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

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


I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.

I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.

They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe

1) Intel: PC sales weak as many businesses stick with Windows XP

I predicted the end of PC sales growth about 8 years ago so stories of a week market are not exactly new. Except for gamers, for most people in most applications PCs are now replaced when they break, not because they lack the power to keep up with the demands of software. A similar argument can be made for operating systems, in particular Windows XP: for most people in most circumstances, it is more than up to their job. Of course, the major weakness in Windows XP is security, especially since Microsoft essentially announces security flaws to the world and doesn’t fix them for XP. Mind you, security is not a passive thing and company policies and practices can have an impact. It can be a lot cheaper than regularly replacing your machines and/or getting into a subscription agreement with Microsoft.

“Perhaps the most interesting detail that emerged from Intel’s lackluster first quarter financial results the other day had nothing to do with mobile, the company’s white whale. Instead, it concerned something so old that it almost seems laughable in the same week that the very 21st-century Apple Watch dominated headlines. Per ZDNet’s own Larry Dignan: “In a statement, Intel said it cut its first quarter outlook because of “weaker than expected demand for business desktop PCs and lower than expected inventory levels across the PC supply chain.” One reason the chip giant cited for that weaker demand: a slowdown in companies upgrading from Windows XP systems. What’s particularly interesting about this is that the move away from the ancient OS helped drive some of Intel’s better results in 2014.”

2) One reason to love Chromebooks even if you don’t want one

This is somewhat of a reprise of the Netbook period when PC vendors launched very low cost laptops in an effort to invigorate interest in PCs, though, at that time there was not much of a competitive alternative. Chromebooks, which are meant to be used mostly online are quite cheap and reasonably capable for basic applications. Given a choice I would go for a Windows machine at the same price because I liven in Canada where Internet access is slow, expensive, and unreliable. Of course, a lot depends on how competitive these new machines are, at least from a feature perspective.

“Apparently, Microsoft is keeping a close eye on these cheap Chrome OS computers, and wants to put up a fight with affordable Windows machines of its own. Digitimes has learned from sources familiar with the matter that Microsoft plans to release cheaper laptops to compete against affordable Chromebooks this year. The company is working on at least two distinct clamshell notebook models, the publication says, both featuring 11.6-inch displays. The devices should start selling at some point in mid-2015, with prices ranging from $149 to $179. The new affordable Windows devices will pack Intel’s Bay Trail-T CR processor, with one model geared towards education, which also happens to be a target for Google’s Chromebooks. Interestingly, the consumer model will cost $149, while the education version will be priced higher, at $179.”

3) Moore’s Curse

I’m glad somebody wrote this article and a link to it should be placed next to every article about self driving cars, solar power, and electric vehicles. Moore’s Law applies to transistors and transistors alone because they get better AND cheaper as they get smaller and the technology to make them smaller has followed a predictable path for about 50 years. In contrast, for example, bolts do not get better as they get smaller. Most other things get slightly better and slightly cheaper over time but the rate of change is limited by other factors. A battery is limited by chemistry and size: unless you make big changes to the chemistry (and chemistry progresses slowly) a battery is not going to improve that much that quickly. The same goes for solar cells and windmills. Physics rules.

“As components have gotten smaller, denser, faster, and cheaper, they have increased the power and cut the costs of many products and services, notably computers and digital cameras but also light-emitting diodes and photovoltaic cells. The result has been a revolution in electronics, lighting, and photovoltaics. But the revolution has been both a blessing and a curse, for it has had the unintended effect of raising expectations for technical progress. We are assured that rapid progress will soon bring self-driving electric cars, hypersonic airplanes, individually tailored cancer cures, and instant three-dimensional printing of hearts and kidneys. We are even told it will pave the world’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies.”

4) Micron and Intel Unveil New 3D NAND Flash Memory

A number of companies announced 3D NAND Flash memory recently. This allows multiple layers of storage on the same die, significantly reducing cost and packaging size. As the press release and video suggest, this approach is particularly suited to Solid State Drive (SSD) applications. As I predicted a few years ago, the era of the Hard Disk Drive (HDD) is drawing to a close and I recommend upgrading any laptop with an SSD if it doesn’t already have one. Ultimately, the HDD industry will more or less disappear and all of the value of that industry will be transferred to the Flash memory manufacturers.

“The new 3D NAND technology stacks flash cells vertically in 32 layers to achieve 256Gb multilevel cell (MLC) and 384Gb triple-level cell (TLC) die that fit within a standard package. These capacities can enable gum stick-sized SSDs with more than 3.5TB of storage and standard 2.5-inch SSDs with greater than 10TB. Because capacity is achieved by stacking cells vertically, the individual cell dimensions can be considerably larger. This is expected to increase both performance and endurance and make even the TLC designs well-suited for data center storage.”

5) The Critical Smartphone Issue That Manufacturers Ignore

This is not a very well written piece but it makes a good point: as manufacturers pursue style over substance battery life cannot keep up with demands. Of course, one could offer replaceable batteries, but that is an expensive option. Alternatively, just add a millimeter or two to the thickness of the case: my Nexus 5 has a 2300 mAhr battery and the battery is 6mm thick out of a total thickness of 9mm for the whole phone. Increasing the phone’s thickness by 3mm would add more than 50% to the battery capacity. Since I, like many other users, have a rubberized protector on the phone to protect the screen from cracking, a factory rubberized, slightly thicker, Nexus 5 would have 50% more battery and actually be thinner and lighter than what I carry around today.

“I’ve spent the last ten days in Austin attending the various strands of SXSW. I’ve been doing so for the last eleven years, and one thing that has become clear over the last few years, and acutely aware of this year, is just how ill-served consumers are over a critical part of smartphone design. Modern batteries are too small.”

6) Apple files patent for a SUPER camera: System uses mirrors and multiple sensors to make photos brighter and clearer

This technological breakthrough was covered with the usual fawning praise for anything Apple does or is rumored to be considering doing. The funny thing is, there is nothing novel about 3 CCD cameras – I’ve actually owned a couple of them. How it is possible to patent something which has been in mainstream consumer products for the past 15 years or so is a complete mystery.

“Apple’s latest marketing campaign has been designed to showcase just how good the cameras are on its iPhone 6 range. But if a patent awarded earlier this month is anything to go by, the camera on the iPhone 7 could take even better photos. The papers, originally filed in 2011, detail a three-sensor camera that splits light to boost the number of pixels it can manage.”

7) Apple Pay Adoption: Improving, But Still A Long Way To Go

This story was reported a number of different ways, depending on the biases of the source. Long story short, Apple Pay is only available on iPhone 6s and only a small fraction of those appear to to have any interest. There might be many reasons for this, including a limited number of stores supporting the system although why any store would support a proprietary pay system only useable by a small subset of a minority of mobile users is another matter. Apple is an effective marketer, so you should not count them out on Apple Pay. Nevertheless, I suspect any such payment system will have to be adopted across Android and iPhone to be successful, or, at least the respective readers at the stores should be able to handle either system equally well.

“A little under four months ago, the payments ecosystem got something of a surprise when a first round of Apple Pay adoption numbers was released by InfoScout in collaboration with A survey of about 400 possible Apple Pay users on Black Friday revealed that 95 percent of iPhone 6 and 6+ users who could have paid with Apple Pay on Black Friday didn’t. Perhaps more surprising, five weeks after launch, more than 90 percent of those who could have used Apple Pay hadn’t given it a try. Four-and-a-half months have passed however. That has given Apple the chance to build, enhance and expand its payments ecosystem — signing on new banks, and forging merchant partnerships in its quest to broaden its appeal. Consumers have been inundated with Apple Pay promotions from their banks, and media coverage has been intense.”

8) A review of Android for Work: Dual-persona support comes to Android

I used to work for a bank which had very strict rules regarding what you could use your device for and it was understood the compliance department tracked all your emails, etc.. Of course, the IT department seemed to be about 5 years behind the times and as responsive as slugs when things went wrong so most of us carried two devices. I am pretty sure (but could never prove) the more “entrepreneurial” employees conducted “special” business on their personal devices, many of which were actually paid for by the bank. The mobile industry is catching up and beginning to offer “dual personality” devices which allow for concurrent operation as business and personal phones. This might also help with billing. Of course, as an early generation product, the article notes set up is bizarrely complicated, however, that will no doubt change.

“If you work in an office environment, you probably know a few people—maybe a lot of people—with two smartphones. One is a personal phone full of pictures of the family, games, social networking, and sports stuff, and the other is a company-issued smartphone full of e-mail, appointments, contacts, and documents. With two phones, your IT department has full control over your work data and can remotely wipe it, and they never get to see your personal pictures or other information. It’s a workable setup, but the downside is all the duplication—you have two phones, two chargers, and almost no free pocket space. The other alternative is BYOD—Bring Your Own Device—in which the IT department takes over and installs a bunch of company software to your personal phone. There is a better way, though, and it’s called a “dual-persona smartphone”—a way to have separate work and personal data on a single device. Blackberry was the first to have it baked into the OS in BB10, but in terms of OSes that users actually want to use, it’s been left up to often-clunky third-party solutions.”

9) Twitter cuts off Meerkat, won’t let it import who you follow on Twitter

Ah, the perils of developing an application on another company’s infrastructure: they can either buy you or buy your competitor and shut you down. Since there are very low barriers to copying a popular application, there tends to be multiple competitors which emerge for any popular new application which arises. This means the infrastructure owner (Twitter in this case) can hold a reverse auction to determine who it will buy for the lowest cost before shutting down all the others. Not a compelling investment environment if you ask me.

“Meerkat, the new livestream sharing app, has taken the tech world by storm. It’s easy to see why, too, seeing how the app lets you easily share your live video streams with your Twitter followers. It could even import the accounts you follow on Twitter, as well as those who follow you: That way, you’ll be able to see what your Twitter friends are doing on Meerkat, all without having to find them and add them manually. But according to Mat Honan at BuzzFeed, Twitter unceremoniously blocked Meerkat’s access to its “social graph,” thereby rendering Meerkat’s contact import feature inoperable.”

10) Battle for African Internet users stirs freedom fears

I have covered the positive impact mobile communications has had in the developing world in the past by offering banking to people who never had it before, as well as price discovery, etc., for farmers and small business owners. The logical next step is a roll out of some measure of Internet service, which requires some degree of infrastructure and an appropriate regulatory environment. Large, US Internet companies like Facebook and Google are experimenting with various methods of delivery and this is not without controversy. My suspicion is that there activities are only a first step: once market interest has been demonstrated, local entrepreneur will step in.

“Critics, however, say big service providers and Internet companies are luring African users into using their services, giving them opportunities for greater advertising revenue. “It’s like a drug pusher giving you a small amount and saying: ‘If you want more, you have to come and buy it’,” Africa Internet access specialist Mike Jensen said. Giving Africans free access to some Internet sites may also stunt innovation and limit the opportunities for African entrepreneurs, making online technology another industry on the continent dominated by big foreign companies.”

11) Wi-Fi Is About To Undergo a Huge Change

Home Wi-Fi is pretty impressive: I can set up a 600 mbps connection off a cheap router using 802.11AC. The problem is that there is limited capacity for high speed connections in a public place and more and more public places are offering some degree of free Wi-Fi. These technologies are astoundingly mathematically complex so it is truly amazing it can be crammed into a laptop for little extra cost or even sold as a USB “dongle” for $25.

“Get ready for superior Wi-Fi. At an event in San Francisco, component-maker, Qualcomm, demonstrated its contribution to this new technology, MU-MIMO. MU-MIMO (Multi-User Multiple-Input Multiple-Output) is a new technology that will be in many new routers, smartphones, laptops and other Wi-Fi devices. MU-MIMO is engineered to handle many wireless devices connecting to a wireless network at the same time. In fact, as more devices connect to a MU-MIMO-enabled Wi-Fi router or access point; the better network performance becomes.”

12) Cutting the TV cord? Call the anti-cable guy

The CBC has been running the odd story about cable cutting lately. It makes sense they would do so, since, unlike Bell, Rogers, and Telus, they have no reason to manipulate news coverage for to suit their corporate interests ( even if that might be illegal. Long story short, most Canadians have access to Over The Air HD content they might miss as they move to streaming services. There are people who show you how to do it. Besides an antenna you might want an OTA PVR such as this: It may sound expensive, but compared to ballooning cable TV rates, the payback is pretty short.

“The cable guy has a new competitor: the anti-cable guy. He helps you cut the cord on traditional television services and hooks you up with alternatives. Most Canadians still watch cable or satellite TV. However, cord-cutting is catching on as more people seek potentially cheaper and more versatile viewing options. But not everyone has the technical chops to break with tradition. So enter the cord-cutting consultant, a hired hand who does the job for you. It’s a small but growing business model fueled by expanding viewing options in the digital age.”

13) Manipulating Wikipedia to Promote a Bogus Business School

There are legions of paid agents out there manipulating various social media for financial, philosophical, and political reasons. It is remarkable, for example, how the same (false) talking points arise when criticizing, for example, telecommunications policies in North America. It was easy to see this when you were consuming corporate media, but it may not be apparent when looking are crowd sourced information such as Wikipedia. Setting aside the question of who in their right mind would rely on an online resource to chose their business school, the effectiveness of this campaign is remarkable as is the time it took for action to be taken.

“In February, “ArbCom” voted to expel “Wifione” from Wikipedia. No idea what “ArbCom” is? You’re not the only one. It’s the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee, the highest court in Wikipedia land. And Wifione was a Wikipedia “administrator” account, run by persons unknown, that was accused of manipulating the Wikipedia site of an unaccredited business school in India by deleting links to numerous media reports alleging it scammed students into paying hefty sums for worthless degrees. For four years, that Wikipedia page was a primary marketing tool of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), which at one time boasted a network of 18 branches and tens of thousands of students. It lured students with the promise of an MBA and partnerships with international universities in the United States and Europe.”

14) Ford cars slow when they see speed-limit signs

This is another example of the rapid advance of high technological safety systems for automobiles: the car keeps track of speed limits and (optionally for now) obeys them. There are obvious potential problems with this type of approach as visibility can sometimes be an issue and there are many places where the default speed limit is not posted. Eventually, of course, Vehicle to Infrastructure wireless systems (see item 15, below) will accomplish the same thing in a more robust fashion and probably automatically issue a citation when you speed.

“Ford is to sell a car that can read road signs and adjust its speed accordingly to ensure the vehicle is not driving too fast. The speed-limiting tech can be activated via the steering wheel and briefly overridden by pressing firmly on the accelerator. The car company suggests the facility will help drivers avoid fines and could reduce the number of accidents. However, one expert said the innovation might only serve as a “stopgap”. “There’s a plan for speed restrictions to be beamed to your car’s computer systems and controlled from there, rather than requiring street sign visual recognition systems,” said Paul Newton, an automotive industry analyst at the IHS consultancy.”

15) Car-to-Car Communication: A simple wireless technology promises to make driving much safer.

This article touches on Car to Car (or Vehicle to Vehicle V2V) communications systems, yet another high tech safety system. The thing with V2V is that is probably has limited effect when penetration is low and probably encourages unsafe behavior to boot. For example, if I have V2V and most cars have V2V I might not look as I leave an intersection and end up getting broadsided by Brian’s old pickup truck. There might be room for some form of mandated transition where all cars are required to have, for example, a transponder on board in order to be licensed. Similarly, there might be a requirement for such a system to alert drivers via a Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) system about speeding, slippery roads, and so on.

“I was in the passenger seat as Krishnan wheeled around a corner and hit the gas. A moment later a light flashed on the dashboard, there was a beeping sound, and our seats started buzzing furiously. Krishnan slammed on the brakes, and we lurched to a stop just as another car whizzed past from the left, its approach having been obscured by a large hedge. “You can see I was completely blinded,” he said calmly. The technology that warned of the impending collision will start appearing in cars in just a couple of years. Called car-to-car or vehicle-to-vehicle communication, it lets cars broadcast their position, speed, steering-wheel position, brake status, and other data to other vehicles within a few hundred meters. The other cars can use such information to build a detailed picture of what’s unfolding around them, revealing trouble that even the most careful and alert driver, or the best sensor system, would miss or fail to anticipate.”

16) No, Tesla Is Not Releasing a ‘Self-Driving’ Car This Summer

You might recall that, bundled in the hype and hysteria associated with Tesla improving their fuel gauge was the somewhat lesser hype and hysteria about the company releasing self-driving cars this summer. Not surprisingly, when you say “auto-steering capability being added on in the summer will make it possible to drive a Tesla “from San Francisco to Seattle … parking lot to parking lot,” without any human driver input at all” people are gonna think, well, aren’t their contiguous parking lots through out the US? Settling aside liability issues, Tesla is, at best, playing catch up with the rest of the auto industry in the most important technological shift it has experienced in the past 100 years. Whether a tiny company with limited resources can, in fact, deliver any degree of autonomous driving (unlike that shown by real car companies) remains to be seen.

“Elon Musk this week offered a peek at some new driver-assist capabilities Tesla will be adding to its vehicles this summer, prompting a bit of a rush in the media to declare that Silicon Valley’s favorite auto maker is about to launch a “self-driving” car. Well, no, it’s not. And the funny thing is, the miscommunication about what Tesla is actually doing with its upcoming software upgrade for Model S and Model X electric vehicles (EVs) can’t be blamed on Musk—who can certainly be overly effusive when talking about his cars and rockets and hyperloops, but was actually pretty circumspect during Thursday’s conversation with press and analysts.”,2817,2478556,00.asp

17) Automakers race to double the driving range of affordable electric cars

They can race all they want, but physics gets in the way: either you increase battery capacity or you increase “fuel” economy or a bit of both. Battery price/performance has been improving at a glacial pace and there is no reason to believe that will change any time soon. Moving to lightweight materials can help, but batteries are quite heavy. I figure the EV market is a race between making them good enough and cheap enough fast enough, which is hard to do because of physics, or consumers realizing that any EV has zero value after 5 to 8 years because the battery pack, which represents much of the cost of the car, has to be replaced.

“Global automakers are readying a new generation of mass-market electric cars with more than double the driving range of today’s Nissan Leaf, betting that technical breakthroughs by big battery suppliers such as LG Chem Ltd will jump-start demand and pull them abreast of Tesla Motors Inc. At least four major automakers — General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co, Nissan Motor Co Ltd and Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) — plan to race Tesla to be first to field affordable electric vehicles that will travel up to 200 miles (322 km) between charges. That is more than twice as far as current lower-priced models such as the Nissan Leaf, which starts at $29,010. The new generation of electric cars is expected to be on the market within two to three years.”

18) Biodegradable 3D Printed Artificial Bone that Adapts to the Human Body

A misleading headline and a very short article thin on details. The tests involve rabbits, not people, though there is obviously potential application to people. The idea is to build a sort of biodegradable scaffold which is replaced by real bone over time. This could provide an alternative to the use of cadaver material, especially when the particulars of the injury call for a custom made solution. It ight make sense, for example, to replace a shattered bone with a custom made scaffold rather than trying to reassemble it with plates and screws as is done currently.

“Animal studies and trials are some of the few requirements in the pharmaceutical and surgical industries that need to be provided if a new drug or a medical technology is to be introduced to the public. This week, scientists at Xi’an Particle Cloud Advanced Materials Technology Co., Ltd. have successfully carried out a round of animal testing on their medical procedure that allows the fabrication of completely biodegradable intricate artificial bone structures. The trials conducted by the team of scientists at the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Xijin Hospital in Xi’an, China focused to ensure the safety of inserting a 3d printed body part inside a human body.”

19) Scientists have figured out how to inject human eyes with night vision

This isn’t an injection, it is eye drops, and the effect appears to be relatively short lived. Apparently, these guys have tested a way to boost the light sensitivity of the human eye, which is pretty impressive. The problem I would see with this “boost” effect is that those who are treated with the solution might be extremely light sensitive until the effect wears off, although, as the article hints, sunglasses could take care of that. Besides helping with night blindness, one could imagine this approach could be used to treat soldiers, pilots, or SWAT teams prior to a night operation in order to avoid the limitations of night vision goggles.

“A team of biochemical researchers in the US has figured out how to give a human volunteer night vision, allowing him to see across a distance of over 50 metres in total darkness for several hours. The key is a natural, light-sensitive substance called Chlorin e6 (Ce6), which is derived from sea creatures and has been used for many years in cancer treatment research. It’s also been shown to be effective in the treatment of night blindness and improving dim light vision in people with eye disorders, so an independent team of self-described ‘bio-hackers’ in California called Science for the Masses decided to see how else it could be used to improve vision.”

20) Amazon Goes After Dropbox, Google, Microsoft With Unlimited Cloud Drive Storage

In general, cloud services are a race to the bottom: every new server is cheaper than the one it replaces, or the one which was installed a month ago. This sets up a curious dynamic where an actual, non-manipulated positive ROI is hard to realize: the new entrant always has a cost advantage over the established players. Some businesses have conjured up schemes where hapless consumers are unknowingly paying the electricity bills for other people’s cloud services by they will eventually catch on. I recommend against using any cloud service for storage unless you can afford to lose the data. Cloud storage companies are notorious for shutting down or modifying their services and, if you have much data stored the time and cost to move it somewhere is prohibitive. This especially holds true for businesses. Either buy your own NAS, share some with friends, or get cheap external backup drives.

“Last year, Amazon gave a boost to its Prime members when it launched a free, unlimited photo storage for them on Cloud Drive. Today, the company is expanding that service as a paid offering to cover other kinds of content, and to users outside of its loyalty program. Unlimited Cloud Storage will let users get either unlimited photo storage or “unlimited everything” — covering all kinds of media from videos and music through to PDF documents — respectively for $11.99 or $59.99 per year. And those who want to test drive it can do so for free for three months.”

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

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


I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.

I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.

They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!

Another slow week for tech news, probably due to it being March Break. Breathless speculation concerning Tesla’s purported “end to range anxiety” cause a fair bit of buzz which promptly was forgotten as the announcement turned out to be nothing. Real auto makers, meanwhile, are making considerable headway actually providing important safety features for vehicles. The UK’s decision to modify its approach to income tax season should be welcomed by taxpayers and despised by accountants, tax preparers, and bureaucrats.This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe

1) HBO, Showtime, and Sony want to buy fast lanes for their web TV services

Net neutrality is a frequently abused term, but what it really means is that carriers should not discriminate between traffic. You would think this would be a fairly non-controversial topic – after all Internet Service Providers are exploiting a position they obtained through history and the service they offer is inherently a commodity and they do nothing to merit the margins they enjoy. You can imagine how different the world would be if the electric utility could charge you and appliance makers differently depending on their whim. Needless to say, anti-competitiveness makes strange bedfellows: corruption of net neutrality can establish insurmountable barriers to entry and cripple innovation, which is why so many content providers and other moneyed interests oppose it. After all, which large firm wouldn’t want to be able to pay ISPs to throttle smaller competitors?

“Online television is taking off in a major way, and now some of the biggest providers are looking for assurances that they can keep delivering their content reliably. According to The Wall Street Journal, HBO, Showtime, and Sony have all been speaking with internet providers, including Comcast, about the possibility of being treated as “specialized services,” separating them out from other internet traffic and essentially giving them a fast lane to consumers. Though fast lanes are explicitly prohibited under the FCC’s new net neutrality rules, these fast lanes actually fall in a strange gray area that’s yet to be explored.”

2) Global device shipments to grow, but PC spend to decline: Gartner

As usual I warn that Gartner, or any other industry research, isn’t worth the electrons on the web page and this article or study is no exception. Setting aside the issue of pricing power (which no PC vendor really has) the pressure will be on the likes of Intel and Microsoft to absorb strength in the US dollar or lose further share to alternatives. The idea iOS will gain share against Android is laughable: while there may not be much in the way of differentiation for Android manufacturers the products tend to be a generation or more ahead of Apple and cost less. The launch of the iPhone 6 merely allowed Apple zealots to upgrade to the features found in mid-range Android phones a year earlier at half the price.

“Worldwide combined shipments of PCs, “ultramobiles”, and mobile phones are expected to grow by 2.8 percent from 2.42 billion units in 2014 to 2.9 billion units in 2015, according to Gartner’s latest findings. However, looking at worldwide spending on the computing devices market, which includes PCs and ultramobiles, such as phablets, it is expected to decline by 7.2 percent, and reach only $226 billion. Gartner suggested that the global PC market, which makes up a majority of the computing devices market, is expected to see a 2.4 percent decline from $193 billion in 2014 to $178 billion in 2015. Gartner research director Ranjit Atwal said price increases by vendors in regions outside of the US are the primary reason why the market will see a fall in PC purchases. “

3) Real-time online accounts to replace annual tax returns

We are entering tax time, where millions of taxpayers gather all their information (which is also in the hands of the government) and complete an incredibly complex form (in paper or electronically) to tell the government the information it already knows in order to see if the government has been borrowing money from you or not. It is an antediluvian process which costs a huge amount of money to taxpayers directly to complete the forms or pay somebody to do so, and indirectly because they employ legions of government employees to check their work. All for information the government already has. A more reasonable approach, this being 2015 and not 1956, would be to inform the government of deductible expenses which they otherwise would not be aware of and let their computers do all the work. Remarkably, the UK government seems to have figured this out, no doubt to the chagrin of the bureaucracies involved.

“Taxpayers will be given a login and password so they can submit tax information regularly, making tax bills more closely related to current performance. The online accounts will show how your tax is calculated, as HM Revenue & Customs also updates information available to it – for example, from employers, pension providers and banks. Businesses and individuals will be able to link their own accounting software and their bank accounts to the digital tax account, removing the need to submit an end-of-year return and paying an annual tax bill in one go. The switch is expected to start with five million small businesses and the first 10 million individuals in early 2016.”

4) New Tesla software update intends to keep you from running out of juice

The fawning Tesla fan base was stoked to hysteria the past week after Musk tweeted that “he” was going to “end range anxiety”. Speculation abounded as to what new miracle the greatest mind since Einstein (yes, that comparison is out there) was up to. Not surprisingly, that singular tweet reversed a downtrend in the stock price – after all when you are a prodigious destroyer of capital, you need a high stock price. When the blessed day arrived, the very commentators who were beside themselves with speculation either did not carry the story or buried it. I had to actually go looking for it. Apparently the “fuel gauge” works better now. What magic is this?

“Several days ago, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk tweeted that he was going to “end range anxiety” with an over-the-air software update affecting all existing Tesla Model S vehicles. The Internet speculation machine exploded (with some people possibly believing that Musk was going to literally beam newer, bigger batteries into the cars), but we had to wait until this morning’s Tesla press conference to hear exactly what he meant. Musk took the (virtual) stage at 9am PDT to announce that in approximately 10 days, Tesla would be releasing its 6.2 Model S software update, which will include a drastic change to the car’s awareness and understanding of its own range.”

5) Self-driving Audi to drive from California to New York

Real car companies are making considerable progress developing self driving and collision avoidance technologies. I believe self-driving is at least 20 years from becoming mainstream, but collision avoidance systems are increasingly available and should improve safety dramatically. The cross country journey has been used as a proof of technology, or more accurately, a publicity stunt, for over 100 years. You can be confident the route will be very carefully plotted to avoid the hazards such as bad weather, poor signage, etc., which confound self driving systems even today. That being said, the technology has improved dramatically over the past 10 years and there is no reason to believe it will not become better than a human driver over time.

“Automotive component-supplier Delphi is about to launch a self-driving Audi SUV on a 3,500-mile journey from San Francisco to New York. The trip, which will begin March 22 near the Golden Gate Bridge, will end in New York City. It is the first cross-country trip by a fully autonomous vehicle, and arguably the longest anyone has made. The autonomous Audi SQ5 is making the trip in order to test Delphi’s suite of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure wireless communications and automated driving software.”

6) Cars that automatically call for help set to become law from 2018: EU rules demand all makers to install emergency ‘black boxes’

General Motors was ahead on this with the OnStar system a number of years ago, though I do not see the appeal of a redundant subscription service when most people already have mobile phones. Basic mobile connectivity plus GPS can be bought for a few dollars nowadays and providing immediate information regarding the fact a collision has occurred along with GPS coordinates should save lives. It really should be standard equipment as soon as possible and the service mandated the same way mobile 911 service is. Of course, its value in North America would be limited somewhat by the numerous “dead areas” across the continent, however collisions are most likely to occur in places where most people are and therefore where coverage is likely.

“From March 2018 every new car sold in the European Union will legally have to be equipped with eCall technology. This will consist of a ‘black box’ that detects a crash and automatically calls the emergency services for help. This box is also fitted with a GPS sensor so it can send the car’s precise location to the control room.

7) AI guru Ng: Fearing a rise of killer robots is like worrying about overpopulation on Mars

A few weeks back, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and (bizarrely) Elon Musk got a lot of coverage for their warnings regarding super intelligent machines. Why a brilliant physicist, a businessman, and a stock promoter would somehow be considered to have the expertise to opine on the subject is an open question. Here we have an actual Artificial Intelligence (AI) expert who holds the view of almost all AI experts: nobody understands sentience or sees a way they could make a sentient machine so the issue is moot. Parlor tricks to the contrary, until somebody develops software which has the intelligence of even a poodle the issue itself is moot.

“There’s also a lot of hype, that AI will create evil robots with super-intelligence. That’s an unnecessary distraction,” Ng told techies gathered at Nvidia’s GPU Technology Conference in San Jose, California, on Thursday. “Those of us on the frontline shipping code, we’re excited by AI, but we don’t see a realistic path for our software to become sentient. “There’s a big difference between intelligence and sentience. There could be a race of killer robots in the far future, but I don’t work on not turning AI evil today for the same reason I don’t worry about the problem of overpopulation on the planet Mars.”

8) Caltech Scientists Develop Cool Process to Make Better Graphene

Another month, another breakthrough in the production of graphene. Seriously, though graphene is potentially a very useful material, if not for the fact that current production methods produce tiny amounts at very high costs ($1,000 per gram). The price will probably have to come down by a factor of 100 to 1,000 before the stuff starts showing up in real products. Progress is being made and there is reason to be hopeful. After all, in Napoleon’s time aluminum was more valuable than platinum.

“A new technique invented at Caltech to produce graphene—a material made up of an atom-thick layer of carbon—at room temperature could help pave the way for commercially feasible graphene-based solar cells and light-emitting diodes, large-panel displays, and flexible electronics. “With this new technique, we can grow large sheets of electronic-grade graphene in much less time and at much lower temperatures,” says Caltech staff scientist David Boyd, who developed the method.”

9) Google: Our new system for recognizing faces is the best one ever

Well, this is kind of scarey: no so much for the privacy concerns as ubiquitous video surveillance did away with that over the past decade. Facial recognition like this will allow advertisers to track you where ever you go (after all, what is to stop the owner of a video camera from selling their recordings) and target you by name. Perhaps balaclavas or face veils are in our future after all all. Thanks to my friend Avner Mandelman for this item.

“Last week, a trio of Google researchers published a paper on a new artificial intelligence system dubbed FaceNet that it claims represents the most-accurate approach yet to recognizing human faces. FaceNet achieved nearly 100-percent accuracy on a popular facial-recognition dataset called Labeled Faces in the Wild, which includes more than 13,000 pictures of faces from across the web. Trained on a massive 260-million-image dataset, FaceNet performed with better than 86 percent accuracy.”

10) 4KTV Standards Are A Mess, and Only 41% Even Know What 4K Is

We predicted the transition to HDTV in the production studio once the ATSC decided on a standard. There will likely be some penetration of 4KTV in the studio because it offers considerable flexibility in post production, however, we doubt much content will be broadcast in the format, except, perhaps, certain high profile sporting events. Similarly, consumers will find themselves buying 4KTVs simply because the costs will drop to a point where there is little to no price difference with HDTVs and TV producers are desperate to differentiate. Very few consumers will ever see actual 4K content due to the distribution costs: after all most “HD” content distributed by cable or satellite is HD in name only due to substantial loss of quality after transcoding and further compression for distribution.

“While 4K isn’t the gimmick 3D TV was in the eyes of many consumers, a new study shows the standard has a lot of work to do before sales of the sets ramp up. According to new data from Leichtman Research, just 41% have even heard of 4KTV, though that’s up from 30% one year ago. According to Leichtman, 26% of those who have seen a 4K HDTV are interested getting one — compared to 6% of those who have not seen a 4K TV. With 4KTV’s slowly coming down in price, adoption is expected to start climbing steeply this year. Though be careful: real 4K content is limited, standards remain in flux, and the 4K TV gear you buy today may not be truly 4K-capable tomorrow.”

11) Are streaming music services about to bite the dust?

This is more or less a summary of various streaming music providers and their respective business plans. Not surprisingly, most such business plans do not appear viable: after all, streaming music services are simply intermediaries between consumers and license holders and there is no reason this should be a profitable position to be in. I predict that streaming is here to stay and it, along with podcasting, will ultimately lead to the end of the broadcast radio business. Eventually, the license holders will simply form a sort of cooperative and stream directly, eliminating the intermediaries and the same thing will likely occur in the video space as well. That is the problem with almost all Internet business models in cloud computing era: once somebody figures out what works it can be easily replicated.

“A little over a year ago, I declared streaming music the next major music industry ice age. In the past year, the major players have jockeyed for paid subscribers, hushed artists advocating for their demise, and straddled two very different worlds: Silicon Valley’s startup go-round and and the ever backward-looking recording industry. A lot has happened since then. Apple made a very flashy, rather out of character bid for Beats—both Beats Electronics, the headphones brand, and Beats Music, a brilliantly remixed version of well-loved streaming service MOG that Dr. Dre and co. picked up in 2012 for $14 million before flipping it, making it look young, and serving it up to Apple, image and all, for a cool $3 billion.”

12) Cisco helps customers to avoid NSA interception by shipping equipment to vacant addresses

Edward Snowden exposed massive collusion on behalf of large tech firms with the US national security apparatus. This placed the spooks and the companies in an awkward position, especially with respect to foreign buyers (domestic buyers, especially businesses, should also have been horrified since their secrets were exposed to whomever in the NSA decided to look at them for fun or profit). As a consequence, the companies have engaged in a long lived bit of theater to show that they had no idea their systems were exposed (despite their vigorous cooperation) and it would never happen again, cross their hearts and hope to die! If you believe a single piece of equipment gets delivered without a backdoor or other such feature I have a bridge in New York you’d be interested in.

“Security chief John Stewart says, Cisco will ship boxes to empty addresses in a bid to avoid the NSA intercepting. He also announced today at Cisco Live press panel in Melbourne that the Borg will ship to sham identities for its most sensitive customers. “We ship [boxes] to an address that’s has nothing to do with the customer, and then you have no idea who ultimately it is going to. When customers are truly worried … it causes other issues to make [interception] more difficult in that [agencies] don’t quite know where that router is going so its very hard to target – you’d have to target all of them. There is always going to be inherent risk.””

13) Exclusive: Apple Watch not on shopping list for 69 percent of Americans: Reuters poll

It took quite a while to track down this story since so many tech sites had articles about the survey without a link to the correct URL. Reuters managed to put a positive spin on the observation that 13% would consider buying an iPhone 6 in order to buy an iWatch, but one has to put such findings in context: that is almost half as many Americans as believe in Bigfoot. The survey also noted that only half of respondents had heard of the product immediately after its launch, despite widespread coverage of the launch event in all media and the fact it had been hyped for the past year or so.

“Apple Inc’s new smartwatch may be a tough sell, with 69 percent of Americans indicating they are not interested in buying the gadget, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. However, the survey also showed limited awareness of the watch. The poll was taken after Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook rolled out the product on Monday, and only about half of respondents said they had heard news of the timepiece in the last few days. Also, in an encouraging sign for Apple, roughly 13 percent of survey respondents who did not own an iPhone said that they would consider buying one in order to buy an Apple Watch, which needs an iPhone to work fully.”

14) New Technology May Double Radio Frequency Data Capacity

I believe this is similar to, but different from, a piece we carried some time ago where researchers had figured out a way to make a solid state duplexor (allowing transmission and reception on similar frequencies through a single antenna). This device appears to allow transmission and reception on the same frequency at the same time rather than two similar frequencies, which could be a very big deal because you would promptly double amount of available spectrum. Of course, the devil may be in the details as things like signal to noise ratio might suffer, resulting in lower bandwidth. Nonetheless it is am impressive accomplishment and could revolutionize the field.

“A team of Columbia Engineering researchers has invented a technology—full-duplex radio integrated circuits (ICs)—that can be implemented in nanoscale CMOS to enable simultaneous transmission and reception at the same frequency in a wireless radio. Up to now, this has been thought to be impossible: transmitters and receivers either work at different times or at the same time but at different frequencies. The Columbia team, led by Electrical Engineering Associate Professor Harish Krishnaswamy, is the first to demonstrate an IC that can accomplish this. The researchers presented their work at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco on February 25.”

15) Are Smart Glasses Dead? Not on the Factory Floor

I was quite critical of Google Glass when it launched because I simply do not believe the average person has the need or the desire to be bathed in visual minutia as they walk around. That may be fine for Terminator robots or fighter pilots, but it does not work for the average human walking down the street. The technology can be used in specific applications (repair is the classic example) so it does not mean there is no future for augmented reality. This article looks at a company’s efforts to find real world applications for augmented reality. I suspect the problem they would face is the “set up charge” associated with creating content would likely be enormous, unless they can extract it from existing design files.

“The hard hat and safety goggles are getting a makeover. Across the country, workers are using high-tech alternatives to give themselves heat vision, virtual instructions and even measure their own brain waves. It’s called augmented reality. Think of Google Glass and how it displayed information — directions, incoming calls, photos — over the wearer’s field of vision. Basically, it’s like layers of virtual reality projected onto the real world. That information can then be controlled with voice, gesture or touch commands. Google Glass has stalled, but new companies are working on bringing similar technology to workers in mines, oil refineries and factories.”

16) Scientists discover how to change human leukemia cells into harmless immune cells

Like many such purported cancer breakthroughs this is in vitro and may not translate into a practical therapy. It seems that these leukemia cells are simply macrophages which do not mature, which probably means the regulating mechanism is never turned off. As the article notes the approach of forcing cancer cells to mature is not unprecedented as it is the basis for successful treatment of another type of leukemia. Still, actually creating an in vivo treatment which doesn’t wreck havoc with other bodily systems is another matter.

“Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered that when a certain aggressive leukemia is causing havoc in the body, the solution may be to force the cancer cells to grow up and behave. After a chance observation in the lab, the researchers found a method that can cause dangerous leukemia cells to mature into harmless immune cells known as macrophages. The findings are described in a paper that published online March 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

17) Can You Ever Trust Your Online Drug Dealer Again?

Go figure: the folks who set up a major drug dealing network absconded with the make pretend money! Given the astonishing frequency with which Bitcoin and dark net scams happen, you’d think the victims would have expected this. After all, selling illegal drugs might be against the law but stealing Bitcoin is not, and even if it were, I rather doubt many of the victims would complain to police. No doubt a technological fix is in the works, as suggested by the article, however, crooks are remarkably creative when it comes to fleecing people. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for bringing this story to my attention.

“The online drug trade was dealt another blow this week. Evolution, a massive website for buying drugs on the so-called dark web, suddenly disappeared late Tuesday, along with millions of dollars in its users’ Bitcoins. The leading store for illicit e-commerce, it seemed, was an elaborate scam. In online forums, users of the site mourned their lost money, called for blood, and desperately hoped that their last order of pills would show up in their mailboxes.”

18) Researchers can now 3D-print nose cartilage in 16 minutes

Medical applications of 3D printing continue to move ahead and will probably become mainstream over the next 10 years or so. It is hard to know how important this particular advance is because the sort of cartilage in nose and ears is probably rather forgiving compared to, say, those in joints. Nevertheless, being able to relatively quickly create a customized cartilage superstructure for reconstructive surgery is probably very useful.

“Doctors have been employing 3D-printed tissue for years now. But even though the hype around 3D bioprinting has raised expectations that it will save lives and shorten donor wait lists, fully functional printed organs are not feasible yet. While we won’t be seeing blood pumping printed hearts any time soon, getting a new nose could become easier. Professor Marcy Zenobi-Wong’s team of researchers, led by Matti Kesti, at ETH Zurich’s Cartilage Engineering and Regeneration laboratory, has found a way to bioprint a joint or nose cartilage that is designed to grow with the body over time. Current cartilage transplant procedures rely on two-dimensional cell generation that doesn’t evolve as the patient’s joint regains function in the future. 3D bioprinted cartilages, on the other hand, are expected to reproduce and become a part of the body’s mechanism.”

19) Carbon3D Unveils Breakthrough CLIP 3D Printing Technology, 25-100X Faster

I admit that I still have no real idea how this works, but the results appear to be pretty impressive as they produce an object dramatically faster and with much better resolution than other approaches (the two are typically related as slower speeds were typically traded off for better resolution). The system could transform 3D printing of plastics completely, provided the cured resin has suitable characteristics in terms of strength, chemical resistance, cost, and so on. After all, industrial 3D printers are expensive and slow, meaning you can only print a certain number of objects per day, limiting the technology to very low volume production runs or prototypes. Even a 20x increase in speed would vastly increase the number of applications for 3D printers and move it into the mainstream.

“In what may be one of the biggest stories we have covered this year, a new company, Carbon3D has just emerged out of stealth mode, unveiling an entirely new breakthrough 3D printing process, which is anywhere between 25 and 100 times faster than what’s available on the market today.The privately-held Redwood City, California-based company, Carbon3D, was founded in 2013, and since then has been secretly perfecting a new 3D printing technology which promises to change the industry forever. The technology that the company calls Continuous Liquid Interface Productiongo technology (CLIP) works by harnessing the power of light and oxygen to cure a photosensitive resin. Sounds an awful lot like Stereolithography (SLA) technology, doesn’t it? While it uses principles we see within a typical SLA process, where a laser or projector cures a photosensitive resin, Carbon3D’s CLIP process strays greatly from the technology that we are all used to seeing.”

20) Researchers may have solved origin-of-life conundrum

Life on Earth began not long after it cooled enough to contain liquid water, meaning that either life is highly probable, given the right chemistry, or the stupefyingly unlikely event of abiogenesis happened very quickly. Logic favors the former but it does not offer any clues as to how. One hypothesis is that life began with RNA, a nucleic acid which can act as a genetic material as well as an enzyme (life today typically uses DNA for genetics, RNA as messenger and limited enzymes, and proteins for enzymes). This begs the question of where you get RNA from if there is no RNA around to make RNA. This paper shows that common molecules can provide the building blocks of life under conditions which should have been common on the early Earth. I don’t expect this question to be answered in our lifetime, but it does seem likely that further clues to the origins of life will be found, especially if robotic missions to comets and other objects can return samples.

“The origin of life on Earth is a set of paradoxes. In order for life to have gotten started, there must have been a genetic molecule—something like DNA or RNA—capable of passing along blueprints for making proteins, the workhorse molecules of life. But modern cells can’t copy DNA and RNA without the help of proteins themselves. To make matters more vexing, none of these molecules can do their jobs without fatty lipids, which provide the membranes that cells need to hold their contents inside. And in yet another chicken-and-egg complication, protein-based enzymes (encoded by genetic molecules) are needed to synthesize lipids. Now, researchers say they may have solved these paradoxes. Chemists report today that a pair of simple compounds, which would have been abundant on early Earth, can give rise to a network of simple reactions that produce the three major classes of biomolecules—nucleic acids, amino acids, and lipids—needed for the earliest form of life to get its start.”

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

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


I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.

I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.

They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!

This another slow week for tech news – Most of the news was associated with the release of the Apple iWatch, which I figure was pretty meaningless from a technology perspective. Until somebody comes up with a reason to spend a few hundred dollars for a gizmo you wear on your wrist which tells you what’s up with the gizmo in your pocket, I don’t see the point. This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe

1) Continued Electric Car Boom In Norway

It just goes to show what massive subsidies will do. Norway levies very large taxes to new car sales but not to EVs for some twisted reason – you might argue cars are “bad” for a variety of reasons, however, there is scant evidence EVs are good for the environment. Regardless, the net cost of a Tesla Model S in Norway is roughly the same as a Honda Accord, plus you get all kinds of other privileges like free parking. The thing with massive subsidies is that that they can only persist when a minority exploits them because governments need money, and the financial impact cannot typically be sustained once the political objectives are achieved, whatever those might be. Mind you, Norwegians are in for a collective shock once they realize they have subsidized the production of vehicles which will likely be scrapped within 8 years due to battery replacement costs.

“In Norway, there are 46,000 electric cars and plug-in hybrids on the roads, making it the country with the highest density of electric cars in Europe. Only last year, 18,650 all-electric cars and transport vehicles were registered, accounting for one third of newly registered electric cars in Europe. An additional 1,700 plug-in hybrids were registered. The most popular manufacturer was Nissan, followed by Volkswagen and Tesla. The reason behind the success of electric cars in Norway is the is generous financial subsidies for buyers, who avoid paying the VAT and carbon tax which are added on to the price of ordinary cars. Furthermore, electric car owners avoid paying motorway tolls and can park or charge their cars for free in many places.”

2) Insurers worry self-driving cars could put a dent in their business

There is a temptation to look upon robotic vehicles as an endpoint but the reality is somewhat more nuanced. Many manufacturers are offering active collision avoidance systems such as automatic braking which should begin to have a measurable impact on collision rates and severity as the portion of the fleet so equipped grows. Unlike seatbelts and good driving campaigns, these systems do not require the cooperation of the driver to be effective. We predict a dramatic drop in insurance claims, and therefore rates (assuming a competitive insurance market) within a few years as these systems become prevalent. Older cars without these systems will be more likely to be “at fault” in a collision and therefore their rates should rise in relative terms providing a positive feedback for more such systems.

“A world of robot cars may still be a long way off but that hasn’t stopped some big insurance companies from worrying about them. And not for the reasons you might think. That three insurance companies and an auto parts manufacturer mentioned driverless cars in their annual reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over the last week signifies a certain coming of age for autonomous vehicle technology. Under the “risk factors” headings of their filings, the three companies – Cincinnati Financial, Mercury General and the Travelers Companies – noted that vehicle autonomy could affect business, and not for the better. The companies sounded an ominous note – for themselves, at least – saying that driverless cars could change the way they do business.”

3) Why the Warm Ocean on This Moon of Saturn Could Be Perfect for Life

Life apparently started on Earth only a few hundred million years after the planet cooled enough to sustain it, meaning either a stupefyingly improbable roll of the dice happened at the start of the game, or, more likely, life is highly probable given suitable ingredients such as certain chemicals and an external energy source. This finding suggests the oceans of Enceladus include areas likely very similar to those found near geothermal vents on Earth, one place some scientists have suggested life may have begun. If there is life in the interior of this moon, it should be detectable in samples take on the surface, so an Enceladus rover might be a viable mission.

“Move over, Europa. It looks as though the most life-friendly habitat ever discovered outside of Earth is Enceladus—Saturn’s sixth-largest moon. Astrophysicists working with NASA’s Saturn sweeping Cassini spacecraft have just announced that Enceladus has a warm ocean at its southern pole with ongoing hydrothermal activity—the first ever discovered outside of Earth. This new research, published in the journal Nature, builds upon last year’s discovery of the moon’s 6-mile-deep ocean, which is also believed to contain many of the chemicals commonly associated with life.”

4) TiVo Study: Over 1.5 Million Cable Subscribers Plan To Cancel Cable And 38.1 million Cable Subscribers Are “Unsatisfied” With Their Service

This is one of a couple articles looking at the disruption going on in the broadcast industry as we had predicted in the late 1990s. Traditional broadcast television has a monopoly provider (the guy who ended up with a license) deciding what you were going to watch and when you were going to watch it. If they chose well they sold a lot of advertising so it becomes a “lowest common denominator” type offering – satisfactory to few but acceptable to many. More channels and cable are based on the same sort of model except there is greater choice (ignoring for a moment common ownership of many of the choices). Dissatisfaction with cable providers has been around since the dawn of the industry and is much due to lousy customer service and ever increasing pricing as a desire to switch. Streaming services actually provide a substitution and subscribers can choose what they watch and when they watch it. Ultimately this is a no win situation for cable companies as they only provide some of the broadband service despite typically having a monopoly on cable TV in their area.

“Digitalsmiths, a TiVo owned research firm, has released the results of their 2014 4Q survey. The survey concluded that approximately 1.5 million Pay-TV subscribers plan to cancel cable, and around an additional 2.4 million subscribers plan to downgrade their service. From the report “According to Q4 2014 survey respondents, 8.9% switched Pay-TV providers in the prior three months. Based on a year-over-year analysis this represents a 2.1% increase. Additionally, in the next six months 4.2% of respondents plan to “cut” service, 7.9% plan to “change” service, and 2.6% plan to “switch” to an online app or rental service. While some of these numbers seem minimal, they should still raise concern for Pay-TV Providers — since multiplied by millions of subscribers, the revenue threat alone is apparent.”

5) Americans are moving faster than ever away from traditional TV

As we note about, wishing to drop cable is not the same thing as dropping it because for the most part the only alternative has been broadcast (satellite has the same issue as actual cable). Given a choice, some people are, in fact, dropping cable in favor of streaming services as reflected in these data. The adoption of streaming is predicated on an available service and a suitable infrastructure, as well as knowledge and experience of the option. Although North America is falling behind relatively in Internet infrastructure for most of the population it is improving in absolute terms. The shift is small but significant and it should accelerate as more people see streaming as an option.

“Traditional television watching is declining faster than ever as streaming services become a mainstream feature in American homes, according to new research by Nielsen. Adults watched an average of four hours and 51 minutes of live TV each day in the fourth quarter of 2014, down 13 minutes from the same quarter of 2013, according to Nielsen’s fourth-quarter 2014 Total Audience Report. Viewing was down six minutes between the fourth quarter of 2013 and 2012. And between 2012 and 2011, viewing time actually increased for live TV. At the same time, more homes turned to online video, with 40 percent of U.S. homes subscribing to a streaming service such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video or Hulu compared with 36 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, according to Nielsen. Netflix is by far the most popular streaming service, in 36 percent of all U.S. homes, and Amazon Instant Video is in 13 percent of homes.”

6) Game of drones: As U.S. dithers, rivals get a head start

There is a libertarian streak in technology which tends to view regulation as the enemy. In many cases dialing back regulation makes sense as regulations are often solving yesterday’s problems and entrenching yesterday’s business models (see item 16, below). Nevertheless, some things call for regulation, and drones of all kinds (flying or land roving) can be dangerous to people and property. It is only a matter of time before one hits an airplane or drops from the sky and hurts somebody. This may be less of an issue for toy drones, but industrial units are bound to be bigger and heavier and therefore more dangerous.

“Sky-Futures, a British company that dominates the use of drones to collect and analyze inspection data for oil and gas companies, says its business soared 700 percent last year as the normally conservative energy industry embraced the new technology. Co-founder and operations director Chris Blackford said the company is coupling drones with software and a better understanding of what works in the field, giving Sky-Futures “a head-start over the U.S because we understand pretty intimately the problems facing the oil and gas market, and how we can solve them with technology.” Looser regulations outside the U.S. have created pockets of innovation attracting ideas, money and momentum, says Patrick Thevoz, co-founder and CEO of Swiss-based Flyability, which builds drones inside a spherical cage that allows them to bump through doors, tunnels and forests without losing balance.”

7) Dawn of a new era: the revolutionary ion engine that took spacecraft to Ceres

Star Trek fans may recall the use of “impulse power” when the Enterprise was moving “slowly” (below the speed of light). Impulse power was essentially charged particles accelerated by a fusion reactor and sent in the opposite direction of travel. This is what an ion-engine is, except of course they have not yet developed a fusion reactor. Nonetheless you can use solar power if you are close enough to the sun or a small fission reactor to product more or less the same effect. The interesting thing is that, although you use up the gas, you can get a lot of push for the amount on hand and since the thrust is dependent on how the fast the gas is accelerated, so you can have a relatively slow, steady acceleration which fairly quickly leads to extremely high speeds.

“But inside Dawn itself is another first – the spacecraft is the first exploratory space mission to use an electrically-powered ion engine rather than conventional rockets. The ion engine will propel the next generation of spacecraft. Electric power is used to create charged particles of the fuel, usually the gas xenon, and accelerate them to extremely high velocities. The exhaust velocity of conventional rockets is limited by the chemical energy stored in the fuel’s molecular bonds, which limits the thrust to about 5km/s. Ion engines are in principle limited only by the electrical power available on the spacecraft, but typically the exhaust speed of the charged particles range from 15km/s to 35km/s.”

8) Open Compute: Apple, Cisco Join While HP Expands

As the article suggests, the Open Compute project aims to provide a fully open enterprise grade networking switch, leading to a “white box” market such as exists for desktop computers. After all, like a PC, the architectural choices are more or less dictated by the major chips used in the system, and most of the software is already Linux based. The decision by Cisco and Juniper to join is a bit perplexing as proprietary vendors have the most to lose by the advancement of Open Compute. I rather doubt they sincerely hope the standard succeeds, so they are most likely there to observe and potentially co-opt development much as Microsoft has done open file standards which compete with, for example, Office.

“Apple, Cisco, and Juniper are an unlikely trio to join. For the last 18 months, the Open Compute Project has been talking about creating commodity switching from standard x86 hardware and disrupting the switch market, where Cisco and Juniper are high-end market leaders who are therefore among the most likely to get disrupted. A year ago Facebook produced its first prototype for a top-of-rack switch, a unit dubbed the Wedge. Monday it contributed the design of the Wedge to the project so that anyone may reproduce it.”

9) Genome Sequencing Price Dropping Faster Than Moore’s Law (my title)

Genome sequencing is a powerful tool for diagnosing various types of diseases ranging from inherited conditions to cancers which may respond better to specific treatments depending on their own genotype, so advancement of the technology is very significant. One has to be cautious when comparing improvements to Moore’s Law, especially over short periods of time since those can be due to specific innovations and not representative of some inherent process. After all, Moore’s Law has worked for over 50 years because transistors are better and cheaper as they get smaller – a relationship which is very unusual.

“To illustrate the nature of the reductions in DNA sequencing costs, each graph also shows hypothetical data reflecting Moore’s Law, which describes a long-term trend in the computer hardware industry that involves the doubling of ‘compute power’ every two years (See: Moore’s Law []). Technology improvements that ‘keep up’ with Moore’s Law are widely regarded to be doing exceedingly well, making it useful for comparison.”

10) The SSD Endurance Experiment: They’re all dead

We carried preliminary results of this test a while back – now all the devices being tested have died and the final results are in. Long story short, Solid State Drives (SSDs) tend to last much longer than their manufacturers expect them to so you should not be worried they are going to “wear out” on you. After all, Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) are far more fragile and power hungry and they don’t last forever either. I believe the best deal in a laptop is to buy a cheap laptop and replace the HDD with an SSD. It makes a dramatic improvement to performance and battery life, but, unfortunately it is not the sort of thing a casual user can do. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“Technically, I’m also a torturer—or at least an enhanced interrogator. Instead of offering a quick and painless death, I slowly squeezed out every last drop of life with a relentless stream of writes far more demanding than anything the SSDs would face in a typical PC. To make matters worse, I exploited their suffering by chronicling the entire process online. Today, that story draws to a close with the final chapter in the SSD Endurance Experiment. The last two survivors met their doom on the road to 2.5PB, joining four fallen comrades who expired earlier. It’s time to honor the dead and reflect on what we’ve learned from all the carnage.”

11) Cryptocurrency Miners Explained: Why You Really Don’t Want This Junk on Your PC

You might recall last week we carried a piece on how uTorrent was “slipping in” a cryptocurrency mining application with its latest software update. We consider this sort of installation malware, even if the user agrees to the installation, because few users understand the ramification of permitting the installation. Remarkably, the entire thing has blown up in uTorrent’s face and they have embarked on a damage control campaign. Users should be reminded there are plenty free uTorrent alternatives out their which don’t try to infect your computer. This article explains why you should never permit anything like Epic Scale to be installed on your computer. As far as I am concerned the appeal to benevolence is complete rubbish and should be ignored: once installed you have no control over what happens to the money.

“Bitcoin isn’t the only cryptocurrency. The Epic Scale junkware bundled with uTorrent’s installer doesn’t attempt to mine Bitcoin — it attempts to mine Litecoin, which was inspired by and is very similar to Bitcoin. Mining programs tap into your computer’s hardware resources and put them to work mining Bitcoin, Litecoin, or another type of cryptocurrency. And no, even if your hardware is used to generate money for them, you don’t get any of it. They get all the money from putting your hardware to work. Worse yet, your desktop computer or laptop at home just isn’t powerful enough to profitably mine Bitcoin, Litecoin, or other cryptocurrencies. Doing this profitably requires specialized mining rigs with specialized hardware and cheap electricity. So, even if you put your computer to work mining Bitcoin for your own profit, you’d actually lose money. You’d run up your power bill as your computer draws more power, and you’d make back less than it would cost you in power.”

12) Quebec company hit with $1.1-million penalty under CASL (Anti-Spam Law)

It sounds like a good start – short of flaying the CEO on live TV, a large fine should get their attention. Unfortunately, the devil is in the details: the fine is only a fine if the company agrees to pay it. Otherwise it is simply an invitation to explain themselves. Assuming this goes like any other corporate misdeed in Canada the net result will be, at worse, a tiny fine or, more likely, a sincere apology from the regulator for having raised the matter.

“Almost a year after coming into force, the CRTC has issued its first fine and notice of violation under Canada’s anti-spam rules to a Quebec company it says was in “flagrant” violation of the law. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s chief compliance and enforcement officer issued a notice to Compu-Finder March 5. At $1.1 million the fine is well under the $10-million maximum allowable under the law.”$1.1-million-penalty-under-CASL.html

13) How GitHub Conquered Google, Microsoft, and Everyone Else

Most PC users are aware there are a number of free or open programs available, including browsers such as Firefox. Most probably treat these with deep suspicion since free programs can include malware, adware, and other nasties. In fact, certain well known download sites, including those owned by major corporations, seem bent on providing distribution for toolbars, adware, virus scanners, etc.. In any event, open source projects pretty much require a version control function as well as allowing for the distribution of programs and source code. One of the major sites offering the later was SourceForge, but a relatively new entrant, GitHub, has emerged as the “go to” site for open source contributors as well as users of their software.

“So, like many other companies, Google created its own site where people could host open source projects. It was called Google Code. The company had built its online empire on top of Linux and other open source software, and in providing an alternative to SourceForce, it was trying to ensure open source would continue to evolve, trying to spread this religion across the net. But then GitHub came along and spread it faster. Today, Google announced that after ten years, it’s shutting down Google Code.”

14) Android phones will soon use a smaller, simpler USB connector

I tried to avoid mentioning the Apple product launches this week because, despite the hype, there was nothing of note there. I did see some coverage of the MacBook which referred to “Apple’s New USB” connector, which shows the power of marketing its not “Apple’s USB” connector, it is USB-C, which is the industry standard successor to micro-USB. It is reversible (there is no right or wrong way to install it) and you can move a lot of power across the cable. From what I read, the MacBook has exactly one such port, which is used for I/O and charging the laptop itself. This is outright stupid for two reasons: first, there are few peripherals which support USB C today so you’ll have to carry around adapters, and second, you can charge your computer or access a peripheral but not both, unless you have another adapter. So you can buy an expensive, thin laptop and carry two adapters in your pocket. I expect to see USB C quickly adopted on smartphones since they mostly use their USB ports for charging, and the high power capability should allow for fast charge.

“That tiny USB Type-C port you’ve seen on the latest MacBook and Chromebook Pixel? Don’t be surprised if you see it on your smartphone soon. In a video accompanying the new Chromebook, Google’s Adam Rodriguez says that his company is “very committed” to the new USB spec and that you’ll see it on both Android phones and more Chromebooks in the “near future.” It’s a vague promise, to be sure, but it’ll matter a lot in the long run. Type-C delivers brisk USB 3-level speeds (and eventually, 3.1) without requiring a gigantic connector, and the reversible design means you won’t have to inspect your phone to make sure you plug the cable in the right way.”

15) Surge in Smartphones Sets Off New Wave of Corporate Self-Reinvention

This is not a particularly good article but it does list a number of disruptive business models which have been enabled by the smartphone revolution. The particular mix of wireless, a graphical display, a camera, position information, and so on, has provided the inspiration for things such as Uber, though I don’t see how AirBnB figures into the mix. Of course, innovation and disruption is one thing, making money is another. For the most part, most such mobile related businesses have very modest barriers to entry, so it will be interesting to see which if any, ever make enough money to justify their valuations.

“Old-line companies might take solace in remembering that not every upstart of the web era — is the classic cautionary tale — was able to supplant established business models. But the rapid rise of the smartphone and mobile apps has thrown the pace of change into warp speed. In recent years, the price of the devices has fallen sharply, enabling people in developed countries as well as emerging markets to buy a smartphone for as little as $25. That has put the mobile Internet in the hands of billions of people who, until recently, had no online access. Analysts say companies — whether traditional players or start-ups — that take advantage of the new mobile technologies could experience meteoric growth.”

16) Inside Big Taxi’s Dirty War With Uber

The taxi business is a big business, and a lot of wealthy and influential people own taxi licenses. Once you’ve got a taxi license you can rent it out to poorly paid drivers to make money for you – after all, most cab drivers don’t make enough money to be able to afford their own license. You can see the sort of horror a company like Uber can cause: imagine if cab drivers can work for themselves! A remarkably high proportion of the media coverage of Uber has been negative and this article suggests why this might be the case. Of course, whether Uber is doing good or bad doesn’t make it a good investment: it is just a car service and there are low barriers to entry. Nevertheless I would not place my money on cab companies coming out on top.

“David Sutton is looking for the worst possible news about Uber Technologies. An accident in San Francisco, an assault in Boston: Such bad tidings for Uber are ammunition for Sutton, a 48-year-old publicist. “Uber is a creep magnet,” Sutton says in a news release sent to U.S. local and national media outlets in February. Sutton is a hired gun in the dirty war that’s broken out between old-line taxi companies and Uber, the ride-share phenom. His client, a powerful trade association, represents 1,000 taxi and limousine firms worldwide. These firms want to kill the young juggernaut—or at least buy themselves enough time to develop rival car-hailing apps.”

17) 3-D printer for small molecules opens access to customized chemistry

Its not really a 3D printer but you’ve got to go with the buzzwords of the day. Long story short, this system allows the production certain types of chemical compounds at will. In contrast, as the article indicates these compounds would have been made after the chemist essentially figured out a custom production method for each one, which limited the number they could screen for certain applications. With this system they should be able to make prototype quantities for experimental use and then, if the molecule shows promise, figure out mass production later.

“Howard Hughes Medical Institute scientists have simplified the chemical synthesis of small molecules, eliminating a major bottleneck that limits the exploration of a class of compounds offering tremendous potential for medicine and technology. Scientists led by Martin Burke, an HHMI early career scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, used a single automated process to synthesize 14 distinct classes of small molecules from a common set of building blocks. Burke’s team envisions expanding the approach to enable the production of thousands of potentially useful molecules with a single machine, which they describe as a “3D printer” for small molecules.”

18) DARPA looking for robots that can help us during disasters and calamities

Rescue robots make a lot of sense because they can be exposed to risks you would not expose a real worker to, and they can be built in forms very different from a human. For example, a snake like robot might be useful for exploring collapsed structures looking for trapped victims, or some other form might be good for putting out fires. It is early days but the DARPA program also funded early work into the self-driving car, and that has moved along at quite a pace.

“The DoD’s DARPA, short for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, announced the 25 robots from teams that will compete this Summer for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. According to Livescience, 14 teams from different countries are joining the remaining 11, and they are all advancing to the final round. The competition is scheduled in June, and it will be held in California. DARPA will award a total of $3.5 million cash prize, combined. Only three teams will win, the report added. These robots are human-controlled, meaning, they are still not capable of moving, or acting on their own. They are also not self-aware. So relax, DARPA is not developing an Ultron here.”

19) Apple Admits Siri Voice Data is Being shared with Third Parties

One thing you can pretty much guarantee is that there is data on your smartphone, it is being shared with somebody. In theory this doesn’t look so bad: the voice recordings are being checked against the transcription to improve the service, however, that doesn’t mean it is the only thing the data is being used for. As for anonymity, well, sure, maybe people can accept that as true but studies have shown that it does not take much to figure out who somebody is from a small amount of information.

“Apple admits that its Siri — an intelligent personal assistant for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices — is collecting and also transmitting users voice data to 3rd party companies, which was disclosed in an unsurprising revelation two weeks back on Reddit. FallenMyst, a Reddit user claimed to had recently started a new job with a company called Walk N’ Talk Technologies, where job profile requires her to listen voice data collected from Apple, Microsoft users and check for incorrect interpretations.”

20) Your cat can finally post to its own Instagram account with the Catstacam

The prevalence of cat videos and photos on the Internet is well documented – so why not cut out the middleman and let puss post her own material? Actually this is a publicity campaign and not a real thing, at least not yet. I have to wonder what a “celebrity cat” is.

“Why should humans have all the social networking fun? What about cats? They have interesting, varied lives (when they’re not sleeping), and may have a deep desire to share it with others. Thankfully, the Catstacam is here to let felines indulge in some narcissism previously reserved for us humans. It’s a collar-worn camera with the ability to shoot six photos per minute, then upload the best ones to Instagram once it reconnects to Wi-Fi. Because cats find it difficult to use shutter buttons, the camera is activated by motion. It even comes in packaging that can be reused as a cat toy.”

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

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


I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.

I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.

They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!

This another slow week for tech news – Most of the news was associated with relatively unimportant announcements regarding product releases or business strategies. We thought the announcement of Alcatel’s new phone was significant simply because it reiterates an important trend towards cheap but highly functional smartphones which will put significant pressure on manufacturers’ earnings. This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe

1) Alcatel’s new flagship smartphones have high-end features, low-end prices

Carriers would prefer to lock hapless consumers into contracts by offering to “subsidize” expensive mobile phones in exchange for servitude. Of course, there is no subsidy: the consumer is simply paying an inflated price for a phone over a 24 month period. I don’t know how many consumers would finance a television, but the vast majority finance their mobile devices. The alternative is to buy an unlocked phone from an independent vendor and demand a discount on mobile services. An increasing number of inexpensive and highly functional smartphones will make that an easier choice for consumers – if they decide to act on it.

“There are lots of phones flooding the market at ultra-low price points, many of which bring along rather impressive design and user experiences. But the pair of Alcatel phones are notable in that they don’t look like cheap smartphones at all. Even the Motorola Moto G and Moto E, both of which are great inexpensive phones in their own rights, mostly look the part. In contrast, the Alcatel’s have bright, laminated displays with great viewing angles (which Alcatel says was tuned by Technicolor), fast performance, loud speakers, and clean, attractive designs. Most of those features have been reserved for high-end, expensive smartphones until now. The Idol 3 units I saw don’t quite hit the high marks set by HTC and Apple when it comes to build quality, but when you can get three 5.5-inch Idol 3s for the cost of one iPhone 6 Plus, it’s easy to excuse that.”

2) Exclusive: Obama sharply criticizes China’s plans for new technology rules

There are times when you read something and wonder if perhaps it is actually an “Onion” article because the absurdity is so stark: the US president, it seems, is “sharply criticizing” the Chinese government for enacting legislation which more or less exactly mirrors the Orwellian themed and named US Patriot Act (see and many issues of the Geek’s Reading List. In addition, the Snowden/NSA revelations prove major US technology companies are actively colluding with security agencies to spy on any person, business, or government they can. The hypocrisy: it burns.

“A Chinese parliamentary body read a second draft of the country’s first anti-terrorism law last week and is expected to adopt the legislation in the coming weeks or months. The initial draft, published by the National People’s Congress late last year, requires companies to also keep servers and user data within China, supply law enforcement authorities with communications records and censor terrorism-related Internet content. The laws “would essentially force all foreign companies, including U.S. companies, to turn over to the Chinese government mechanisms where they can snoop and keep track of all the users of those services,” Obama said.””–finance.html

3) Google has developed a technology to tell whether ‘facts’ on the Internet are true

This got a lot of coverage over the past week. As the article notes, it is theoretical. There does seem to be an assumption that all facts are either true or false: often, facts are a matter of opinion, recollection, and subsequent revisions, and this is often as much the case for historical as scientific facts. What Google might ultimately be able to do is to determine whether a particular item line up with the consensus as expressed on the Internet, and there can be a very big difference between what is believed to be true by the majority of even experts and what is really true. Reality is not a popularity contest.

“The Internet, we know all too well, is a cesspool of rumor and chicanery. But in a research paper published by Google in February — and reported over the weekend by New Scientist — that could, at least hypothetically, change. A team of computer scientists at Google has proposed a way to rank search results not by how popular Web pages are, but by their factual accuracy. To be really clear, this is 100 percent theoretical: It’s a research paper, not a product announcement or anything equally exciting. (Google publishes hundreds of research papers a year.) Still, the fact that a search engine could effectively evaluate truth, and that Google is actively contemplating that technology, should boggle the brain. After all, truth is a slippery, malleable thing — and grappling with it has traditionally been an exclusively human domain.”

4) Auto Makers Gear Up to Take On the Challenge From Google and Apple

This week I read an article about how Apple was going to disrupt the TV industry, as I have been told they were going to disrupt the TV industry for the past five years or so. Similarly, despite no actual evidence that Apple is getting in to the car business, they have become a force to reckon with, or at least a necessary mention for any article regarding the auto industry. At least Google has shown that it has relevant technology, though I would argue that it is probably easier to catch up with self driving car technology than it is to build an affordable and reliable automobile. In any event, as this article shows, the actual auto makers are paying attention and working on their own solutions.

““There is tremendous opportunity from the convergence of the West Coast technology and the auto industry with its huge technology depth,” said Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler AG. “We are not afraid. We are confident about our own strength.” Neither Apple nor Google exhibited vehicles at the Geneva show, but their presence was felt in closed-door briefings and news conferences. Google has developed a prototype car that can drive itself. The company has said it hopes to have one on the road in five years.”

5) Foxconn expects robots to take over more factory work

Robotics has been an important part of the electronics industry since at least the 1980s when I developed software to transfer component locations from CAD tools to automated “pick and place” machines. Robotic assembly is not only faster and cheaper, the resulting products are more reliable. In fact, in almost any high volume manufacturing operation, people are used when it is simply too expensive to automate their functions. Of course, when labor can be acquired cheaply enough, the bar gets reset, at least until wage inflation (or bad publicity) increases the relative value of machine versus human labor. This is a moving target, however: robots get better faster than people do and labor displacement is a secular trend.

“The electronics industry may still be reliant on human workers to assemble products, but Apple supplier Foxconn Technology Group is hopeful that robots will take over more of the workload soon. In three years, Foxconn will probably use robots and automation to complete 70 percent of its assembly line work, said company CEO Terry Gou on Thursday in news footage circulated online. Although the Taiwanese manufacturing giant employs over 1 million workers in mainland China, it has also been investing in robotics research. Previously Gou said he hoped to one day deploy a “robot army” at the company’s factories, as a way to offset labor costs and improve manufacturing.”

6) VMware sued in Hamburg, Germany court for failure to comply with the GPL on Linux

As I understand it, the GNU General Public License version 2 (GPLv2) software license allows you to modify and enhance licensed works provided you offer them under GPLv2, meaning distribution of all the source codes, etc.. In theory, this license should have all the legal force of, say, Microsoft’s license in that you are breaking the law if you violate it. It appears than a growing number of companies are essentially stealing GPLv2 open source software and selling it without otherwise complying with the license, as alleged in this article. The reasoning is, no doubt, that nobody has the resources to sue them and, in any event, even if sued the damages will be trivial. Perhaps that is indeed the case, but it certainly does not smack of ethical behavior.

“During Hellwig’s investigations, Conservancy continued to negotiate with VMware. Sadly, VMware’s legal counsel finally informed Conservancy in 2014 that VMware had no intention of ceasing their distribution of proprietary-licensed works derived from Hellwig’s and other kernel developers’ copyrights, despite the terms of GPLv2. Conservancy therefore had no recourse but to support Hellwig’s court action. In addition to other ways VMware has not complied with the requirements of the GPL, Conservancy and Hellwig specifically assert that VMware has combined copyrighted Linux code, licensed under GPLv2, with their own proprietary code called “vmkernel” and distributed the entire combined work without providing nor offering complete, corresponding source code for that combined work under terms of the GPLv2. Hellwig is an extensive copyright holder in the portions of Linux that VMware misappropriated and used together in a single, new work without permission.”

7) The Curiosity robot confirms methane in Mars’ atmosphere which may hint that existed life

Methane (basically natural gas) has a relatively short half life, meaning that if it is detected it has to have been released relatively recently. Almost all the methane on Earth has been produced by microorganisms, and that includes the vast natural gas reserves. Methane can be produced non-biologically, however, the measured wide variations in production are a bit harder to explain. Nonetheless, until unequivocal evidence of life can be measured on Mars, scientists will be very cautious drawing conclusions from this type of finding.

“According to him, the new questions posed by these results far outnumber the answers it does provide. “It is a finding that puts paid to the question of the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere, but it does pose some other more complex and far-reaching questions, such as the nature of its sources—which must lie, we believe, in one or two additional sources that were not originally contemplated in the models used so far. Among these sources, we must not rule out biological methanogenesis. Another new question is related to the bizarre evolution of methane in the Martian atmosphere after its emission. Both questions should be addressed in the future with specifically designed new research.””

8) Valve’s VR headset is called the Vive and it’s made by HTC

You might recall there was great excitement when Facebook spent $2 billion on Occulus VR, a VR headset which got its start as a Kickstarter project. At the time we noted that these are not particularly hard to make so the money was pretty much wasted. Of course, there are few greater joys for tech CEOs is to give their shareholders’ money away to the shareholders’ of other companies in stupid acquisitions, but I digress. In any event, many tech companies are coming out with VR headsets, and, provided some of the bugs can be worked out (in particular the nausea experienced by many users) they may become the “next big thing” in gaming.

“HTC has just announced the Vive, a virtual reality headset developed in collaboration with Valve. It will be available to consumers later this year, with a developer edition coming out this spring. The company has promised to have a significant presence at the Game Developers Conference next week, where devs will have a chance to play with Valve’s VR technology. The Vive Developer Edition uses two 1200 x 1080 displays that refresh at 90 frames per second, “eliminating jitter” and achieving “photorealistic imagery,” according to HTC. The displays are said to envelope your entire field of vision with 360-degree views. The company says in a press release that it’s the first device to offer a “full room-scale” experience, “letting you get up, walk around and explore your virtual space, inspect objects from every angle and truly interact with your surroundings.””

9) Mobile industry tiptoes towards 5G

There is a big mobile conference going on, hence the huge number of mobile related press releases. This article outlines some of the opportunities and challenges associated with 5G. The major challenge at this time is spectrum, which remains in short supply, except at the highest frequencies. The problem with higher frequencies is that radio tends to act like light, rather than sound meaning less coverage unless there is, more or less, line of sight. Perhaps the time has come to consider migrating and consolidating broadcast radio spectrum in the same way they did with TV. Not that this would be useful for 5G, but other services could be moved to the broadcast spectrum which would open up a hole for 5G. After all, broadcast radio is pretty much a dying business as podcasting and streaming have become increasingly common.

“Running short of dramatically new phone designs, leaders of the world’s wireless industry agree their next big idea is 5G, shorthand for the fifth generation of networks they expect to have up and running by 2020. But first they’ll have to decide what 5G needs to do that the current, fourth generation of wireless networks will never offer. “It is unclear what the opportunity or weakness that 5G should address is,” researchers at GSMA, the global trade group of mobile network operators, said in a report issued in December that punctured some of the more visionary claims for 5G.”

10) Apple’s New Job: Selling a Smartwatch to an Uninterested Public

There is no doubt Apple has been tremendously successful with the iPhone, though I admit I do not see the attraction of paying a large premium for yesterday’s features. With technology in particular, there is no reason to assume success in one domain will somehow translate to success in any other. This is, in particular, the case with smartwatches which seem to engender a lot of interest in consumers until they actually own one, after which they see no particular use in the device. Watches are as much jewelery as timepieces nowadays since there are so many accurate clocks around. The problem with smartwatches appears to be they solve a problem which does not appear to exist. No doubt Apple’s marketing power will result in high sales, at least in the short term, as we witnessed with the iPhone 6. The question in general is whether those sales can be sustained.

“The first batch of smartwatches from companies like Samsung Electronics, Motorola and LG did not sell well, nor were they particularly well reviewed. And wearable devices like the Google Glass eyewear that got mainstream attention — if not sales — were greeted with considerable skepticism. But Apple has been in this situation before. Most consumers didn’t care about computer tablets before Apple released the iPad, nor did they generally think about buying smartphones before the release of the iPhone. In both cases, the company overcame initial skepticism.”

11) This guy’s light bulb performed a DoS attack on his entire smart house

If you have a home network of any complexity whatsoever, you have probably dealt with the joys of configuring routers, setting up switches, and so on. It took me almost a year to figure out a “packet storm” in my house was being caused by two WiFi access points having a discussion with each other. Now, imagine a home network where you have a few dozen Internet of Things (IoT) components, from a variety of vendors, and with no real provision for diagnostics. That, in a nutshell, is what happened to this guy: an IoT light bulb burned out and it decided this was so important it flooded his network with its status. Not such a problem if you are a computer science professor, but well beyond the grasp of the average consumer.

“About two years ago, Rojas’s house froze up, and stopped responding to his commands. “Nothing worked. I couldn’t turn the lights on or off. It got stuck,” he says. It was like when the beach ball of death begins spinning on your computer—except it was his entire home. It wasn’t quite as bad as the “nightmare on connected home street” dreamed up by Wired last year, in which a fictional smart home’s obsolete technology gets loaded up with viruses and malware and starts misbehaving and uploading naked photos of its owner. Rojas—a professor who specializes in artificial intelligence—knows his way around a network well enough to cure his own home. And, when he investigated, it turned out that the culprit was a single, connected light bulb.”

12) No reboot patching comes to Linux 4.0

Windows users are familiar with regular software updates because their system starts nagging them to reboot in order to install the various updates. This is the easy way out as the OS does not have to worry about overwriting software it happens to be executing, resulting in a partially installed patch or upgrade and the need to do a system recovery (it is also why you are admonished not to shut down your machine during the process). “No boot patching” means the OS can accomplish a system update without having to go down as it waits for components to be unused before updating them. This will be a very useful feature in Linux systems which require high availability such as servers, robots, Internet of Things, etc..

“With Linux 4.0, you may never need to reboot your operating system again. One reason to love Linux on your servers or in your data-center is that you so seldom needed to reboot it. True, critical patches require a reboot, but you could go months without rebooting. Now, with the latest changes to the Linux kernel you may be able to go years between reboots.”

13) Fraud Comes to Apple Pay

I don’t know how serious this is, and it sound like more of a bank problem than an Apple Pay problem. Nevertheless, one can rest assured that if there is a vulnerability, whether it is due to human or machine, there will be crooks willing to exploit it.

“Some banks are seeing a growing incidence of fraud on Apple’s mobile-payment service as criminals exploit vulnerabilities in the verification process of adding a credit card, according to people familiar with the matter. Banks are tightening the verification process in an attempt to curb the fraud, these people said, declining to be identified citing a confidentiality agreement with Apple. The fraud issue was brought to light by Cherian Abraham, a payment expert who works with banks and retailers on mobile-payment strategies, in a blog post in late February. He said fraud “is growing like a weed, and the bank is unable to tell friend from foe.” Abraham said it’s not “an anomaly” to see fraud accounting for about 6% of Apple Pay transactions, compared to about 0.1% of transactions using a plastic card to swipe. He noted that fraud rates vary by issuing bank.”

14) Cheap wonder metals will make a faster, cleaner world

This is a pretty superficial article, but the subject is interesting, namely that there are efforts afoot to significantly reduce the cost of producing aluminum and titanium, which are very abundant elements but nevertheless expensive to produce due to the energy cost of converting oxides back to the metals. Although it appears to me to be off topic, the advanced scrap metal sorting gizmo sounds pretty cool: increased reuse of scrap, especially non-ferrous scrap which is typically hand sorted, could reduce costs a fair bit.

“The US government is funding a group of projects that aim to unleash light metals for the masses. Run by the Department of Energy’s research arm ARPA-E, the METALS programme aims to make aluminium and magnesium cost the same as steel, while titanium could become as cheap as the slightly pricier stainless steel. Last week 18 teams presented their work at ARPA-E’s annual energy innovation summit in Washington DC, showing new ways to produce these metals and handle valuable scrap. ARPA-E’s primary goal is to reduce the energy that goes into transport – by making cars and planes lighter. The immediate benefit would be to make them a whole lot zippier and more energy-efficient, and there are many other exciting possibilities further down the road.”

15) EFF: If You Want to Fix Software Patents, Eliminate Software Patents

Software patents and business process patents are bad ideas which have had their day. In particular, software is better protected via copyright (at least in theory, see item 6, above) than by patent. The discussion on “patent trolls”, tends to center around Non-Practicing Entities (NPEs), or companies which own patents but don’t make things with them. The problem with attacking NPEs is that it applies to trolls as well at to universities, drug companies, or inventors who spent a lot of time refining an invention with a view to licensing it rather than manufacturing an end product. Software patents pretty much only affect the high tech sector and are generally used as barrier to competition so their abolition would not likely have much of a negative impact.

“The US patent system is a mess. One way to fix it is to abolish software patents. That is by far the most incendiary proposal the Electronic Frontier Foundation offers in its comprehensive report on overhauling a painfully broken patent system. The report, two years in the making, suggests everything from strengthening the quality of patents to making patent litigation less costly. And there, on page 27 of the 29-page report, is “Abolish software patents.””

16) The world’s first printed jet engine

This does not appear to be the breakthrough suggested by the headline but it is interesting: it appears they have built the components for a jet engine, but it is not clear this is a function jet engine, though they hope to have a functional one in two years. 3D printing is being used in a number of ways in the aerospace industry because you can manufacture components with things like internal channels which you cannot make using standard techniques such as casting and machining. The videos are interesting, but they are much more of an advertisement for the school than instructive as to what they are doing.

“Monash University researchers along with collaborators from CSIRO and Deakin University have printed a jet engine. In fact Monash and their spin-out company Amaero, have printed two engines. One is on display this week at the International Air Show in Avalon, while the second is displayed in Toulouse at the French aerospace company Microturbo (Safran). The engines are a proof of concept that’s led to tier one aerospace companies lining up to develop new components at the Monash Centre for Additive Manufacturing in Melbourne, Australia. And the project has created advanced manufacturing opportunities for Australian businesses large and small.”

17) Time to disconnect: why the SIM card has had its day

I am not sure the author has his facts straight with respect to the history of the SIM card, but I can agree with the general thesis. SIM cards were a relatively cost effective way of moving accounts and user information such as contact information from phone to phone. Contact information is now mostly held in the cloud, and the account information can be moved through a password, or some other system. The SIM card has moved from being a convenience to a bother and its days are numbered.

“The fact is that the SIM could have been replaced long ago with a simpler alternative: typing in a user identifier and password directly into the phone is an option – just as we do to access WiFi. QR codes – the square, 3D barcodes – are a more convenient alternative for smartphones with cameras, where an app could read the details encoded in the QR straight from the camera. Modern cryptographic techniques mean that passwords no longer have to be very long. Password-authenticated key exchange (PAKE) techniques exist that use passwords as simple as a five-digit PIN to create highly secure encrypted connections that even the supercomputers of eavesdropping intelligence agencies cannot break. And thanks to email and the web, network operators today have much better mechanisms for keeping in touch with their users to inform them which devices are authorised. None of these options were available when the SIM was conceived in the late 1980s.”

18) Rogue Router Firmware Chaos #Backdoor

This may sound like esoteric stuff but access to your router can provide access to anything on your network, including your PC. Not only that but you could end up sharing your bandwidth with the neighbor or worse, depending on what he wants to with your bandwidth. For example, you might not appreciate being sued for movie piracy or arrested for distribution of child pornography. This sort of blatant backdoor is likely not intentional as much as due to incompetence. Although the affected systems are described as being from “major” vendors I only recognized a couple of names on the list. You probably want to stick with major brands.

“After getting this backdoor information, we had me mixed feelings that we might have been pwned or there was something wrong with the firmware.The latter was highly likely in this case. So, I started my research and tried to find the root cause. I never found the answer that how this firmware came to existence but discovered many hidden things revolving around this firmware. During our research, we tried to find the similar security issues in other model. And surprisingly what we found was that the same firmware have been implemented in the other routers vendors, too. More than 10 major router vendors have been using this same backdoor affected firmware.”

19) uTorrent silently installing bundled Bitcoin mining software

The movie and music industry have managed to associate torrents with piracy, possibly because a sizable portion of torrent traffic is pirated content. Nevertheless, torrents are a very effective and reliable way to download free content such as open source software so there are entirely legitimate uses for a bittorent client. Once upon a time, uTorrent was on of the preferred choices, at least until it went corporate so now it serves up advertizements and other annoyances. Some bright spark apparently got the idea it would be a good idea to include malware with uTorrent and people found out about it. Whatever the company might say, this is malware and it is, or should be criminal: theft of computer services is theft, even if permission is obtained through deception. People should immediately stop using uTorrent in favor of alternatives such as Deluge.

“BitTorrent client uTorrent has come under fire from users after it emerged the software’s latest update comes bundled with Bitcoin mining software. The piece of software, named EpicScale, is a Bitcoin miner that purports to use your ‘unused processing power to change the world.’ According to one user, the software is ‘easily noticeable by the increased CPU load when the computer is idle.’ Unfortunately, the problem lies in the fact that users say they weren’t asked they wanted the software to be installed.”

20) Princeton Optronics’ Laser Ignition Could Boost ICE’s Efficiency by 27%

Spark plugs are pretty simple and they haven’t changed much in the past 100 years. As the name suggests, they make a spark which causes the gasoline in an engine cylinder to explode. By necessity, the explosion only happens where the spark is and goes from there, which may not be the most efficient way of getting energy from fuel. A laser ignition could be designed which would start the explosion from the ideal location or location(s). Lasers are not as expensive as they used to be, however the might be challenges with the approach, for example, if the lens gets covered by soot. Of course, it is possible a laser blast could remove the soot as well. I always take efficiency improvement claims with a large grain of salt

“Working under a modest $150,000 contract from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, Princeton Optronics, a Trenton, New Jersey firm, has demonstrated a working gasoline engine fired with laser ignition. In addition to being able to focus the laser so that it ignites the charge from the middle of the combustion chamber, laser ignition can be timed with greater precision than a conventional spark ignition. It can also cycle faster than the fastest electronically triggered spark plug, allowing for the possibility of multiple firings and those multiple ignitions can be focused at different parts of the combustion chamber to ensure complete burning. Princeton Optronics says that the running engine showed a 27% improvement in combustion efficiency. They also say that the use of laser ignition will allow for a leaner fuel/air ratio, which will reduce emissions.”