I saw the headline, but then I read the article and it makes much more sense. Any online forum is subject to comments ranging from spam (www.thegeeksreadinglist.com gets hundreds a week) to hate speech to entirely off-topic rants. Frankly, the comment section of most media look sound like an insane asylum where snakes have been let loose. As a result, many outlets have just stopped allowing comments while Tablet has come up with a relatively novel approach: by adding a small charge they discourage nonsense. Unfortunately, the net result will probably be the complete elimination of comments, but such is the way things are going anyways.

“The value of comments sections has been a hot topic over the past few months, with news outlets like The Chicago Sun-Times, Popular Science, Reuters, Re/code, Mic, The Week and Bloomberg switching off readers’ comments. Moderating such forums is expensive for companies with limited resources, and a lot of reader conversations have moved to social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. Comments sections can also, notoriously, devolve into exchanges of personal attacks and squabbles about subjects only tangential related to the posts they sit beneath. On the other hand, some critics argue that the movement away from comments jeopardizes news organization’s ability to engage with readers and analyze their preferences.”

http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/media/2015/02/8561887/emtabletem-magazine-starts-charging-commenters

16) Cars Without Drivers? Not Likely, Study Finds

I haven’t had the time to review the IBM study (http://www-935.ibm.com/services/us/gbs/thoughtleadership/auto2025/), however the headline does not appear to reflect the content. After all, 2025 is only 10 years away and, media (and Tesla) hype to the contrary, we are more than 10 years away from the sort of technology and infrastructure you need for a driverless car. Therefore it is not surprising that only 8% of respondents thought that fully autonomous vehicles would be commonplace by then. These were probably HR executives – I would be worried if a measurable number of auto industry experts thought otherwise. In contrast, semi-autonomous systems such as emergency braking and avoidance, land change assist, etc., are bound to be standard features by then. I continue to maintain that self-driving cars will not be a significant portion of the global fleet until around 2035 and that will precipitate another industrial revolution.

“The report, however, found considerable skepticism about fully autonomous vehicles, where no driver is required, yet the vehicle is integrated into normal driving patterns. Only 8 percent of executives see fully autonomous vehicles becoming commonplace by 2025. And only 19 percent believe that a fully automated environment — where the driving system handles all situations without monitoring, and the driver is allowed to pursue tasks not related to driving — will be routine by 2025. However, 87 percent of the survey’s participants felt that partially automated driving, such as an expansion of today’s self-parking or lane change assist technologies, would be common. Moreover, 55 percent said that highly automated driving, where the system recognizes its limitations and calls for the driver to take control, if needed, while allowing the driver to perform some non-driving tasks in the meantime, would also be adapted by 2025.”

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ibm/2015/02/09/cars-without-drivers-not-likely-study-finds/

17) Self-Driving Vehicles Could Cut Car Ownership Nearly in Half, Report Finds

The idea here is that, for example, somebody could drive to the train station and have their car drive itself home so their spouse can use it. This might reduce the number of cars owned per family, but it could equally result in significantly more miles being driven. After all, if your vehicle can go drop of or pick up your kids without your intervention, perhaps you are more likely to let it do so. What I envisage is a much larger number of much smaller vehicles, some of which would be exclusively for transport of goods and which may even lack seats for people.

“In the not-too-distant future, the typical picture of a big American household in the suburbs might include just one car in the driveway: A new report finds that self-driving cars have the potential to cut U.S. car ownership nearly in half. Today, most households in the United States have multiple cars that aren’t always being put to use at the same time. But a self-driving car wouldn’t have to languish in its parking spot. Instead, it could drop someone off at work, and then head back home to shuttle other family members back and forth between errands.”

http://www.livescience.com/49767-self-driving-vehicles-car-ownership.html

18) This Incredible Hospital Robot Is Saving Lives. Also, I Hate It

These sorts of little self-piloting robots have been in use for some time in offices delivering mail and in factories moving stuff around. In fact any institution which pays people to move stuff around could probably use such a thing as they can be made entirely safe. The real question, of course, is the cost: robots are not cheap (I imagine hospital robots are relatively expensive) so the question of return on investment compared to hiring someone. Nevertheless the maker community and robotics engineering in general has been moving at quite a pace and it is easy to believe a robot/human cost crossover point for routine delivery is not that far away. Why this concerns people is beyond me: we no longer employ farmhands to scythe hay either.

“The robot, I’m told, is on its way. Any minute now you’ll see it. We can track them, you know. There’s quite a few of them, so it’s only a matter of time. Any minute now. Ah, and here it is. Far down the hospital hall, double doors part to reveal the automaton. There’s no dramatic fog or lighting—which I jot down as “disappointing”—only a white, rectangular machine about four feet tall. It waits for the doors to fully part, then cautiously begins to roll toward us, going about as fast as a casual walk, emitting a soft beep every so often to let the humans around it know it’s on a very important quest. It’s not traveling on a track. It’s unleashed. It’s free.”

http://www.wired.com/2015/02/incredible-hospital-robot-saving-lives-also-hate/

19) Tesla to make battery for in-home use, production to begin in 6 months

Tesla delivered less than pleasing results the other day and investors showed a brief period of lucidity, leading to a modest sell off in the company’s shares. I even saw an article which looked at the balance sheet and chronic cash burn – a crisis which will almost certainly be solved by issuing even more shares instead of running a profit. This is, after all, New Economy 2.0. One of the more humorous stories to come out this past week is Tesla’s plan to sell a “home use” battery. I saw this characterized as a new invention as if Uninteruptible Power Supplies do not exist. While the prospect of having a large, explosively flammable lithium ion battery pack in my house does not have as much allure as you might expect, I suspect the major problem will be cost and short life: a problem which afflicts all large scale battery solutions.

“Electric-car maker Tesla is getting into the home-battery business, the company confirmed during an earnings call Wednesday. Speaking to investors, Tesla Chief Technology Officer JB Straubel said his company plans to unveil consumer batteries that will power a person’s home or business “fairly soon.” He went on to say that it’s possible the product could be unveiled “in the next month or two” and that production on the batteries will begin in approximately six months. Tesla declined to elaborate on Straubel’s remarks.”

http://www.cnet.com/news/tesla-to-make-battery-for-in-home-use-production-to-begin-in-6-months/

20) End Of An Era: File Sharing Mammoth RapidShare Is Shutting Down

This is yet another object lesson as to why you have to plan your use of cloud service, in particular cloud storage, very carefully. If you had the copious misfortune of having a lot of data stored on RapidShare, chances are you are pretty much screwed because you won’t be able to download it all before the lights go out. Ultimately, the pricing of all cloud services will mover towards the cost of the hardware, the site, and the electricity to run it. Since hardware costs keep going down, you are always at a cost disadvantage relative to the most recent entrant. Of course, near term, this might be a growth market, but be warned: do not be surprised if your cloud storage provider pulls the plug eventually. Always keep a local backup.

“Online file sharing site RapidShare is going away come March 31st 2015, a note on the service’s website has announced. Users wanting to get their data out of the service need to do just that before April 1st. Launched all the way back in 2002, RapidShare was one of the first large file sharing sites around, and at one point boasted of having 10 petabytes of data that had been uploaded by its users. The problem here though was that the service had become popular with pirates, meaning an unknown number of the files hosted on RapidShare were being illegally shared.”

http://www.redmondpie.com/end-of-an-era-file-sharing-mammoth-rapidshare-is-shutting-down/
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The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 6th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 6th 2015

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 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!

The big technology news of the week was associated with moves by the FCC to foster competition in broadband services. I believe most of the coverage makes the mistake of assuming policy will become law, which is unlikely in a sector so carefully controlled by lobbyists. Other than that we have a good mix of articles ranging from news on Windows 10 to scientific advancement. This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.

Brian Piccioni

 

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1) Adblocking goes mainstream

I believe this report cam out in Q3 2014 but I appear to have missed it. Adblocking is a rapidly emerging trend where browser plugins are used to block internet advertizing. The most popular software allows “whitelisted” ads provided they meet certain requirements, in particular paying the company money. It is easy to configure the software to block all ads and I have been using it that way since it was introduced. Note how penetration is highest among more sophisticated users (i.e. those capable of downloading a browser and the plugin). Most likely, use will spread as more people become aware of it, resulting in countermeasures by the likes of Google.

“The adblock community is expanding rapidly. In Q2 2014 there were approximately 144 million monthly active adblock users globally (4.9% of all internet users); a number which has increased 69% over the previous 12 months. Google Chrome is bringing ad blocking to the masses and seeing the largest increase of adblockers, up by 96% to approximately 86 million monthly active users between Q2 2013 and Q2 2014. Share of ads blocked by “end-user installed” browsers is 4.7x higher than by “pre-installed” browsers.”

http://downloads.pagefair.com/reports/adblocking_goes_mainstream_2014_report.pdf

2) Test shows big data text analysis inconsistent, inaccurate

Big data doesn’t make the headlines it used to, at least if you ignore the Snowden/NSA spying news. This study strongly suggests the conclusions arrived at through standard techniques are of questionable quality, which is scarcely surprising as it is am emerging field. Another consideration would be what the analysis is used for: if used as part of a matrix for a decision the implications are different than if it is used to directly drive a decision. Human nature being what it is I suspect more the later than the former.

“The team tested LDA-based analysis with repeated analyses of the same set of unstructured data – 23,000 scientific papers and 1.2 million Wikipedia articles written in several different languages. Even worse than being inaccurate, the LDA analyses were inconsistent, returning the same results only 80 percent of the time even when using the same data and the same analytic configuration. Accuracy of 90 percent with 80 percent consistency sounds good, but the scores are “actually very poor, since they are for an exceedingly easy case,” Amaral said in an announcement from Northwestern about the study.”

http://www.computerworld.com/article/2878080/test-shows-big-data-text-analysis-inconsistent-inaccurate.html

3) The FCC is moving to preempt state broadband limits

The North American broadband market is characterized by extraordinary profitability and sub-par performance and availability. This is almost exclusively due to corrupt and/or incompetent regulation which has benefited carriers at the expense of business and consumers. Remarkably, the notoriously ‘free-market’ US has all kinds or regulations restricting competition whereby the purportedly anti-‘free-market’ Canada maintains a more or less hands off approach to oligopolism and widespread anticompetitive practices by carriers. As least the US seems to be moving in the direction of permitting increased competition, though this might only persist as long as the current administration.

“Federal regulators are moving ahead with a proposal to help two cities fighting with their state governments over the ability to build public alternatives to large Internet providers. The Federal Communications Commission this week will begin considering a draft decision to intervene against state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that limit Internet access operated and sold by cities, according to a senior FCC official. The agency’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, could circulate the draft to his fellow commissioners as early as Monday and the decision will be voted on in the FCC’s public meeting on Feb. 26.”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2015/02/02/the-fcc-is-moving-to-preempt-state-broadband-limits/

4) Windows 10 Installs Automatically On Windows 7 And Windows 8

This certainly is interesting news. I wiped the hair shirt that is Windows 8 off my development machine and replaced it with Linux. My “writing” computer is a very long in the tooth Windows 7 machine with a host of mechanical troubles. I have been considering replacing it, however, the pain of using Windows 8 held me off. Since an evaluation copy of Windows 10 can’t possibly be as bad a Windows 8 I might reconsider. Depending on how stable evaluation versions of Windows 10 is, this might actually serve to rejuvenate PC sales prior to its launch.

“In a media event Microsoft unveiled that their latest build of Windows 10 will make updating from older operating systems much easier than it has ever been before. Windows 7 and 8 users will be able to update to Windows 10 directly through Windows Update, negating the need for us to burn a DVD or making a USB boot drive to then fiddle about with the Bios. It is great to see Microsoft make the upgrade process so easy now, especially given how it will be a free upgrade for Windows 7 and 8 users for the first year.”

http://www.overclock3d.net/articles/software/windows_10_installs_automatically_on_windows_7_and_windows_8/1

5) Microsoft to support Raspberry Pi 2 with a free version of Windows 10

There was a lot of excitement in the maker community this week with the announcement of Raspberry Pi 2. Raspberry Pi is a relatively open platform consisting of a board the size of a credit card and the computing performance of a 5 year old PC, all for $35. The version 2 of the board promises much more performance and resources at around the same price as the original. This was, in itself pretty interesting, however, the announcement Microsoft would offer a free version of Windows 10 made it really interesting as it suggests the company might be trying to position itself for the Internet of Things (IoT). This may not work out as planned since Windows 10 is a lot more resource hungry than the versions of Linux which tend to be used on the platform. At least they are trying.

“It’s not clear exactly what version of Windows 10 will be available, but Microsoft is handing it out for free to the Maker community through its Windows Developer Program for IoT later this year. With the pricing of the Raspberry Pi 2 and Microsoft’s free copy of Windows 10, you could have a full PC for just $35 later this year. We’ll have to wait to hear more information from Microsoft on how Windows 10 will function on the Raspberry Pi 2, but the company says it’s planning to reveal more “in the coming months.” It’s likely that this version of Windows 10 will only run modern universal apps, as the Raspberry Pi 2 includes an ARM-based processor.”

http://www.theverge.com/2015/2/2/7962179/raspberry-pi-windows-10

6) Google Is Developing Its Own Uber Competitor

The Uber business model is not that hard to replicate (nor are most of the business models associated with Doc Com 2.0) though I admit to being a bit surprised to hear Google might be interested. This is especially the case being as Google is an Uber shareholder, which has got to lead to some very awkward board meetings. I must admit I am more baffled by the rumors of Uber developing self-driving cars. Are they that daft that they actually believe they can compete with the auto industry?

“Uber faces an ever-growing cast of adversaries that includes dubious regulators, litigious drivers, hostile members of the press, and some well-funded rivals. But the most significant threat to the app-based transportation company may be much closer to home: one of its biggest investors, Google.”

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-02/exclusive-google-and-uber-are-going-to-war-over-taxis

7) Exploring the Universe with Nuclear Power

This is a very interesting overview of some of the technologies being considered for space travel. Long story short, current chemical rockets burn a fuel in an engine which provides a lot of force for a relatively short time (on account of the fact you run out of fuel). The force produced is limited by the nature of the chemical reactions – basically how fast you can fling mass out the back of the rocket. You can actually achieve much higher velocities, and therefore quicker trips, if you constantly fling a small amount of mass at extremely high speeds, which you can do with nuclear power.

“Basically, this means finding ways to power rockets that are more fuel and cost-effective while still providing the necessary power to get crews, rovers and orbiters to their far-flung destinations. In this respect, NASA has been taking a good look at nuclear fission as a possible means of propulsion. In fact, according to presentation made by Doctor Michael G. Houts of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center back in October of 2014, nuclear power and propulsion have the potential to be “game changing technologies for space exploration.””

http://www.universetoday.com/118431/exploring-the-universe-with-nuclear-power/

8) NASA’s Europa Mission to Hunt Down Life’s Niches

The headline is a bit misleading: a mission to Europa to search for life would require a landing of some sort, or at least a very close fly by to scoop up aerosols and therefore this appears to be more of a survey mission. In fact, there has only been one Mars mission which included a test for life and that yielded equivocal results, so it might be a better idea to send a mission there than Europa. In either event, it is true that Europa does have a lot of water and therefore eventually a landing and analysis mission make a lot of sense.

“Although Europa’s ocean may be up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) deep, the conditions at the bottom of that monstrous abyss may be akin to the environment at the bottom of Earth’s comparatively shallow Mariana Trench, the deepest region of the Pacific Ocean, which is 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) deep. Complex biology has evolved in Mariana’s cold, dark environment, so it’s not such a stretch to think that if there is life in Europa’s ocean, it may also be thriving, extracting energy not from the sun (via photosynthesis), but from chemosynthesis near hydrothermal vents.”

http://news.discovery.com/space/alien-life-exoplanets/nasas-europa-mission-to-hunt-down-lifes-niches-150202.htm

9) 4G LTE Rollout Makes India The World’s Next Big Smartphone Market

Emerging markets have become important drivers to smartphone sales and, after China, India is bound to be the most important such market. I don’t know enough about that market to predict what sorts of applications will be enabled by LTE, however, it stands to reasons the networks are being rolled out due to anticipated demand. Sales into emerging markets require inexpensive handsets and we continue to forecast significant pressure on handset pricing globally unless somebody develops an important feature. Since handset features have more or less stagnated over the past couple years, pricing must drop.

“The U.S. smartphone market is well saturated, and a good portion of China’s 1.4 billion citizens have been using mobile devices for several years. So the next hot market for cell phones looks to be India, where carriers are in the early stages of rolling out high-speed 4G LTE networks for the first time. With billions in future sales at stake, handset makers, from China’s Xiaomi to local startups, are scrambling to get the first-mover’s advantage. India is the fastest-growing country in the Asia-Pacific region for smartphone sales, but 4G is currently just a fraction of the market. Almost all of the more than 23 million smartphones it added in the three months ended Sep. 30 were those that are compatible only with relatively pokey 3G networks.

http://www.ibtimes.com/4g-lte-rollout-makes-india-worlds-next-big-smartphone-market-1767446

10) How mobile is transforming healthcare

This item links to a 27 page report which contains a fair bit of information so you have to download that if you are interested. The major weakness I see with the document is that it is based on survey data, and survey on this sort of topic can be misleading because there is no reason to believe respondents are well informed on the topic: they may simply be engaging in wishful thinking.

“According to a new survey, mobile technology has the potential to profoundly reshape the healthcare industry, altering how care is delivered and received. Executives in both the public and private sector predict that new mobile devices and services will allow people to be more proactive in attending to their health and well-being. These technologies promise to improve outcomes and cut costs, and make care more accessible to communities that are currently underserved. Mobile health could also facilitate medical innovation by enabling scientists to harness the power of big data on a large scale.”

http://www.economistinsights.com/analysis/how-mobile-transforming-healthcare

11) Scientists Invent a New, Lighter Steel That’s as Strong as Titanium

I didn’t know this was even possible. Apparently the alloy is a mixture of iron and aluminum. Titanium is a very abundant metal, however, production of the metal is very expensive and Titanium is also hard to work with (eg. Machine), nevertheless it is the gold standard for strength-to-weight. If this process can be cost effectively scaled up it would have a profound impact across a number of industries and possibly tank the value of titanium.

“Today a team of material scientists at Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea announced what they’re calling one of the biggest steel breakthroughs of the last few decades: an altogether new type of flexible, ultra-strong, lightweight steel. This new metal has a strength-to-weight ratio that matches even our best titanium alloys, but at one tenth the cost, and can be created on a small scale with machinery already used to make automotive-grade steel. The study appears in Nature. “Because of its lightness, our steel may find many applications in automotive and aircraft manufacturing,” says Hansoo Kim, the researcher that led the team.”

http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/news/a13919/new-steel-alloy-titanium/

12) Keurig’s attempt to ‘DRM’ its coffee cups totally backfired

I love coffee and drink it by the gallon, but only if it tastes the way I like it. I have tried the output of the Keurig machines once or twice and concluded the stuff tastes like swill – which is typical for mass market coffee. Not only that, but the coffee is very expensive though the price dropped as the patents expired on the pods. Not surprisingly, Keurig tried to use Digital Rights Management (DRM) to sustain its market position, a typical move for a company which no longer wishes to innovate. Predictably, the effort backfired, but not in the way I expected. I figured people just wouldn’t buy the machines, instead folks have figured out a variety of ways to circumvent the system. I’m sure it still makes crappy coffee though.

“Indeed, the 2.0’s Amazon reviews overflow with caffeine-deprived fury, the idiosyncratically capitalized wrath of people who bought 2.0 machines only to find that their old cups don’t work. “Talk about GREEDY corporate ridiculousness,” said one guy who tried to use his refillable pods. “On principle alone, I hate that they are dictating which coffee I’m using in my machine,” said another. “It is a HUGE SHAME that the company decided to remove the ability to use your own coffee grounds in the home brew k-cup. … They should have just said we made these changes so our products would sell more so we could make a bigger profit,” reads a typical review. “They took a potentially killer machine and added horrible DRM – a rights management system, in the greedy attempt to get all other coffee pod manufacturers to pay them so their pods work,” reads another of the hundreds of one-star reviews. Many lamented the ability to give no stars. If you Google “Keurig 2.0,” the first thing that autocompletes is “hack.””

http://www.theverge.com/2015/2/5/7986327/keurigs-attempt-to-drm-its-coffee-cups-totally-backfired

13) Neil Young raises $6.2 million, releases a portable music player called Pono, and my 4-year-old can’t tell the difference

If there is one human sense we should not be proud of it is our hearing: compared to most other critters we have limited dynamic range and only hear in a narrow frequency band. Not only that but we more or less start losing our hearing from birth. This is especially the case for rock musicians, most of whom are missing more than their fair share of the ‘hair cells’ we use to detect sound. Probably because of our poor hearing coming up with a contraption or marketing campaign which promises to provide an improved music experience can be a gold mine (witness Beats headphones, Monster Cables, and $25/foot speaker wire). It is all bunkum, however: few people can tell the difference, let alone tell there is a difference.

“With a list price of $400, the Pono could theoretically be a bargain. Sony’s new, high-def Walkman is likely to sell for three times that when it debuts. So is the Pono really as bad or, more specifically, as ordinary as the critics say? I admit I had been procrastinating to find out. I paid $200 last year as part of Pono’s $6.2 million Kickstarter campaign and, in return, got one of the first players to roll off the line – and at half price. At the time, I opened the box and realized it might take some mental effort to download programs, figure out memory capacity, and tinker. I put the box under my desk.”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2015/02/05/neil-young-raises-6-2-million-releases-a-portable-music-player-called-pono-and-my-4-year-old-cant-tell-the-difference/

14) Robot firefighter puts out its first blaze

The US has a massive military industrial complex which is also used to subsidize all sorts of projects and technologies. The idea of a robotic firefighter is a good one: it gets damned hot in fires, apparently, so this article grabbed my interest. Unfortunately, as the video shows, the implementation is downright silly: and bipedal robot holding a fire hose and helped along by a couple of guys. If you are going ot make a robot, chances are styling it after a monkey is probably not the best approach. I suspect a 6 legged bug-like system would be a far more effective platform.

“In Mobile, Alabama, a humanoid robot looked on as a fire burned aboard the USS Shadwell. Its infrared eyes scanned the blaze to find its heart, and its robot arms grabbed a hose to spray water into the inferno. This was the first live test for SAFFiR – the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot – and the first time a robot has ever fought a fire. Developed by roboticists at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blackburg for the US Navy, SAFFiR is intended to be part of the firefighting equipment of the future on board every Navy ship, tackling fires without risking human life.”

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26920-robot-firefighter-puts-out-its-first-blaze.html

15) Robot Scientist to Discover Drugs Dramatically Faster

Another somewhat misleading robot story: the robot is not a scientist, the scientists programmed the robot to perform standard tests and analyze the results at a much faster rate than a lab technician can. In fact, a lot of medical tests are done in exactly this manner because companies have developed what amounts to an assembly line to do them. That the actual inspiration for this article bascially says http://rsif.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/104/20141289#sec-18, and even though it correctly uses the term “artificial intelligence” that doesn’t mean what most people think it means.

“A new robot just discovered that a mixture of elements that can fight cancer can also treat malaria. Will artificial intelligence be able to unearth life-saving drugs quicker and more inexpensively than humans can? Each day, the robot scientist checks whether 10,000 chemicals are toxic to humans. One human can typically screen only 10 to 20 chemicals a year. According to a co-author of the study that documented the usage of the robot scientist, Professor Steve Oliver from the University of Cambridge department of biochemistry, by doing this the robot, called Eve, can eliminate the use of toxic compounds in drug candidates and identify elements that can treat disease.”

http://webandtechs.com/2015/02/robot-scientist-to-discover-drugs-dramatically-faster-1/

16) Are Smartwatches Already Dead?

It is probably a bit early to declare smartwatches as dead, but they do seem to be coughing up blood. A smartwatch can refer to anything from a fitness band (basically pedometer, heartrate, and maybe GPS) all the way to a Dick Tracy style wristwatch communicator. There is probably a market for fitness products provided the price is low enough, but the Dick Tracy style watches of the type breathlessly anticipated by the Apple fanboy crowd appear to be a solution looking for a problem. Setting aside battery life issues, which are profoundly significant, unless and until somebody can explain why consumers should want smartwatches their sales will languish.

“It feels like more gallons of (figurative) ink has been spilled about the virtues of Pebble—and the company’s incredible journey from Kickstarter to Best Buy—than actual smartwatches sold. When was the last time a product was so universally recommended in a category on the tip of everyone’s tongue… and yet didn’t move loads of product? Despite competition and a love-it-or-hate-it design, the first Android phone only took six months to hit a million. The original Microsoft Zune (yes, the ugly one) took seven months. Pebble started shipping two years ago.”

http://gizmodo.com/even-the-best-smartwatch-has-only-sold-one-million-unit-1683308481

17) Should you leave your smartphone plugged into the charger overnight? We asked an expert

Yes you should. While the article’s point about heat is valid, major sources of heat are charging and radio operation. Once the phone is charged, the charger shuts off and the heat associated with charging disappears. Unless your phone is doing a lot of downloads, overnight the display is bound to be off. Since you don’t want to ‘cycle’ the battery, which wears it out, leaving it plugged in as much as possible is the best option.

““Leaving your phone plugged in overnight is okay to do, it will not drastically harm your device,” says Shane Broesky, co-founder of Farbe Technik, a company that makes charging accessories. “Your phone is very smart. Once it’s fully charged, it knows when to stop the current from coming in to protect your phone from overcharging.””

http://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/expert-advice-on-how-to-avoid-destroying-your-phones-battery/

18) Smart TVs Are Stupid: Why You Don’t Really Want a Smart TV

For the most part, consumer electronics companies are not known for their software, at least not in a good way. That is the problem with Smart TVs: the software usually is pretty bad and often out of date and that is a situation which is likely to persist until somebody comes up with an open platform which is broadly supported by the industry. The conclusion – that it is better to have dumb TV and external boxes – is probably the correct one despite the hassles and aggravation of having all those damned cables.

“In practice, smart TVs just aren’t that great. Smart TVs have software made by TV manufacturers like Samsung, Sony, LG. Their software is generally not very good. Smart TVs usually have confusing, often baffling interfaces. Controlling the smart TV’s features will generally involve using a remote, probably using on-screen buttons on the the TV. The menu interfaces usually feel old. But don’t take our word for it. A report from NPD last year indicated that only 10 percent of smart TV owners has used the web browser on their smart TV and about 15 percent had listened to music from online services. The majority of them had used video apps, however — for example, to watch Netflix on their TV without plugging in additional boxes.”

http://www.howtogeek.com/176392/smart-tvs-are-stupid-why-you-dont-really-want-a-smart-tv/

19) Major labels keep 73% of Spotify premium payouts – report

Every time a new channel for entertainment emerges we hear outrage about the struggling artists whose very livelihood is imperiled. Frankly, I weep when I hear the likes of Bono lamenting the injustice of the world and the fate of the poor struggling artist. It should be noted than few recording artists ever make money and it is only the wealthiest who “suffer” as a consequence of these new channels. Furthermore, as this study shows just as with movies most of the loot ends up in the pockets of the labels and not the artists. After all, if you paid the artists, how would the record company executives earn a living?

“As you can see below, in terms of the turnover that these platforms generate, the major labels (‘producteurs’) take home the lion’s share, pulling in an average of €4.56-per-subscriber every month after tax. In terms of the total subscription payment, that’s a 46% share of the spoils. However, further analysis from MBW gives a more interesting split: who takes home what from the revenues paid out by streaming companies to music rights-holders. If SNEP’s figures are correct, €6.24 of every €9.99 subscription is paid to music rights-holders – that’s what’s left after tax and the digital platforms’ fee. That would means the labels keep 73% of payouts from Spotify/Deezer etc. They’re followed by writers/publishers with a 16% share, and then artists – mostly paid by their labels – who get 11%.”

http://www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/artists-get-7-of-streaming-cash-labels-take-46/

20) Anthem failed to encrypt customer data prior to cyberattack

There was news of yet another major corporation being hacked this week. Fortunately, according to this article, no medical records were taken, however, virtually every other important piece of information about the customers was. So, they may not have Aunt Blanche’s pathology report but they have everything else they need to steal her identity. Incredibly (actually, not surprisingly) the information was not encrypted so once the hackers got in the hit the jackpot. Not surprisingly (actually incredibly) the hack is being blamed on ‘Chinese’, with the suggestion somehow the government of China wants people’s Names, Social Security Numbers, Addresses, etc.. Imagine if a bank forgot to lock the vault and blamed that on North Korea.

“Anthem didn’t encrypt the personal data of its customers prior to the massive hack it suffered last month, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Citing a person familiar with the matter, the Journal reports that encrypting the data would have made it more difficult for hackers to access, though it would have made it harder for the health insurance company to analyze and share the data with providers and states. It was revealed this week that hackers stole millions of records on customers and employees at Anthem, the second-largest health insurer in the US. The hackers obtained the names, birthdays, addresses, and social security numbers, though there is no sign that they accessed any medical records. Authorities are investigating a possible link to a group based in China.”

http://www.theverge.com/2015/2/6/7991283/anthem-hack-encrypted-data