The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 24th 2015

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

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe

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 (, 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, 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 ( 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″).”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 17th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 17th 2015


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

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

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

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

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

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe

1) TV subscriber losses increased last year and will keep growing, report says

As Colbert (not that Colbert) observed “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing.” The same could be said of running a cable company today: you keep jacking up rates while the quality of the product declines and you give consumers have a binary choice of discontinuing the service or paying up. The emergence of streaming services offers long suffering consumers, at least those with decent broadband, a choice. Finally they can remove the expensive hair shirt that is their cable service and still watch the odd TV show. Unfortunately for Canadians, the same oligopoly which controls mobile, most broadcasting (TV and radio), much of the media (magazines and newspapers), and Internet, also controls their cable service. Given governments’ propensity to regulate for the exclusive benefit of said oligopoly, rather than consumers or businesses, you can rest assured an effort will be made to stem this tide.

“More Canadians cancelled their cable or satellite television package last year, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down, a new report says. The Convergence Consulting Group says about 95,000 fewer households had a cable TV or satellite subscription in 2014. That’s a huge increase in TV subscriber losses from 13,000 the previous year. But it’s less than the 97,000 the consultancy forecasts will cut the cord in 2015. Between 2007 and 2011, cable subscriptions grew by about 220,000 per year.”

2) Google Fiber is forcing its rivals into offering cheaper, faster service

Various schemes are used to protect Internet service providers from competition. In the US these are often local or state rules which effectively forbid it, though Obama has made an effort to change things for the better. In Canada, the federal government essentially forbids “foreign” investment in telecommunications infrastructure, and a complex interplay of other factors mean there is no real choice. Fortunately for Americans, they can hope that Google will announce, or potentially announce, its intent to deploy a relatively modern Internet service like the sort of thing which is commonplace in much of the developing world. This frightens the incumbents who have grown used to no competition into somehow becoming nearly competitive. Unfortunately for Canadians, the law essentially prohibits such an eventuality here, more or less guaranteeing our global rankings for telecommunications infrastructure continue to plummet.

“Good news for Charlotte, NC! Google, the search engine you often go to during the day, has sufficiently scared your existing internet service enough into giving your faster speeds at no extra cost. It’s the latest trend-setting move by the search giant, which aims to upend the rural internet-providing monopolies that are often the sole providers in one area. And not by offering a better overall service. Just announcing its way into the market is enough.”

3) ISPs have two choices: Live with net neutrality rules or live with real competition

This is a decent, albeit superficial outline of the net neutrality debate: there is nothing wrong with a carrier discriminating against certain types of traffic (i.e. Netflix) provided there is a competitive market and consumers and businesses can choose other vendors. Unfortunately, few North American consumers are in a competitive market and therefore net neutrality is a necessity. Without it ISPs – whose only value is their ability to derive rent from their historically granted privilege – are in the position of extorting value added service providers.

“I’ve had conversations in the past with people from Europe who just don’t understand why America needs to have network neutrality restrictions. Their argument is that if one of the ISPs in their country tried to throttle Netflix to make its own other-the-top video service run faster, people would flee to a rival ISP and thus put them out of business. It’s at this point that I laugh at them and say, “What I wouldn’t give to have even two choices for broadband services!” This is really why net neutrality is such a big deal in the United States — our ISPs are often local monopolies, and if they wanted to discriminate against our favorite applications, we’d have nowhere else to go. This is why net neutrality protections are important: ISPs in the U.S., and wireline ISPs in particular, have the unique power to make or break a business through their stranglehold on last-mile connectivity.”

4) Jackpots for Local TV Stations in F.C.C. Auction of Airwaves

People forget that the transition to HDTV was significantly an exercise in spectrum management. As broadcasters shifted to more spectrum efficient digital modulation they also shifted from VHF to UHF, freeing up valuable – and scarce – VHF and UHF spectrum. US broadcasters typically have the capacity to transmit on HD signal and two SD signals (a capability forbidden in Canada in order to protect certain economic interests). The thing with TV is that they broadcast at enormous power levels, meaning one signal occupies spectrum in a few thousand square kilometers even though most people aren’t watching at any given time. It makes sense to rethink this proposition.

“The pitch to television broadcasters this week was not easy for them to swallow. It is a good time, they were told, to sell their most precious resource. With Americans increasingly turning less to over-the-air television broadcasts and more to their mobile devices, the federal government wants to devote a bigger portion of the airwaves that carry communications signals to mobile phone data. As it turns out, some of the most desirable airwaves — those able to travel far distances and through buildings and trees — are in the hands of America’s local television stations. The government is seeking to pay stations billions of dollars to move off those airwaves, and then it plans to sell those airwaves to wireless carriers.”

5) Cell Phones in Africa: Communication Lifeline

This survey has a fair bit of interesting data concerning mobile device penetration in Africa. I believe this is a profoundly significant trend which will impact economic development and political stability. It wasn’t that long ago where offering even a single telephone line to an African village was considered a utopian dream. It is interesting to compare penetration in Africa to that in the US, though, admittedly, a much greater portion of US mobiles are highly functional smartphones. As smartphone prices continue to drop, expect the smartphone penetration gap to close. This will lead to an even greater impact.

“Cell phones are pervasive in the region. In 2002, roughly one-in-ten owned a mobile phone in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Ghana. Since then, cell phone ownership has grown exponentially. Today, cell phones are as common in South Africa and Nigeria as they are in the United States. Smartphones (those that can access the internet and applications) are less widely used, though significant minorities own these devices in several nations, including 34% of South Africans.”

6) Richard Branson, Peter Thiel take aim at Western Union

This article actually ties into item 5 because one of the most important applications of mobile phones in Africa is banking, something which was simply unavailable until now. I’ve never used the services of Western Union but I’m astonished at the rates they can get away with. They also apparently gouge on the foreign exchange rates for good measure. Skimming 10% of the money people send to their families back home is great fun – better that money goes to a bank than medical care, food, or education for the poorest of the poor. It’s about time the industry was disrupted.

“Typically, U.S. banks impose fees as high as 12% per international transfer, while money transfer juggernauts like Western Union and MoneyGram’s average fees of 9% of assets sent. TransferWise, a UK-based startup that opened its first U.S. office earlier this year, uses a clever loophole to make it possible to send money to other countries. How it works: TransferWise acts like something of a matchmaker for people looking to send cash overseas. When a customer in the U.S. wants to transfer funds to, say, a relative in the UK, TransferWise receives their cash in dollars and looks for a customer in the UK who happens to be looking to transfer pounds to dollars. Since no bank ever gets involved and money doesn’t actually cross national borders, TransferWise is able to charge very little in the way of fees — just 1% per transaction for U.S. customers, who also get better deals on exchange rates.”

7) Kaspersky releases decryption tool that unlocks ransomware

Kaspersky is a Russian company which puts out remarkably good reports on security flaws and so forth. The Russian connection has been the sort of some “controversy” though the Snowden/NSA revelations should offer a sufficient counterpoint: there are no clean hands in technology. Regardless, Kaspersky has done some good work, and the fact the Dutch police have teamed up with them for this project might be an endorsement. Long story short, randsomware is a virus which encrypts your data then demands payment to decrypt. The Dutch police seized a list of decryption keys and worked with Kaspersky to develop a tool to decrypt your files for free. Unfortunately, the hackers will doubtless come up with new tools or new keys, so this is likely a short term victory.

“You never should have clicked on the email attachment from that Nairobian prince. Now ransomware’s got you locked out of your own computer and is demanding money before you can use it again. But before you reach for you wallet, take a look at this decryption key generator that Kaspersky has built. The Netherland’s National High Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) recently got its hands on a CoinVault command-and-control server (a type of ransomware that has been infecting Windows systems since last November) and, upon examining it, discovered a large database of decryption keys. The NHTCU shared this information with Kaspersky which used it to build the Noransomware decryption tool.”

8) What Microsoft Was for PCs, This Company Hopes to Be for Drones

I guess the headline made sense as click bait but there is virtually no chance any company in the modern era could replicate Microsoft’s success, which was primarily a consequence of a hesitance to learn novel user interfaces. This company is simply offering a subscription service for standardized components for high end drones. The idea is probably a good one, however, this in not the sort of thing in which you can establish a sustainable barrier to entry unless governments restrict the market to a narrow set of competitors through strict regulatory oversight as with modern avionics.

“Airware’s product, the Aerial Information Platform, has three main components. One is a fist-sized box containing electronics and autopilot software that is installed on a drone to steer it. The second is a software package for PCs or tablets used to plan missions. A drone owner could, for example, click out a route on a map using this software. The third component is an online service to help companies manage their drone operations, letting them store past and future flight plans, flight logs, and data collected by drones such as photos. An annual subscription to Airware’s system costs $2,500 per vehicle (commercial drones often cost in the tens of thousands of dollars).”

9) Bee brain simulation used to pilot a drone

This is not so much an article about drones as an article about the astounding power of neural networks. These researchers have reverse engineered and simulated a part of a bee brain and use it to apply basic navigation to a drone. They don’t mention whether they used workers or drones (I’m hoping the latter) to pilot the drone. Of course, the computer hardware they are using to run the simulation probably consumes thousands of watts and at least a few cubic feet of area, just to simulate a small part of a one cubic millimeter bee brain. That’s how powerful neural nets can be, at least for certain applications. I believe memristors will allow actual neural nets to be designed which are much closer in size and power consumption to the real thing. The video is worth a watch.

“Despite its small size, and limited thinking abilities, the brain of the bee is still an incredibly complicated piece of biology. It allows the bee to see its environment, respond to it, fly around in it and to go about its bee activities, such as mating, pollinating and stinging those that interrupt its mission. The people running the Green Brain Project chose the bee because of its remarkable ability to do so much with so little. Thus far, the BBC reports, the team has managed to put together a rudimentary olfactory (sensory) and vision system and has begun to test what they’ve created with robots—all of which is based on such science as decision theory and neuroscience modeling and technology such as parallel computing and of course, robotics.”

10) Drone delivering asparagus to Dutch restaurant crashes and bursts into flames

You might have heard about Amazon’s plans to offer drone based delivery service. The problem with flying machines is that sometimes they stop flying and being struck by even a kilogram dropping from a few tens of feet can kill or badly injure you. Then there is the risk of fire. Of course, perhaps this was simply misreported: they actually delivered asparagus flambe.

“A publicity stunt that involved using a consumer quadcopter drone to deliver vegetables to a restaurant in the Netherlands has literally crashed and burned. The De Zwann Michelin-starred restaurant in Etten-Leur, North Brabant in the Netherlands always puts on an exciting publicity stunt to mark the beginning of the asparagus season. In previous years, owner Ronald Peijenburg has used everything from a Formula 1 racing car to a hot air balloon and a helicopter to deliver the very first asparagus of the season, and this year he wanted to try flying a unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).”

11) Europe opens antitrust investigation into Android

I’m not averse to antitrust investigations, especially if they threaten material sanctions against the guilty Nevertheless, this one has me baffled: Android is an open system and you can easily install whatever app you want on your device. Even the tools to develop apps are free. There is no Apple style “walled garden” or anything along those lines. You can buy Android smartphones for $100, a small fraction of the cost of an Apple device, or you can even spend more than for an iPhone if you want to. This wide set of options are the very factors which have contributed to Android’s overwhelming market share.

“The European Commission has been examining Google’s Android operating system for nearly three years, and it is now ready to launch a formal investigation into claims of unfair app bundling. Google services and apps like Maps, Chrome, and YouTube are often bundled with Android devices, and competitors have complained that it’s giving Google an unfair advantage. Regulators previously questioned telecom companies and phone manufacturers, to see whether Google forces them to bundle apps or services at the expense of competitors.”

12) Would You Let the I.R.S. Prepare Your Taxes?

A while back we mentioned the UK was planning on rolling out a modern income tax system whereby they would essentially do all of the work for you and then send it for your approval and or changes. Setting aside the litany of spectacular failures associated with government IT projects, the idea is a good one since the government already has virtually all of the information it needs to figure out your taxes for you – you would simply let them know of certain tax deductible expenses such as medical which it doesn’t already track. The idea is a good one and win-win for government and taxpayer so you can see why there is so much push back from companies involved in helping you navigate the current Byzantine process.

“Around this time every year, Joseph Bankman, a professor of tax law at Stanford Law School and a longtime advocate of using technology to simplify tax filing, gets on the phone with reporters to explain what is wrong with how we do our taxes in the United States. Every year he says pretty much the same thing: No other industrialized country asks its citizens to jump through as many hoops to calculate their taxes as ours. It isn’t just lawmakers or the hapless-seeming Internal Revenue Service that is perpetuating the annoyance of tax time, he adds. Instead it is the private sector — specifically, the software company Intuit, which makes TurboTax, the most popular tax program in the country.”

13) Big Oil Is About to Lose Control of the Auto Industry

This is an appallingly bad article and the “research” it is based upon can be most kindly described as woolly thinking. In fact, there are so many dumb conclusions within the article that it would be hard to do all of them justice. Take the purported impact of EV sales, for example. They don’t matter statistically and barring a major breakthrough in battery technology (which few battery experts anticipate) they never will. The “plummeting” cost of an EV battery pack over a 4 year period cannot meaningfully be extrapolated and no battery expert believes prices will drop as rapidly in the future. EV sales are less than a rounding error, and, because they are almost exclusively driven by subsidies, if they were less than a rounding error the subsidies would disappear or the governments would bankrupt. There are many ways to improve fuel efficiency including producing lighter vehicles. The world is not exclusively confined to the continental US. And so on and so forth. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“While the U.S. pats itself on the back for the riches flowing from fracking wells, an upheaval in clean energy is quietly loosening the oil industry’s grip on the automotive industry. Presentations by analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) this week pick away at the idea that supply alone is behind the plunge in crude prices to $50 a barrel. The presentation also shows that low-pollution cars are gaining ground, weakening the link between oil and driving.”

14) AMD withdraws from high-density server business

In business school you read case studies of how companies were pulled back from the brink through innovation, skillful cost cutting etc.. You rarely heard of a company buying itself out of a decline (though putting enough lipstick on the pig to get some other fool to buy it is respectable). Needless to say few case studies focus on turnarounds at tech companies: they rarely happen and a big reason for that is there is no greater joy for tech company CEOs than to fritter away their dwindling cash on stupid acquisitions. A case in point is AMD’s acquisition of SeaMicro, a move which not only put it in competition with its remaining customers, but also meant they actually paid money for the design of servers a team of hobbyists could have thrown together in a few months for a few hundred thousand dollars. Not only that but Seamicro’s servers used Intel processors. Well played AMD, well played.

“AMD has pulled out of the market for high-density servers, reversing a strategy it embarked on three years ago with its acquisition of SeaMicro. AMD delivered the news Thursday as it announced financial results for the quarter. Its revenue slumped 26 percent from this time last year to $1.03 billion, and its net loss increased to $180 million, the company said. AMD paid $334 million to buy SeaMicro, which developed a new type of high-density server aimed at large-scale cloud and Internet service providers.”

15) Rocket Lab Unveils A 3D-Printed, Battery-Powered Rocket Engine

A huge amount of media focus was placed on SpaceX’s failed “soft landing” of a rocket engine this week. Most coverage referred to that effort as “almost successful” despite the spectacular explosion which ensued. There are many ways to skin a cat and not all promoters are as successful as SpaceX. Rocket Lab is busy designing an actual low cost rocket which threatens to be able to launch reasonable payloads into orbit at a modest cost. Of course, whether or not it actually works as a launch system needs to be demonstrated, and there is likely a much smaller market for very small spacecraft than larger ones.

“The Rutherford engine will power propulsion for both stages of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, a 20-meter rocket created out of carbon composites. The lightweight rocket is capable of delivering 100kg payloads to a 500km Sun-synchronous orbit or 400kg payloads to lower Earth orbits, according to the company’s founder, Peter Beck. The company’s ambitious goal is to begin a schedule next year that would involve launching up to 100 payloads a year from its launch facility in New Zealand, at a price of just $4.9 million per launch. … To accomplish this, the company is focused on the ability to quickly mass produce its rockets. The Electron’s carbon composite body allows for molding. Using 3D-printing also radically reduces the time it takes to build the engine. “Typically a rocket engine takes months,” said Beck. “We can build a Rutherford in 3 days.””

16) Xiaomi-backed Chinese firm acquires iconic scooter maker Segway

Speaking of revolutionary advances in transportation technology, ever wonder what happened to Segway? You know the company which was going to change every aspect of transportation right down to how cities were designed? All the media coverage for about a year? Yeah, them. Well, I had mostly forgotten about them as well. The purchase price isn’t mentioned but I’m guessing that when you get bought by a company you were suing chances are it wasn’t very much.

“Chinese transportation robotics firm Ninebot said on Wednesday it has acquired U.S. rival Segway Inc, the company behind the self-balancing scooter that became a technological marvel when it was launched in the early 2000s but whose hype then faded. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed, but Ninebot Chief Executive Gao Lufeng said at a press briefing in Beijing that Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi Inc and venture capital firm Sequoia Capital China, among others, had invested $80 million into Ninebot to help finance the acquisition.”

17) Has This 18-Year-Old Created The World’s Safest Gun?

These sorts of ideas bubble up every now and then. It is really stupid: if you have a gun for defense (let’s say you are a police officer), you really want the thing to go off when you pull the trigger. Police officers have been killed because their poorly serviced weapons misfired. Nobody is going to put their lives at risk but using a contraption like this. With respect to a kid “picking up a misplaced weapon” this almost always happens in the US where there is a bizarre and pathological propensity to leave loaded and unlocked firearms around. If you are stupid enough to do that, you are not going to buy a “safe” gun.

“In the second installment of Uproxx’s Webby-nominated series Luminaries, we introduce you to Kloepfer and his quest for safer firearms. Kai is currently developing an advanced fingerprint sensor that’s outfitted on the grip of a gun. When you pick up the gun, it scans the user’s fingerprint and if it’s a match with the gun owner’s, the user is free to fire. If the fingerprint does not match, the trigger locks. The sensor is designed to prevent children from picking up a misplaced weapon and discharging it — a problem that’s unfortunately far too common today — but it could also help to reduce the number of shootings that take place via illegally obtained firearms.”

18) Hackers Could Commandeer New Planes Through Passenger Wi-Fi

I admit that I completely ignored the first 20 or so articles covering this analysis. After all, what could possibly happen if somebody hacked a plane’s WiFi – they’d show even worse movies on the entertainment system? Well, silly me: it turns out that rather than “air gapping” the WiFi network from the avionics systems, they rely on a firewall. This is a really, really, really dumb idea because people can figure their way around firewalls but physically separate networks are insurmountable.

“Seven years after the Federal Aviation Administration first warned Boeing that its new Dreamliner aircraft had a Wi-Fi design that made it vulnerable to hacking, a new government report suggests the passenger jets might still be vulnerable. Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets, as well as Airbus A350 and A380 aircraft, have Wi-Fi passenger networks that use the same network as the avionics systems of the planes, raising the possibility that a hacker could hijack the navigation system or commandeer the plane through the in-plane network, according to the US Government Accountability Office, which released a report about the planes today.”

19) Car safety system could anticipate driver’s mistakes

This appears to be preliminary research but potentially noteworthy. The idea is that your car monitors your driving and tries to figure out if you are going to do something stupid, or, perhaps, not paying attention. For example, you might imagine a system which keeps track of your eyes and warns you to watch the road, not your smartphone. One problem which might arise is that false negatives might annoy the driver so much they would demand the system be disconnected or muted. Nevertheless, once perfected, such a system might be a cost effective means of reducing collisions.

“It may be a while yet before we have cars that drive themselves, but in the near future your car may help you drive. In particular, it could warn you when you’re about to do something stupid. Cornell researchers have developed one crucial tool the car will need: a system that anticipates what the driver is going to do a few seconds before it happens. Some cars already are equipped with safety systems that monitor a car’s movement and warn if there is an unsafe turn or lane change. But that warning comes too late, after the driver has acted. By observing the driver’s body language and considering that in the context of what’s happening outside the car, a new computer algorithm determines the probability that the driver will turn, change lanes or continue straight ahead.”

20) L.A. school district demands iPad refund from Apple

This just keeps getting better and better. You might recall than a number of years ago we made fun of this idea: after all what go go wrong giving kids expensive and fragile computers? Not only that but even at the time you could buy a real computer, rather than an iPad, for a third of the cost. Like many such “educational-technology” decisions it increasingly obvious the program was more about corporate interests than what is best for students. Given there is now a court case and a criminal investigation underway I can use my psychic powers to predict a confidential settlement will be the ultimate outcome. After all, education should not include following the money.

“The Los Angeles Unified School District is seeking to recoup millions of dollars from technology giant Apple over a problem-plagued curriculum that was provided with iPads intended to be given to every student, teacher and administrator. To press its case, the Board of Education on Tuesday authorized its attorneys in a closed-door meeting to explore possible litigation against Apple and Pearson, the company that developed the curriculum as a subcontractor to Apple. L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines “made the decision that he wanted to put them on notice, Pearson in particular, that he’s dissatisfied with their product,” said David Holmquist, general counsel for the nation’s second-largest school system. He said millions of dollars could be at stake.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 10th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 10th 2015


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

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

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

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

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

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe

1) The Georgia Legislature Just Pulled the Plug on Electric Cars

Vice TV on HBO does some pretty good journalism, but their other stuff is dreadful. Not surprisingly, given their biases, this move is hailed as retrograde: apparently when subsidies let wealthy people get cars cheap, its good, provided those are the right types of cars. If the authors had any concern for the environment they might promote subsidies on Toyota Yaris or Fiat 500s, which probably leave a smaller environmental footprint than an EV. I think the “road use” charge makes some sense, however, most damage to roads are done by trucks, not cars, so the question remains as to whether the amount is fair. Regardless, I think it is a huge waste of taxpayer’s money to subsidize a non-viable techn ology like EVs.

“A generous state tax break has helped make Georgia the number two state for electric vehicles, and made Atlanta the top market for the compact Nissan Leaf. Both the Leaf and the higher-end Tesla sedans are now common sights in and around metro Atlanta, where more than 10,500 are registered. But this year, Georgia lawmakers needed to raise nearly $1 billion to patch up crumbling roads, highways, and bridges. So they are pulling the plug on that $5,000 tax credit — a move budget analysts say will contribute $66 million to the state’s coffers in 2016 and nearly $190 million by 2020.”

2) Aluminum battery from Stanford offers safe alternative to conventional batteries

Revolutionary battery developments tend to occur about once a week. This one stood out because of the Stanford connection, however, I would not ascribe it any more credibility than any other. As is often the case, they leave a lot unsaid. For example what is the energy density (kwHr/cm3) or specific energy (kwHr/gm)? Both are extremely important parameters for a battery (along with cost/kwHr, lifespan, etc.) because all such parameters matter at the same time, depending on the application. Unlike, say graphene, which is a novel material and one we can speculate about, basic chemistry is well characterized and breakthroughs are therefore rare. You can never say never, but “unlikely” is a good starting point. Thanks to Avner Mandelman and Bill Hasell for bringing this article to my attention.

“Stanford University scientists have invented the first high-performance aluminum battery that’s fast-charging, long-lasting and inexpensive. Researchers say the new technology offers a safe alternative to many commercial batteries in wide use today. “We have developed a rechargeable aluminum battery that may replace existing storage devices, such as alkaline batteries, which are bad for the environment, and lithium-ion batteries, which occasionally burst into flames,” said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford. “Our new battery won’t catch fire, even if you drill through it.””

3) For PC shipments, the slump is back

As we predicted a number of years ago, the PC industry is mature and machines are typically replaced on failure rather than replaced due to an inability to keep up with the demands of the job. Partly because of the fiasco known as Windows 8, replacement cycles have extended since consumers and businesses would prefer to put up with an old machine running an insecure operating system (Windows XP) rather than learn a new user interface and/or a pile of workarounds needed to make Windows 8 usable. I suspect Microsoft has learned its lesson and there is a good chance Windows 10 will be an easier choice. This should result in a brief upgrade cycle and boost the financial results of Microsoft and Intel for a year or so.

“The personal computer didn’t get a good start to the new year. Although things were looking up for PC makers by the end of 2014, with sales stabilizing, PC shipments slumped in the first quarter of 2015, research firms Gartner and IDC said separately Thursday. A big reason for last year’s gains came from consumers and businesses replacing old computers still running on the 13-year-old Windows XP operating system — Microsoft pulled technical support for that software last year. But that burst of new purchases appears to have died down in the first quarter, resulting in a tumble for worldwide PC shipments. Gartner estimated that decline was 5.2 percent from the year-ago period, while IDC reported a 6.7 percent drop. Total PC shipments worldwide were 71.7 million units in the first quarter, according to Gartner.”

4) Undersea Cables Transport 99 Percent of International Data

I have recently read, and been asked about, plans to build low earth orbit satellite constellations to provide Internet service, which just goes to show that bad ideas never die – they keep coming back. Setting aside cost (by far the most significant consideration) such approaches can never become a sustainable business model. Once you have proven that a market exists for true broadband in, for example, sub-Saharan Africa, cables will be laid to serve those markets, likely with a wireless “last mile”. Cabled solutions are no only superior in all respects, they cost much less and scale much better than space based systems.

“Most people probably don’t know that 99 percent of all transoceanic data traffic goes through undersea cables, and that includes Internet usage, phone calls and text messages. This route is also faster than satellite transmissions, by up to eight-fold.”

5) U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015

This survey provides interesting insight into the abysmal state of telecommunications in North America, even though the figures themselves refer to the US. Of particular note is the low smartphone penetration rate (65%). Slightly older figures show the US and Canada tied at 13th place and I suspect things have deteriorated since then. A significant number of smartphone users have no access to the Internet other than their smartphones, and it is a safe bet that the 35% without smartphones either cannot access or cannot afford to access, the Internet. All this is a consequence of ham handed regulation of the broadband and mobile industries at the same time as more government services are placed online. These sorts of number do not bode well for economic competitiveness down the road.

“The traditional notion of “going online” often evokes images of a desktop or laptop computer with a full complement of features, such as a large screen, mouse, keyboard, wires, and a dedicated high-speed connection. But for many Americans, the reality of the online experience is substantially different. Today nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone, and 19% of Americans rely to some degree on a smartphone for accessing online services and information and for staying connected to the world around them — either because they lack broadband at home, or because they have few options for online access other than their cell phone.”

6) Apple sides with Microsoft in closely watched patent dispute with Google

This is rather funny: Microsoft, arguably the largest patent troll in the planet, is trying fighting Google over damages associated with its own infringement of patents own by Google. Apple, another company which vigorously uses a dysfunctional patent system to bludgeon innovators, is siding with Microsoft, meanwhile other companies have lined up along their own respective economic interests. How you can argue that banal “inventions” such as many of those asserted by Apple should have high damages while actual inventions by the likes of Motorola which underpin important industry standards should be low is something they must teach in law school.

“Lawyers for Microsoft and Google will appear Wednesday morning at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in a long-running dispute over patents that were originally owned by cell phone maker Motorola Mobility. The case involved the implementation of wireless and video standards in products including Microsoft’s Xbox 360.The case involved the implementation of wireless and video standards in products including Microsoft’s Xbox consoles. But this is no ordinary patent showdown. Other tech companies are watching the case closely for its potential to set a precedent for negotiations over “standard-essential patents” or “SEPs” — technologies required to implement industry standards. The case has already created some unusual alliances. Apple and T-Mobile are among the companies siding with Microsoft in the case, while Nokia and Qualcomm are seeking to overturn a lower court’s ruling that found in Microsoft’s favor.”

7) The Death of Moore’s Law Will Spur Innovation

This is a follow on article to one I carried recently which provided a sort of “reality check” with respect to unsubstantiated expectations associated with Moore’s Law. This article argues, correctly, that a leveling of the rate of innovation will essentially result in a broader base of innovation at the system level. It is easy to dismiss open source software and hardware as “geeky”, but it is probably mentioning that the most popular operating system, Android, is open source and that most of the Internet runs off open source software. This article is about hardware, but hardware is harder than software, especially when the hardware is changing as rapidly as it has over the past 50 years. In other words, what happened in software will happen in hardware over time.

“Companies that produce open-source hardware are few and far between. At least, they are if you define them in the usual way: an enterprise that provides documentation and permission sufficient for others to re-create, modify, improve, and even make their own versions of the devices it sells. And although open hardware has made strides in recent years—including an increasing number of companies adhering to these practices along with the establishment of the Open Source Hardware Association—it remains a niche industry. You might guess the reason to be simple—such companies must be set up and run by idealists who lack any hardheaded business sense. Not true! What’s held back the open-source hardware movement is not a lack of business acumen; it’s the rapid evolution of electronic technology.”

8) The new struggles facing open source

This article relates to items 7 and 9. The general perception of Open Source software is a bunch of highly skilled amateurs developing software for the greater good. The reality is somewhat different as a lot of the contributions are made by employees of for profit companies who are being paid to make those contributions. The very fact this has occurred does not undermine open source but it legitimizes it: lots of money is pouring in and that is a good thing unless the major players try to corrupt the system and privatize the collective work. Since there really is no “majority contributor” it is very unlikely this can occur. Indeed, if it would the open source community could simply “fork” the code, leaving the would be dominant player out in the cold.

“The early days of open source were fraught with religious animosities we feared would tear apart the movement: free software fundamentalists haggling with open source pragmatists over how many Apache licenses would fit on the head of a pin. But once commercial interests moved in to plunder for profit, the challenges faced by open source pivoted toward issues of control. While those fractious battles are largely over, giving way to an era of relative peace, this seeming tranquility may prove more dangerous to the open source movement than squabbling ever did.”

9) Armstrap is a community of engineers and makers determined to help make ARM prototyping easy and fun

As suggested in item 7 Open Hardware is primed to become an important factor in innovation. Hobbyists are probably aware of the likes of Arduino, which is an open source microcontroller platform, but few are aware of programs like the Open Compute project, which is assembling open hardware designed for corporate environments. I came across this project, which is much closer to the Arduino than Open Compute. Nonetheless, if you were considering designing a robot for a commercial application this would make an excellent starting point. The boards themselves are pretty costly, at US $69 and up, however the processors are themselves not cheap at around US $12 or so. Because this is an open platform, it is likely Chinese “clones” will become available in the not so distant future.

“Armstrap is a community of engineers and makers determined to help make ARM prototyping easy and fun. We focus on ease-of-use, helping real-world engineers bootstrap interactive objects or environments. Armstrap Eagle is an open-source electronics prototyping platform centered on the powerful STM32F4 ARM processor. The boards can be built by hand or purchased pre-assembled; the software can be downloaded for free. The hardware reference designs (CAD files) are available under an MIT license, you are free to adapt them to your needs.”

10) I’m addicted to the gruesome and beautiful photographs on Figure 1, an Instagram for doctors

Group think is usually problematic, but collective analysis – a group thinking about something – can be very powerful. For example, there are websites dedicated to helping homeowners solve basic plumbing an electrical problems and frequently the best solutions are offered by other homeowners who had already solved and identical problem. This application leverages the power of group problem solving to medical puzzles, so I doubt the casual observer’s comments are welcome. Nevertheless, it is a potentially very powerful tool, especially for unusual conditions. I can’t help but wonder if a similar system which offered anatomized test results in a database with a “finders fee” for the correct answer might extend the functionality beyond curiosity with the occasional “hit” benefiting a patient.

“Nick DeVito is a third-year resident at Tufts Medical Center working toward a career in hematology and oncology. During rotations, if he’s feeling bored, he likes to whip out his smartphone and browse through Figure 1, a mobile app he compares to Instagram for doctors. He will offer suggestions on difficult diagnoses and favorite particularly beautiful photos of growths, gashes, and gangrene. By and large the service is used by medical professionals, but every once and a while, a picture is worth sharing with everyone. “My dad works in hardware sales, so I had to show him this one picture of a patient with a two-by-four through his chest,” says DeVito. “There are images on here that anyone can connect to.””

11) Microbes Engineered to Prevent Obesity

There has been a number of recent findings which suggest that an individual’s microbiome might somehow have an influence on obesity. This article does not actually have anything to do with that. Instead it is about genetically engineering the little critters to produce a drug inside the patient. I would imagine that one problem with such a mechanism would be in controlling doses since the amount fo the drug would depend on the population and health of the bacteria. Nevertheless, it is interesting research.

“Genetically engineered bacteria can prevent mice offered a high-fat diet from overeating. The beneficial effects of the bacteria last for about four to six weeks, suggesting that they temporarily take up residence in the gut. Researchers developed the anti-obesity therapy to test a new way of treating chronic diseases. Sean Davies, a pharmacologist at Vanderbilt University, is modifying bacteria that live in and on the body—known collectively as a person’s microbiome. The hope is that engineered microbes could secrete drugs to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, or other conditions over the long term, eliminating the need to remember to take a pill. Another benefit is that many drugs—including the one tested by the Vanderbilt group—cannot be administered orally because they wouldn’t survive digestion. Bacteria could make it easier to administer such drugs.”

12) Cryptocurrency Exchanges Emerge as Regulators Try to Keep Up

We don’t hear as much about cryptocurrencies as we used to as the pace of speculation seems to have died down somewhat and “mining” tends to only be profitable if you do it on other people’s computers without their consent since the value of the currency tends to be below the cost of the electricity needed to produce it. The true value of cryptocurrencies, in particular to neo-Libertarians is that it is “money the government does not control”. Alas, the problem with this is that governments have laws and the power to enforce them. You will never see a concurrency which satisfies the non-Libertarians and the government at the same time and the government will always win this type of contest. In other words, regulating cryptocurrencies undermines their raison d’etre: a regulated cryptocurrency transaction is simply a Mastercard transaction by another name, albeit one which some other idiot spent a lot of money to create.

“Digital cryptocurrencies—including bitcoin and litecoin, along with dozens of others—have struggled to win mainstream acceptance in the U.S. Interest in this so-called “Internet money” is not going away, however, which is why regulators are developing rules that that they hope can avert a repeat of last year’s Mt. Gox meltdown, when the world’s largest bitcoin exchange unexpectedly shut down after losing hundreds of thousands of bitcoins in a cyber attack. The U.S. government has largely sat on the sidelines, leaving states to regulate digital cryptocurrency exchanges. The exchanges, with names such as BitPay and Coinbase, are Web sites for buying, selling and exchanging digital currency. Bitcoin and its ilk are referred to as cryptocurrencies for their use of cryptography to secure transactions and mint new virtual coins.”

13) Everything you need to know about NVMe, the insanely fast future for SSDs

We predicted the rise of Solid State Drives (SSDs) and the ultimate disappearance of Hard Disk Drives a number of years ago. The cost premium associated with SSDs remains, but it is more than offset by speed, power consumption, and reliability advantages. The speed advantages of SSDs remain masked by legacy hardware interfaces which were developed for HDDs and this limitation will become even more significant as SSD performance continues to increase. NVM Express is a solution, though it may not be the ultimate one. We expect that within 5 years HDDs will be as rare as floppy drives are today.

“As SSDs become more common, you’ll also hear more about Non-Volatile Memory Express, a.k.a. NVM Express, or more commonly—NVMe. NVMe is a communications interface/protocol developed specially for SSDs by a consortium of vendors including Intel, Samsung, Sandisk, Dell, and Seagate. Like SCSI and SATA, NVMe is designed to take advantage of the unique properties of pipeline-rich, random access, memory-based storage. The spec also reflects improvements in methods to lower data latency since SATA and AHCI were introduced. u-need-to-know-about-nvme.html

14) 3D virtual objects that can be touched and felt

Virtual Reality (VR) is typically thought of as a visual system such as a special headset. While sight and sound are important senses so is touch, and this haptic technology strives to complete the experience. Humans have an extremely acute sense of touch, so it is hard to believe a system such as this will provide a credible alternative, but it might be an important step, kind of like 8 bit graphics and sound were 20 years ago.

“British company Ultrahaptics has developed a unique technology that enables users to receive tactile sensations from invisible three dimension objects floating in mid-air. Using ultrasound to precisely project sensations through the air, users can ‘feel’ and interact with virtual objects. Professor Sriram Subramanian, who co-developed the haptic technology at the University of Bristol’s Computer Science Department, explained that their device applies the principles of acoustic radiation force, whereby sound waves produce forces on the skin which are strong enough to generate tactile sensations.”

15) Has Your Network-Connected Back-Up Drive Been Indexed By Search Engines?

This is not an unexpected finding: many home backup systems offered by companies such as Seagate are accessible remotely. Some of these are bound to have security flaws or, more likely, still have the default password settings. Along comes Google and the next thing you know all of the stuff on your home back up is now duly indexed and searchable. Of course, this is all by accident: Google probably has little interest in your wedding photos. Nevertheless, if Google can index your personal stuff, somebody could go looking for your personal stuff. Long story short, make sure you properly secure online storage.

“Connecting a hard drive to your home network is a smart idea: it can let you access your files no matter where you are. But now it seems that, in some cases, Google has been indexing the private files held on such devices. An investigation by CSO reveals that some mis-configured personal cloud devices and external hard disks connected to routers with FTP enabled have been indexed by Google. That means that personal files have been treated as public archives, which can be found via Google searches.”

16) FAA allows AIG to use drones for insurance inspections

Drones can be used to invade privacy or safely inspect things which would otherwise be potentially dangerous or very costly. For example, they have been used to inspect power lines and wind turbines, or by law enforcement to take aerial photographs of car crashes. Going up on a roof to determine if the roof has been damaged can be pretty risky, so using a cheap, albeit industrial quality, flying robot makes sense. Expect this sort of thing to become commonplace within a few years.

“The Federal Aviation Administration has been rather stingy when it comes to giving companies the OK to test, let alone employ, drones. After getting permission this week, AIG joins State Farm and USAA as insurance providers with exemptions that allow them to use the UAVs to perform tasks that are risky to regular folks — things like roof inspections after a major storm. In addition to keeping its inspectors safe, the company says drones will speed up the claims process, which means its customers will, in theory, get paid faster. “UAVs can help accelerate surveys of disaster areas with high resolution images for faster claims handling, risk assessment, and payments,” the news release explains. “They can also quickly and safely reach areas that could be dangerous or inaccessible for manual inspection, and they provide richer information about properties, structures, and claim events.”

17) Paralyzed Again – We have the technology to dramatically increase the independence of people with spinal-cord injuries. The problem is bringing it to market and keeping it there.

This is a very interesting, and in many way frustrating, article focusing on implantable medical devices to help with paralysis. The firms which develop such things are businesses and businesses sometimes fold. Because devices eventually wear out or need replacement, this poses particular challenges for the patients who have come to rely on the devices: they may not be able to get spare parts or the implant itself may fail or begin to disintegrate. We tend to hear of the medical successes, but these can be quickly reversed by business failures.

“One night in 1982, John Mumford was working on an avalanche patrol on an icy Colorado mountain pass when the van carrying him and two other men slid off the road and plunged over a cliff. The other guys were able to walk away, but Mumford had broken his neck. The lower half of his body was paralyzed, and though he could bend his arms at the elbows, he could no longer grasp things in his hands. Fifteen years later, however, he received a technological wonder that reactivated his left hand. It was known as the Freehand System. A surgeon placed a sensor on Mumford’s right shoulder, implanted a pacemaker-size device known as a stimulator just below the skin on his upper chest, and threaded wires into the muscles of his left arm.”

18) Online Test-Takers Feel Anti-Cheating Software’s Uneasy Glare

Cheating is rampant in universities – it always has been and always will be. I did premed courses with wannabe doctors who cheated, an MBA with business students who cheated, and I would be willing to bet that someone cheated on every certification exam I’ve ever taken. Most students are honest but some are not. The honest students who complain about having their exams monitored would be at a competitive disadvantage relative to the dishonest student who would cheat without it. That’s life.

“Before Betsy Chao, a senior here at Rutgers University, could take midterm exams in her online courses this semester, her instructors sent emails directing students to download Proctortrack, a new anti-cheating technology. “You have to put your face up to it and you put your knuckles up to it,” Ms. Chao said recently, explaining how the program uses webcams to scan students’ features and verify their identities before the test. Once her exam started, Ms. Chao said, a red warning band appeared on the computer screen indicating that Proctortrack was monitoring her computer and recording video of her. To constantly remind her that she was being watched, the program also showed a live image of her in miniature on her screen.”

19) Astronomers: Keep iRobot’s lawnmower bot out of our back yard

I was initially attracted to this article because of the robotics angle, however, it turns out that iRobot is not yet in the robot lawnmower business, they just want an FCC waiver to use a particular bit of spectrum which is important for radio-astronomers. So, two things: first, they should not get a waiver if there is the risk they might disrupt staggeringly expensive and important science projects, especially if alternatives can be found, which they no doubt can be. Second, although I have never seen a robot lawnmower up close, the ones I have researched are very expensive and don’t seem likely to be very good lawnmowers. So there probably is a market for a good, sufficiently powerful robot lawnmower which does not escape and mulch the neighbor’s cats.

“iRobot, the maker of the Roomba, is hoping to find another consumer hit with robots that can mow your lawn. But those plans are causing some friction with astronomers who are mapping the galactic regions that produce new stars. Scientists from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory have formally objected to iRobot’s early plans for a lawn-mowing bot, telling the Federal Communications Commission that a radio-frequency fence meant to keep the product from wandering away would interfere with their sensitive equipment.”

20) The innovators: build and launch your own satellite … for £20,000

I am very skeptical of novel space related business models for reasons which would take many thousands of words to outline. Cost is a major factor, but by no means the only one. This article outlines some of the advantages of micro satellites (low cost, low launch cost) without going into any of the disadvantages (again, another few thousand words to outline). Unfortunately, by weaving tales of what traditional satellites can do within the context of an article about micro-satellites, the author gives the impression they are the same and they are not. Not everything scales with Moore’s Law – some things are the way they are due to other limits and restrictions. Another few thousand words. Of course, it is always possible some use might be a new application which exploits the low cost, despite inherent limitations. Still an interesting read.

“Dubbed ‘NewSpace’, this fresh market is based around technology which would have previously been prohibitive in cost. Now it can be bought off the shelf and small satellites like those sold by Walkinshaw can be launched into orbit at a price unthinkable in previous decades. Corentin Guillo, the head of missions at the Satellite Applications Catapult – one of the UK government’s centres for fostering innovation – said technology used in mobile phones and laptops can now be used in small satellites. This in turn makes them more disposable than their predecessors, which were typically large and lasted for more than five years. The new generation of satellites – like the PocketQube and the 10cm³ CubeSat – also offers a common platform.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 3rd 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 3rd 2015


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

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

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

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

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

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe

1) Meerkat is dying – and it’s taking U.S. tech journalism with it

Manipulation of media is an old trick so it is not surprising the same tricks are used in online tech journalism. Given the low pay (for those who are paid) alternative business models, such as graft, are bound to emerge. At least this results in a democratization of media manipulation – pretty much anybody can afford to corrupt online media. Nevertheless, it is hard to feel bad for the investors who relied on fawning coverage for their investment decision: investment research has devolved into seeking the opinion of others rather than developing subject matter expertise. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this article.

“About three days after it received a lavish new funding round, Meerkat died an ugly and embarrassing death. It is hard to decide whether the Great Meerkat Debacle that has unfolded over the past week is a tragedy or a comedy — probably a bit of both. The mobile streaming app that had whipped U.S. tech journalists into a frenzy announced $14 million in new funding on Thursday. Money poured in from Jared Leto, Greylock Partners and other illustrious sources. On the same day, Twitter launched its rival streaming app called Periscope. Apparently, investors didn’t stop to ponder why Meerkat people rushed to cash in so aggressively only a month after the app had debuted. Well, we now know why.”

2) 5 Sad Facts About America’s Ridiculously Slow Internet

It is hard to believe that the US and Canada once had globally leading telecommunications infrastructure but 20 years of incompetence or corruption (I favour the latter since I find it hard to believe the regulators are that stupid) has taken care of that. Unfortunately, the actual report requires registration where you have to fill in a whole bunch of stuff I simply made up (except the email address) Canada is #20 in terms of average connection speed or #27 for peak speed and only 38% of Canadians who are connected have access to speeds over 10Mbps. I do not expect this decline to reverse any time soon unless and until a modern broadband infrastructure is recognized by government as important (as it was 30 years ago) nothing will change. Discussions with government officials and industry movers and shakers show a degree of obliviousness that is hard to fathom. So maybe it is stupidity and corruption, with stupid politicians appointing corrupt regulators.

“If you want fast internet, you’d be better off moving to Latvia than settling down in middle America. Or South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Ireland, Czech Republic, or Finland. The US isn’t even in the top 10 countries with the fastest average connection speeds worldwide. In fact, Akamai only mentions the US in this part of the report to note that broadband adoption had dipped slightly (a “negligible 0.3 percent drop”) and to point out that “in the United States, 50 million people—or roughly 16% of the population—are not connected to the Internet.” Later in the report, Akamai points out that the global rank for the US is number 16.”

3) Havana wants Internet for ‘all Cubans’ by 2020

It is easy to mock this announcement, given the abysmal state of the country’s infrastructure (doubtless partly due to the economic blockade imposed by the US), however it suggests a profound transformation in the Cuban government’s attitude in general. After all, they at least realize the importance of ubiquitous Internet access, which is more than we can say for our own government.

“Havana announced Thursday it wants “all Cubans” to be connected to the Internet by 2020, a goal the United States says will be difficult given the government’s communications monopoly. The communist island already has one of the world’s lowest connectivity rates, with only 3.4 percent of the population able to access the Internet from home in 2013. “The Cuban government is working to ensure that the IT resources and Internet are available and accessible to all Cubans” in five years, Communication Ministry IT director Ernesto Rodriguez said, according to the official news website Cubadebate. A push to include all households reaches beyond a goal set by the United Nations for 50 percent of the population in developing countries to have Internet access in five years at a price of less than five percent of their monthly revenue.”

4) Autonomous car completes 3,400-mile US road trip

This is a follow up of the Audi autonomous vehicle cross country road trip. The report is interesting in that it appears to be frank, mentioning that the driver had to intervene on a few occasions as unexpected challenges arose. The fact the car followed the speed limit is not surprising, as it would have been bad publicity if it had gotten a speeding ticket, or had a collision while travelling at over the sped limit. No doubt the route was carefully chosen to minimize the likelihood of unexpected challenges, nevertheless, this shows how far the technology has come.

“An autonomous car’s recent 3,400-mile U.S. road trip proves there’s at least one thing computers do better than humans: Follow the speed limit. Auto supplier Delphi Corp. fitted an Audi Q5 with radar, cameras and laser sensors to navigate the 15-state journey from San Francisco to New York, mostly traveling on highways. The car drove itself 99 percent of the time, Delphi said Thursday. Along the way, the autonomous Audi never drove above the speed limit, even when everyone else did. As a result, other drivers subjected the car—and its human occupants—to “a few hateful gestures,” said Jeff Owens, Delphi’s chief technology officer Jeff Owens. The person sitting in the car’s driver seat intervened once when traffic was weaving around in a construction zone, and again when the car didn’t want to move into a busy left lane to avoid police stopped on the right shoulder. The car also got a little skittish when it was next to semi-trailer trucks, edging over to avoid them. But for the most part, it easily navigated bridges, traffic circles and open highways, even in heavy rain, Owens said.”

5) Toyota to offer low-cost auto-braking and safety features

I consider this to be an important announcement: rather than offering advanced safety features in its most expensive vehicles, Toyota has decided to make them an option across almost their entire product line, and at a relatively modest price. I suspect that the entire product line will be covered as older models are refreshed. As the #1 or #2 car manufacturer, Toyota’s decision will put a lot of pressure on other vendors as well as lead to an inflection point in the number of equipped vehicles in the fleet. Astute insurance companies should offer rebates for vehicles with these systems, or even offer to cover some of the cost of the option. It would be good publicity and likely reduce their claims costs.

“Toyota Motor Corp. plans to bundle several advanced auto safety features that reduce the frequency of crashes into a low-cost option for its Toyota and Lexus vehicles. The features alert drivers to a pending collision and trigger the brakes, switch on high beams when there is no oncoming traffic, and warn drivers who drift from their lanes. An upgrade package alerts drivers to potential collisions with pedestrians and also brakes automatically. The move was lauded by safety experts who eventually want to see the technology become standard equipment on all vehicles.”

6) Why China May Have the Most Factory Robots in the World by 2017

Factory robotics are a continuation of automation trends which have been around for over 100 years. Virtually any task on the factory floor can be automated, it is just a question of cost where the important parameters are production volume and labour costs though high volume manufacturing is typically automated even with low labour costs because the quality and efficiency is so much higher. As the article notes, rising labour costs tilt the decision in favour of automation as is happening in China. One thing to note is that the robots Chinese factories are buying cost the same as the ones a North American factory would buy, thus levelling at least the machine labour part of the competitive playing field.

“Having devoured many of the world’s factory jobs, China is now handing them over to robots. China is already the world’s largest market for industrial robots—sales of the machines last year grew 54% from 2013. The nation is expected to have more factory robots than any other country on earth by 2017, according to the German-based International Federation of Robotics. A perfect storm of economic forces is fueling the trend. Chinese labor costs have soared, undermining the calculus that brought all those jobs to China in the first place, and new robot technology is cheaper and easier to deploy than ever before. Not to mention that many of China’s fastest-growing industries, such as autos, tend to rely on high levels of automation regardless of where the factories are built.”

7) FlexShapeGripper – gripping modeled on a chameleon’s tongue

Speaking of robots, this is a very cool gripper developed by Festo. The video is pretty interesting, however certain issues such as the weight which can be lifted, position precision, etc., are left unaddressed. So this might be cool but otherwise have limited application.

“The chameleon is able to catch a variety of different insects by putting its tongue over the respective prey and securely enclosing it. The FlexShapeGripper uses this principle to grip the widest range of objects in a form-fitting manner. Using its elastic silicone cap, it can even pick up several objects in a single gripping process and put them down together, without the need for a manual conversion.”

8) Qualcomm sees smartphone technology powering robotics

Robots are more likely to be developed as distributed systems, with a large number of lower powered processors rather than a small number of high powered processors. In fact, for some applications where cost is important, there is a good chance control will be handled over a wireless link to a cloud based platform, at least in countries with an infrastructure to support it. Either way, most likely robotics control nodes are almost certainly going to be implemented as “Systems On a Chip” (SOC) such as the ones inside smartphones. I doubt the same SOCs will be used because certain subsystems such as radar processing are not present on smartphone SOCs, however, astute SOC vendors should be able to get ahead of the trend with the right configuration of device.

“At Qualcomm’s robotics research lab, Vice President of Engineering Serefin Diaz scanned a living room with a tablet computer that contained the San Diego company’s computer vision technology. The screen began to fill in with a 3-D digital reconstruction of the television, coffee table and other living room furniture. That may not seem useful. But what if computer vision technology powered a robot that did housework? It automatically would know what to avoid while vacuuming or dusting without the need for specific programming. The demonstration highlighted Qualcomm’s belief that smartphone technology — sensors, cameras, processors and wireless connectivity — could drive the nascent consumer robotics market closer to the mainstream.”

9) What does the growing adoption of ad-blocking say about today’s digital advertising?

I am always shocked when I use a browser on a PC, phone, or tablet where ad-block software has not been installed. I have no idea how people put up with so much visual noise, let alone why they tolerate the waste of the bandwidth they pay for. As with the dying of radio (see next item) what should concern investors is the demographic shift: the youth who don’t watch ads become consumers who don’t watch ads. No doubt there are counter-measures in the works, though I rather doubt litigation will work.

“Demographically, the survey found that men and millennials are most likely to use ad blockers. Men are 48 percent more likely than women to block ads, and 41 percent of respondents aged 18 to 29 reported using the software. “This shows a generational mindset shift,” Giusto says, pointing out that young people will likely continue their ad-avoidance behavior as they grow in buying power and influence — a serious problem for the advertising industry in the future.”

10) Free Radio On My Phone!

If you have any doubts whether radio is a dying business, here is some evidence: an AstroTurf campaign to force smartphone vendors to enable the FM receivers purportedly present in existing smartphones. Although I rarely listen to radio since I discovered podcasts, I once owned a phone with a radio receiver and I liked it, especially when I was away from a coverage area. Today’s youth listen to very little radio, a trend which bodes poorly for the value of those cash machines and, in particular, the associated licenses.

“Today’s smartphones already have an FM receiver! This means that all listeners would have easy access to radio for the entertainment they love and information they need, but wireless carriers are dragging their feet and won’t activate the FM chips that are in every smartphone. FM radio doesn’t require an internet connection and won’t drain your phone’s battery. We need your help to make sure carriers hear this message: We shouldn’t be forced to pay to stream local radio – especially in emergencies – it should be FREE and at our fingertips. TAKE ACTION today!”

11) A Look Inside the Ask Toolbar Installed with Java for Mac

Distributing malware bundled with systems and software is not new but the fact “legitimate” companies such as Lenovo, uTorrent, and now Oracle appear to have embraced the practice is disturbing. It will probably take a class action suit to stop the practice (after all, there is no difference between malicious adware and this sort of thing under the law) or perhaps companies such as Google and Mozilla will simply disable the security certificates of these companies (a practice they have begun for other forms of “legit” malware) which would require the user to disable their browser security to install the malware.

“It’s back! And it’s likely here to stay. A few weeks ago, Intego pointed out that Mac users were no longer being offered to install the Ask toolbar during the installation of Java for Mac. At that time, the Ask toolbar had mysteriously disappeared from Java installations. We suspect that, due to media backlash, Oracle temporarily suspended the process that allows the JRE installer to install the Ask toolbar—depending on a country check.”

12) Up to 380,000 computer servers threatened as software support ends

Frankly, I was shock at this story, but not that the servers were vulnerable but that the government was using any Microsoft server software when a superior, more secure, more popular (51% market share), open source system (Apache on Linux) is available? How can anybody still be running a 15 year old server? The electricity saving alone would merit replacement!

“Microsoft Corp. is sounding a new set of alarms about a product that could soon be vulnerable to attacks by hackers. Less than a year after warning businesses and consumers about the end of support for its popular if dated Windows XP operating system, the company says it will drop support on July 14 for the Windows Server 2003 software that is in use on around 40 per cent of all Microsoft servers in Canada. In fact, according to Treasury Board Secretariat — the federal department responsible for computing equipment and infrastructure renewal — there are as many as 8,000 federal servers running the soon-to-be-decommissioned software.”

13) ‘Cultured meat’ could spell end of traditional cattle farming within decades, scientist behind lab-grown beef burger says

I find it amusing that the anti-GMO, “naturopathy is good”, crowd tend to be so enthusiastic about lab grown meat. The idea is intriguing, even though I doubt I’ll give up hunting because of it. Assuming market acceptance, I think the 20 or 30 year time frame for mass market products is reasonable, even though that scientists predictions of “mass production costs” are typically unreliable.

“The Dutch scientist who served up the world’s first laboratory-grown beef burger says “cultured meat” could spell the end of traditional cattle farming within decades. That is the confronting message Maastricht University Professor Mark Post has for the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association, which is holding its annual conference in Darwin. “I do think in 20, 30 years from now we will have a viable industry producing alternative beef and there will be a growing market for it and eventually a really large market,” he said.”

14) Will Graphene-based Light Bulbs Be Graphene’s Commercial Break Out?

News of the world’s first first commercial graphene based product received some profile this week. I first saw a baffling article on BBC and found another equally confusing article on Financial Times. Unfortunately, as is common with such coverage, the reporter is spoon feed nonsense by a company and then he then writes up something he doesn’t understand. For example, was the device a light bulb or an LED? What benefit is graphene in an LED? This article shows I wasn’t alone in my confusion: the device is an LED, and the graphene simply acts as a thermal conductor. It is not clear why a small improvement to a heat sink would result in a 10% improvement in energy efficiency. Although I am a big believer in graphene, colour me sceptical on this one.

“The first mass market product made with the “miracle material” graphene is about to go on sale: a lightbulb. The invention is a dimmable LED lightbulb that can cut energy costs by at least 10 per cent and last for several years. Its developers at Manchester University say it is within months of going on sale. The bulb copies the classic design of the inventor Thomas Edison, but its filament has a coating of graphene, an atom-thick layer of carbon that is stronger than steel and conducts heat and electricity efficiently.”

15) Single-particle ‘spooky action at a distance’ finally demonstrated

Poor Einstein: one of the greatest geniuses in human history, a guy who revolutionized physics, and people delight in finding something he was wrong about. If you are interested in the experiment, the video is probably worth watching.

“For the first time, researchers have demonstrated what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” using a single particle. And not only is it a huge deal for our understanding of quantum mechanics, it also proves that the physics genius got something wrong. Spooky action at a distance, or quantum entanglement, in a single particle is a strange form of entanglement that could greatly help to improve quantum computing and communications. Unlike regular quantum entanglement, which involves two particles being defined only by being opposites of each other, single particles that are entangled have a wave function that’s spread over huge distances, but are never actually in more than one place.”

16) Sheep Marketplace Owner Arrested While Trying To Buy Luxury Home

The major applications of Bitcoin, and crypto currencies in general appears to be to sell illegal drugs, rip people off pretending to sell them illegal drugs, or to set up a marketplace and steal their Bitcoin. Interestingly, there is no evidence actually stealing crypto currencies is illegal, however, money laundering is. Pro-tips to would be cyber criminals, you want to cover your tracks a bit better, or, better yet, spend your profits where you can’t be extradited from.

“Thomas Jiřikovský, an alleged Owner of one of the most popular Darknet website ‘Sheep Marketplace,’ has been arrested after laundering around $40 Million, making it one of the biggest exit scams in Darknet history. After the arrest of Silk Road owner ‘Ross Ulbricht’ in 2013 — Sheep Marketplace became the next famous anonymous underground marketplace among Black Market customers for selling illicit products, especially drugs. But only after few weeks, Sheep Marketplace was suddenly disappeared and was taken offline by its owner, who had been suspected of stealing $40 million worth of Bitcoins at the time when Bitcoin market value was at the peak.”

17) Electric Car Demand Growing, Global Market Hits 740,000 Units

It sounds pretty impressive: unit sales of 320,000 in 2014, almost every one of which was heavily subsidized (see the next item). Mind you, General Motor’s US sales in July, 2014, were over 256,000 units, which kind of puts things in perspective. I figure the sales and subsidies will likely remain until people figure out that a 5 to 8 year old EV is worthless because the battery is shot. This will probably happen within a couple years or so.

“Demand for electric vehicles (EVs) is growing around the world fairly rapidly, according to new analysis from the Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research — with more than 320,000 new EV registrations in 2014, bringing the total global market up to 740,000 vehicles. Alongside that, battery suppliers saw strong growth — with total revenue hitting €2 billion ($2.17 billion), according the German research company behind the analysis.”

18) Tesla Buyers Making Twice U.S. Average See Rebates in Danger

This article is more speculation than anything else: after all, why should California taxpayers subsidize anybody’s auto purchase, let alone the purchase of an expensive sports car? The EV industry only exists because of subsidies, rebates, ZEV credits, and other non-cash incentives (like free parking, access to HOV lanes, etc.). These sorts of programs tend to be permanent so I doubt the subsidies will be reduced any time soon. However, as I note in the previous article, once EV owners realized they have been rewarded for buying a vehicle with an inherently short life and zero resale value, word will get out and the issue will become moot.

“California’s incentives to purchase electric vehicles are under attack, as data shows most of the money goes to consumers who earn twice the national average yet collect cash rebates on Tesla Motors Inc.’s luxury models. “It’s hard for the average Californian to understand why someone buying a $100,000 car should get a rebate,” said California state Senator Ted Gaines, a Republican who has proposed eliminating rebates on cars that cost more than $40,000. “That’s the same question I posed to myself, and it was hard to justify.” With almost a fifth of California payments applied to Tesla vehicles priced higher than $71,000, its regulators also are drafting rules to ration incentives based on income. While the state accounts for 40 percent of the U.S. plug-in market and has doled out more incentive cash than any other, such rebates are being scrutinized from Washington to Georgia.”

19) Despite Decades Of Deforestation, The Earth Is Getting Greener

Given the continual coverage of environmental calamities, raging forest fires, etc., this is an unexpected finding: the planet is actually “greening”. As the article notes there are a number of potential explanations for this and it is rather hard to put a negative spin on the finding (although I am sure there are efforts to do so). One can’t help but wonder if a similar situation is happening in the oceans. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this article.

“We developed a new technique to map changes in vegetation biomass using satellite measurements of changes in the radio-frequency radiation emitted from the Earth’s surface, a technique called passive microwave remote sensing. The radiation varies with temperature, soil moisture and the shielding of water in vegetation biomass above the ground. We extracted this vegetation information from several satellites and merged them into one time series covering the last two decades. This allowed us to track global changes in biomass from month to month, something that was not possible before. For the period 2003-12, we found that the total amount of vegetation above the ground has increased by about 4 billion tonnes of carbon.”

20) Goodbye GPS? DARPA prepares new tracking technology

I recall having read some time ago that certain types of accelerometers could be made so precise that they would be able to keep tract of your location based on your speed and time of travel. Based on the DARPA document (page 31) that seems to be the direction things are headed. This would allow for precise tracking, even indoors or under water. I don’t expect to see such a capability in a smartphone any time soon, however, unlike GPS, in which the US government controls the satellites, once this form of tracking is perfected it should be commercialized pretty rapidly.

“Finding GPS unreliable in certain situations, the U.S. government is placing a high priority on developing a more reliable real-time position tracking technology whose signals won’t disappear in blind spots and can’t be jammed. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing “radically” new technologies to deliver a more advanced position- and navigation-tracking system that is more reliable and accurate than GPS, according to a document on DARPA research projects posted on Thursday.”