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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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.”