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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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.”
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.”