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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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 http://www.cnet.com/news/patriot-act-can-obtain-data-in-europe-researchers-say/ 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.””
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.””
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.”