The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 24th 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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
1) Electric vehicles lose buzz
The hype and hysteria surrounding the likes of Tesla would have you believe vehicles with “alternative drive trains” are flying off the lots, however, they have dropped from 3.7% to 2.7% of sales in the past year and only about 45% of EV of hybrid buyers buy another. Edmunds links the decline to lower gas prices (http://www.edmunds.com/about/press/hybrid-and-electric-vehicles-struggle-to-maintain-owner-loyalty-reports-edmundscom.html), however, there may be other reasons (reliability and resale value among the most significant). I believe the market would quickly evaporate if politicians were to decide that it would be better to spend taxpayers’ money on, say education, than subsidies for hybrids and EVs, but that is crazy talk. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for bringing this story to my attention.
“It’s a buyer’s market for drivers interested in new or used electrics and hybrids. Sales of new electric cars and hybrids, according to automotive research and shopping site Edmunds.com, are at their lowest level since 2011 — the first full year of sales for the groundbreaking Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and Nissan’s all-electric Leaf. So car makers are paring prices in an effort to get them moving. Furthermore, motorists who leased those first-generation cars, and have decided not to buy them, are turning them in. They’re on dealer lots with still relatively low mileage, and at prices considerably cheaper than the new ones.”
2) We Can’t Let John Deere Destroy the Very Idea of Ownership
In the olden days when cars were controlled by mechanical systems there was no real issue of “hacking” their performance. Nobody asserted, for example, that the lobe design of a camshaft was somehow protected under copyright law and therefore nobody could install a different one, thus altering engine performance. Now that an increasing portion of functions are done through software that is exactly what manufacturers are asserting: any modification to “their” vehicle won’t just void your warranty, it is flat out illegal. This allows them to restrict who can diagnose or fix a machine, what repairs can be done, etc.. Unfortunately, this is probably a correct assessment under US law. It would be a pity if the rest of the world would adopt such anti-competitive policies.
“It’s official: John Deere and General Motors want to eviscerate the notion of ownership. Sure, we pay for their vehicles. But we don’t own them. Not according to their corporate lawyers, anyway. In a particularly spectacular display of corporate delusion, John Deere—the world’s largest agricultural machinery maker —told the Copyright Office that farmers don’t own their tractors. Because computer code snakes through the DNA of modern tractors, farmers receive “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” It’s John Deere’s tractor, folks. You’re just driving it.”
3) Machine Dreams … Hewlett-Packard is making a long-shot bid to change the fundamentals of how computers work.
This is an update on HP’s Machine, a radical computer design which exploits the particular characteristics of memristors. To review, memristors are a recently discovered circuit element with exciting possibilities, including the potential to deliver cost effective, extremely high density non-volatile memory as fast as DRAM. Such a memory device would have a major impact on computing architecture and performance, hence the development of The Machine. The article does note that creating high density memories out of memristors is a work in process and there is uncertainty that it can be done. Nevertheless, I am quite hopeful it will be. Note that, while The Machine is essentially a supercomputer, there is nothing about memristors which would keep them out of PCs or smartphones.
“And yet, in the midst of this potentially existential crisis, HP Enterprise is working on a risky research project in hopes of driving a remarkable comeback. Nearly three-quarters of the people in HP’s research division are now dedicated to a single project: a powerful new kind of computer known as “the Machine.” It would fundamentally redesign the way computers function, making them simpler and more powerful. If it works, the project could dramatically upgrade everything from servers to smartphones—and save HP itself.”
4) Making software to block annoying ads is legal, German court rules
Good news: blocking ads other people run on your computer using your Internet is not illegal. Who would have guessed? Actually this ruling probably isn’t that significant since AdBlock like function is available as Free Open Source Software so there is nothing they could have done to prevent it from use. I have moved away from AdBlock to uBlock which seems to work as well but use less computer resources. AdBlock went corporate a while back and defaults to “allow certain ads”, which is easy enough to change but uBlock pretty much blocks everything. I feel no more guilt over blocking ads than I do skipping commercials on my PVR or throwing out most of the newspaper when I get it.
“AdBlock Plus users in Germany can breathe easily: A court there has ruled that the browser extension for filtering annoying ads is legal to make and distribute. German newspapers Zeit Online and Handelsblatt asked the Hamburg Regional Court to ban German company Eyeo from selling its AdBlock Plus software, arguing that it illegally interfered with their ad-based online business models. The Hamburg court dismissed the complaint on Tuesday, although as is usual for German courts it will be another couple of weeks before publication of the written verdict containing the reasoning behind the ruling.”
5) Amazon Web Services is a $5 billion business
Apparently Amazon delivered better than expected Q1/15 financial results and it’s stock went up. Yawn. Most of the media coverage focused on one segment, Amazon Web Services (AWS), which contributed less than 7% of revenues but 37.5% of Segment Operating Income. Pretty heady stuff, however, it is worth noting from Amazon’s Q1/2015 income statement that, while AWS revenue grew about 50%, segment operating income grew a paltry 8%. I looked for, but did not see, what capital investment Amazon had made in order to report that income, but I’m guessing it wasn’t trivial. Furthermore, there can be nothing proprietary or “sticky” about renting computing power: this is not the 1960s – anybody can buy computers and put them on the Internet. Not only that but since price/performance improves over time, the most recent entrant has the cost advantage, at least until the next guy gets into the business. Of course, if you happen to run massive data centers anyway you can sell your excess capacity with some cost advantage at least until you have to expand the data center. Cloud computing services is a race to the bottom, not an investment thesis.
“Even though Amazon Web Services has taken off in recent years to become the cloud computing solution of choice for businesses, not much was known about how much money it was bringing in. Now, however, we do. In its first quarterly earnings report today, Amazon has reported the financials for its AWS division for the first time, stating that it is a “$5 billion business and growing fast.” In Q1 alone, AWS brought in $1.57 billion in revenue, which is up from $1.1 billion this time last year (in previous Amazon reports, this info was simply filed under a mysterious “Other” column). On the whole, AWS seems to be one of a few operations within Amazon that is profitable, with about $265 million in profits in Q1.”
6) Philips unveils a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb for $4.97
We predicted LED lighting would become commonplace a few years ago and it is pretty much evident this is the case given pricing trends and the quality of the light. Unlike CFL bulbs which are fragile and often slow to come to full brightness, LED bulbs are nearly unbreakable, produce excellent light, and are instant on. Furthermore, while I have replaced many “long life” CFLs after a short time, I have not yet had cause to replace a single LED bulb I have ever installed. The one disadvantage of these bulbs I see is that they are not dimmable, but that should not disqualify them for most applications. Pro-tip: replace your garage “trouble light” with an LED and you’ll never have to replace it due to breakage.
“Philips just lowered the bar for adopting LED bulbs throughout your home with the company’s cheapest ever 60-watt equivalent LED bulb. It costs just $4.97. If that wasn’t cheap enough, when the bulb launches in May you’ll be able to pick up a two-for-one pack from The Home Depot. But you’ll have to be quick as the pack will only be offered for the first 90 days on sale. I suspect there will be stock shortages soon after launch.”
7) BlackBerry Snaps Up WatchDox For Content Security
I believe there is not greater joy for a tech CEO than to give his shareholders’ money to the shareholders of other companies through dumb acquisitions. I know little about WatchDox, other than the fact there are a huge number of companies and open source projects in the same space, and that the batting average for tech company acquisitions is very, very low. Not zero, but close. Above all, tech companies do not typically buy themselves out of crisis. I did enjoy the comment “BlackBerry has over $3 billion in cash and isn’t afraid to use it. It’s good to see the company is being aggressive and it’s essential for the company’s survival.” I assume the journalist was not being sarcastic as I would have been if I had said that. The company is burning cash like there is no tomorrow (and there may not be) and they have $1.7B in debt, meaning they actually have closer to $1B in cash. Perhaps they might consider using that money to, I dunno, develop their own unique products. Just saying.
“BlackBerry Limited announced a definitive agreement to acquire WatchDox Ltd., enhancing its mobile security offerings. The companies didn’t disclose the terms of the sale. WatchDox is a player in the crowded enterprise file-sync-and-share (EFSS) market. The company is headquartered in Palo Alto, California, with research and development facilities in Petah Tikva, Israel.”
8) Security companies peddling snake oil
It hasn’t happened in a couple months, but every now and then some looming “security threat” ranging from the end of Windows XP support to the latest computer virus hits the news. Of course, malware is a serious concern, as is hacking (especially for corporations), however I’ve often wondered if these media feeding frenzies were more about marketing than security. After all, stoking the fears of consumers and companies is good for business if you happen to have a potential solution. I did find the comment “it usually takes around 200 days to discover an espionage intrusion” to be interesting.
“The CEO of a security company has accused his fellow competitors of peddling snake oil to clients and lifted the lid on how they are doing it. Paul Vixie, CEO, Farsight Security said that as security breaches increasingly make headlines, thousands of Internet security companies are chasing tens of billions of dollars in potential revenue and are doing by telling porkies to clients. “We are alarmed at the kind of subversive untruths that vendor “spin doctors” are using to draw well-intentioned customers to their doors. Constructive criticism is sometimes necessarily harsh, and some might find the following just that, harsh. But we think it’s important that organizations take a “buyers beware” approach to securing their business,” Vixie said.”
9) Apple now rejecting apps with Pebble Smartwatch support
Ah, the joys of a walled garden or the hazards of supporting a proprietary platform. Pebble can still distribute the software (for now) it just can’t tell anybody what it is for. It appears that enforcement of this policy only started once Apple launched its own smartwatch. What a coincidence! Imagine if during its heyday Microsoft had blocked installation of Office competitors.
“We have just had the latest version of our SeaNav US iOS app rejected by Apple because we support the Pebble Smartwatch and say so in the app description and meta-data (we also state in the review notes that “This application was approved for use with the Pebble MFI Accessory in the Product Plan xxxxxx-yyyy (Pebble Smartwatch)”. See copy of rejection reason below. SeaNav US has previously been approved by Apple with no problem, we have had Pebble support in SeaNav for nearly 2 years and there are no changes to our support for the Pebble in this version. What are Apple doing? Have they gone Apple Watch crazy? What can we do?”
10) Xiaomi’s $205 Mi 4i mirrors the iPhone 5C design, claims 1.5-day battery
A lot is made about about how Xiaomi ‘copies’ Apple’s products, but they just kind of look similar: all the innards and software are completely different. The company does not appear to be targeting North America or Europe, probably because of the potential for IP litigation from both Apple and Microsoft. Not that I believe any such litigation would have merit, but that’s how those companies roll. From what I have read, unlike most Android vendors, Xiaomi has competent marketing and in its target markets enjoys the sort of cult following Apple has elsewhere. If the company’s growth continues, it would significantly blunt demand for Apple and other high end phones in these markets.
“Last night, Xiaomi announced it’s tackling the low-end phone market in India with a new product called the Mi 4i. It looks just a little like a certain Apple product, but the specs and pricing are what make this interesting. $205 (Rs.12,999) gets you a 5-inch 1080p LCD, an eight core, 64-bit Snapdragon 615, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, a 13MP rear camera, 5MP front camera, dual SIM support, and—perhaps the most eye-popping stat—a 3,120mAh battery. Most companies only seem concerned with packing as big of a spec sheet into a phone as possible. The battery is often an afterthought (the Galaxy S6 has a 1440p screen and a 2550 mAh battery, while the Galaxy S5 had a bigger 2800mAh battery). The Mi 4i spec sheet strikes a balance we would like to see manufacturers hit more often—Xiaomi claims the device will last a day and a half. There’s no telling how true that is until (unless?) we get our hands on one, which will be difficult since the device is only for sale in India.”
11) Bypassing OS X Security Tools is Trivial, Researcher Says
Apple products are known for their relative immunity to malware, though that might partly be due to them having a modest market share relative to PCs. Kaspersky is a pretty reliable company when it comes to such things so if you are concerned – or complacent – about security you should have a look at this article. One thing is for certain is that the black hats pay attention to these presentations as well.
“Gatekeeper is one of the key technologies that Apple uses to prevent malware from running on OS X machines. It gives users the ability to restrict which applications can run on their machines by choosing to only allow apps from the Mac App Store. With that setting in play, only signed, legitimate apps should be able to run on the machine. But Patrick Wardle, director of research at Synack, said that getting around that restriction is trivial. “Gatekeeper doesn’t verify an extra content in the apps. So if I can find an Apple-approved app and get it to load external content, when the user runs it, it will bypass Gatekeeper,” Wardle said in a talk at the RSA Conference here Thursday. “It only verifies the app bundle.””
12) United Launch Alliance believes it can save from 50% to 90% of the cost on any part it can 3D print
Aerospace in general is a low volume production environment and that is even more the case when talking about spacecraft. The volumes are typically far too low to justify molds so subtractive manufacturing or even craft methods are often employed, resulting in extremely expensive parts costs. When I saw this article, I immediately thought the parts were engine related since you can do things with 3D printing of metal parts that you simply cannot do with traditional methods. It turns out that most will actually be plastic, something 3D printing is very good at. One interesting detail which had not occurred to me is that part of the motivation of moving to 3D printing was that the company was not always a priority for its suppliers, so by bringing production in house it has greater control over when things get done.
“United Launch Alliance (ULA), the company that makes rockets for NASA and the U.S. Air Force, plans to 3D print more than 100 flight-ready components for its next-gen model of rocket. That rocket, the Vulcan, was announced just last week and will combine the best attributes of the company’s current Atlas- and Delta-model rockets. The Vulcan also offers a unique opportunity to infuse 3D printing of parts from the very beginning of the design concept, according to Greg Arend, program manager for additive manufacturing at ULA.”
13) An Algorithm Set Revolutionizes 3-D Protein Structure Discovery
The function of a protein is governed by its structure and its structure is determined by its amino acid sequence and the environment in which it exists. While modern techniques can cost effectively figure out the amino acid sequence of a protein, figuring out the structure from that information is extremely hard – in fact it is one of the classically difficult problems in computation. And yet, you need to know the structure before you can design a drug which interacts with a particular protein. One of the great potential applications for quantum computing, once they get it to work, is “protein folding” or figuring out protein structure. I don’t fully understand this approach or the limits thereof but it appears these researchers have developed a computational approach which improves the speed of the solution by several orders of magnitude. Assuming it has broad application, this could be revolutionary.
“The standard approach to solving this problem is little more than guesswork. Dream up a potential 3-D structure for the molecule and then rotate it to see if it can generate all of the shadowgrams in the dataset. If not, change the structure, test it, and so on. Obviously, this is a time-consuming process. The current state-of-the-art algorithm running on 300 cores takes two weeks to find the 3-D structure of a single molecule from a dataset of 200,000 images. Brubaker and co have developed a much faster method that can do the same job in only 24 hours working on a single workstation.”
14) Dark Matter May Feel a “Dark Force” That the Rest of the Universe Does Not
No – this has nothing to do with the Star Wars reboot. I think. Last summer I went to a planetarium with my family where they played a recorded presentation by Neil deGrasse Tyson on the evolution of the universe. This field is changing so fast they had to stop it the recording near the end to provide a live update and correction regarding dark matter and dark energy. I have no idea if this finding is likely to be correct or not, but with 95% of the universe being made up of dark energy and dark matter, one cannot help but believe that once they figure out what these are it’ll be mind blowing.
“After decades of studying dark matter scientists have repeatedly found evidence of what it cannot be but very few signs of what it is. That might have just changed. A study of four colliding galaxies for the first time suggests that the dark matter in them may be interacting with itself through some unknown force other than gravity that has no effect on ordinary matter. The finding could be a significant clue as to what comprises the invisible stuff that is thought to contribute 24 percent of the universe.”
15) Justice Dept., FBI to review use of forensic evidence in thousands of cases
The FBI – and doubtless many other police organizations – have a fondness for pseudoscience. Methods ranging from fingerprint “matching” to hair analysis to polygraph have questionable scientific foundation. Polygraphy, or “lie detection,” has been thoroughly debunked and I was going to carry a blog entry of a debunker in this GRL but that blog (www.AntiPolygraph.org) mysteriously disappeared from the Internet. People have actually been criminally charged for showing people how easy it is to spoof a polygraph. The interesting, and chilling, thing about this most recent scandal is that many of the (likely) wrongly convicted have already been executed. Water under the bridge, I suppose.
“The undertaking is the largest post-conviction review ever done by the FBI. It will include cases conducted by all FBI Laboratory hair and fiber examiners since at least 1985 and may reach earlier if records are available, people familiar with the process said. Such FBI examinations have taken place in federal and local cases across the country, often in violent crimes, such as rape, murder and robbery. The review comes after The Washington Post reported in April that Justice Department officials had known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people but had not performed a thorough review of the cases. In addition, prosecutors did not notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled.”
16) Google Wants To Speed Up The Web With Its QUIC Protocol
I had not heard of QUIC before. If I understand correctly Internet protocols assume the possibility of frequent packet loss and that brings a lot of baggage along with it. UDP is a protocol built for speed so it has less overhead and QUIC builds on that. Error handling might have been a big deal in the early years of the Internet, especially given its heritage as a military communications system, however, errors are not as much of a problem today. For example, my crappy (but very expensive) Canadian wireless/satellite Internet service can go for days and gigabytes of data without recording a single error. More common wired systems would be even more resilient. So it makes sense to update certain protocols to take into account a relatively error free environment, especially if this can improve speed and latency.
“Google says that it has seen about a three percent improvement in mean page load times with QUIC on Google Search. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but you have to remember that Google Search is already about as optimized as possible. Other sites — and especially latency-heavy web apps — will likely see better improvements. Users who connect to YouTube over QUIC report about 30 percent fewer rebuffers when watching videos and because of QUIC’s improved congestion control and loss recover over UDP, users on some of the slowest connection also see improved page load times with QUIC. Google says it plans to propose HTTP2-over-QUIC to the IETF as a new Internet standard in the future.”
17) Cablevision Debuts “Cord Cutter” Packages Combining Broadband, Free Antennas, And Optional HBO NOW
If you can’t beat them, join them, I guess. In the US, unlike Canada, people have a right to install TV antennas, even in highrises. Furthermore, US broadcasters tend to transmit high power signals compared to Canadian broadcasters, providing better coverage. In many ways, cord cutting is easier in the US than in Canada (the fact Canadian broadcasters and cable/satellite companies are owned by the same corporations might have something to do with this). Nevertheless, it is remarkable to see that at least one cable/broadband provider has decided to offer a package which actually facilitates that change. This is probably being done to encourage consumers to stick with them after dropping cable rather than moving to an alternative Internet provider, assuming one exists. These sorts of packages could put pressure on content providers to moderate their pricing.
“Cablevision made headlines as the first pay-TV provider to offer HBO’s new standalone service HBO NOW to its broadband customers, and today the cable company is again targeting cord cutters with new packages combining internet, a free digital antenna, and the option to bundle in HBO NOW if they choose. The “cord cutter package” as one bundle is officially called, is one of two new offerings the company announced today – the other combining a slower internet option, the antenna and a Wi-Fi voice service. Explains Kristin Dolan, Cablevision CEO, in a statement announcing the new bundles, “as a connectivity company, Cablevision is reimagining its relationship with its customers.” Dolan adds that the packages are meant to provide “real alternatives that fit new consumer lifestyles.””
18) Facebook DOES collect the text you decided against posting
I have nothing to do with Facebook so I admit I don’t see the appeal of turning all my personal information over to them. Even less so given their enthusiastic collusion with security services – didn’t anybody actually read Orwell’s 1984? Plus they appear to be less than truthful, at least with respect to the modicum of privacy they have not yet violated. The sad thing is all that Facebook has to do now is modify its terms of service to include its rights to capture, sell, trade, and share (with the police) whatever comments you might draft.
“Facebook collects all content that is typed into its website, even if it is not posted, a tech consultant has discovered. In December 2013, it was reported that Facebook plants code in browsers that returns metadata every time somebody types out a status update or comment but deletes it before posting. At the time, Facebook maintained that it only received information indicating whether somebody had deleted an update or comment before posting it, and not exactly what the text said. However, Príomh Ó hÚigínn, a tech consultant based in Ireland, has claimed this is not the case after inspecting Facebook’s network traffic through a developer tool and screencasting software.”
19) Shyp, an On-Demand Mailing Service, Raises $50 Million
I should do a weekly feature on the dumbest Doc Com 2.0 of the week. In most cases its not so much the business but the fact they get funded at absurd valuations. Honestly, does “we help you pack up and ship your stuff” get any more compelling when there is an app involved? What is the sustainable competitive advantage? Where are the barriers to entry? Is there a reasonable expectation of a return on invested capital? I know we aren’t near the top of the market because IPOs aren’t coming out at dopey valuations. Oh, wait – Etsy, Twitter, … never mind.
“From private rides to hamburgers to marijuana, there is perhaps no better time in history to get anything delivered with little more than a tap of a smartphone button. Add shipping packages to that list. Shyp, a company that lets customers summon workers to quickly pick up, pack and ship parcels, said on Tuesday that it has raised $50 million in venture capital, the largest funding round in the start-up’s history. The new round values Shyp at just above $250 million, according to two people with knowledge of the financial terms, who requested anonymity because the deal talks were private.”
20) Korean Shipbuilder Uses “Iron Man” Exosuit to Help Build World’s Largest Freighter
I don’t know much about the Korean sense of humor so I’m not sure if this is serious. You only get to the “RoboShipbuilder” in section III of the item, so you can skip the filler about the shipbuilding business. Assuming the story is not a joke, the gizmo lets a worker lift 30 kilograms, which suggests workers are not that strong to begin with, however they do target 100 kilograms, which is pretty heavy. The device is more like a brace than a robot and there doesn’t seem to be any robotic function at all. Tethering a squishy human to a heavy load is the sort of thing which tends to end badly for the worker. It is much better to have the human safely ensconced in a forklift with a roll cage, or to have the load suspended from a small crane, much as has been done for decades.
“That’s where the Daewoo S&M Eng. is having the RoboShipbuilder step in. Currently the exosuit is being used by employees and can lift up to 30 kg (66.1 lb.). That’s enough to lift a variety of smaller steel components, and precisely position them for the most difficult welding tasks. The suit uses a mixture of hydraulics and electric servomotors to carry the load. Workers start by standing on footpads and then strap the exoskeleton legs frame to their legs, followed by a backpack-like section and arm frame. The exoskeleton accommodates workers of heights between 1.6 and 1.85 meters (5’3″ to 6’1″).”