The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 29th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 29th 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

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1) What Experts Think About the Existential Risks of Artificial Intelligence

You might recall a series of apparently unrelated articles published whereby various luminaries opined on the “dangers” of artificial intelligence. Few such articles bothered to get a counterpoint from actual experts in AI, which is curious because almost every university has an AI program. Asking somebody whether machine super intelligence – even actual experts in AI – would pose an existential threat is a bit like asking whether creating shape shifting monsters would be an existential threat: the creating is the difficult bit. Experts are nowhere near creating anything which could even vaguely approximate intelligence and it is not even clear the path being followed would lead us there. I have little doubt actual thinking machines are possible, however, there is absolutely no reason to worry about that now, or probably over the next 30 or 40 years.

“In January, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and other sundry academics and researchers wrote an open letter calling for safety standards in industries dealing with artificial intelligence. In particular, they called for the research and development of fail-safe control systems that might prevent malfunctioning AI from doing harm — possibly existential harm — to humanity. “In any of these cases, there will be technical work needed in order to ensure that meaningful human control is maintained,” the letter reads. … “For those of us shipping AI technology, working to build these technologies now,” Andrew Ng, an AI expert at Baidu, told Fusion, “I don’t see any realistic path from the stuff we work on today — which is amazing and creating tons of value — but I don’t see any path for the software we write to turn evil.””

2) Volvo says horrible ‘self-parking car accident’ happened because driver didn’t have ‘pedestrian detection’

You know you are in trouble when self-parking cars start mowing down pedestrians. Except that isn’t even partly what happened here. Some bright spark apparently decided to show people a feature his car didn’t have, using live bodies. Setting aside the dubious wisdom of such a test (its a bit like crashing into a wall to show off airbags) and the questionable judgment of the victims, perhaps it does make sense to bundle auto-braking and pedestrian detection options.

“Last week, a gossip blog based in the Dominican Republic called Remolacha published a disturbing video of what it said was a “self-parking car accident.” A group of people stand in a garage watching and filming a grey Volvo XC60 that backs up, stops, and then accelerates toward the group. It smashes into two people, and causes the person filming the video with his phone to drop it and run. It is terrifying. We reached out to Volvo for answers about what went wrong here, and the company’s response was also a bit disturbing. Volvo spokesperson Johan Larsson explained that the video is mislabeled. He said the car is not attempting to self-park. “It seems they are trying to demonstrate pedestrian detection and auto-braking,” said Larsson by email. “Unfortunately, there were some issues in the way the test was conducted.” The main issue, said Larsson, is that it appears that the people who bought this Volvo did not pay for the “Pedestrian detection functionality,” which is a feature that costs more money.”

3) Driverless truck corridor from Mexico to Manitoba proposed

It is not clear from the article whether the idea is to set aside a “reserved” roadway for autonomous trucks, which would be safer but very expensive, or to simple declare a particular route to be useable by driverless trucks, which would be much easier to do but could result in significant risk to other users of the roadway. A designated corridor, even if it is shared with other vehicles, it probably a better idea than autonomous anarchy where any vehicle could take any route. This would allow for better mapping, complete broadband coverage, and special infrastructure modifications, all of which would result in a more controlled environment and lower risk. Once the vehicles have proved themselves in a limited scenario, additional corridors could be added.

“Trucks hauling cargo from Canada through the United States to Mexico and back navigate border crossings without the need for passports, visas or even a driver to steer them. It’s an idea that’s not too far-fetched, says a group that met in North Dakota last week. Marlo Anderson with the Central North American Trade Corridor Association says members are working to turn the idea into reality. The plan is for an autonomous vehicle corridor along Route 83, which runs north-south through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. The road then continues into Manitoba.”

4) New Pedestrian Detector from Google Could Make Self-Driving Cars Cheaper

Lidar (basically laser based radar) is typically the most expensive sensor in an autonomous vehicle and that means they tend to use few of them. Unlike a camera, Lidar can detect distance directly, which makes it particularly useful in such applications. Of course, AVs are relatively new, Lidar, is relatively new, and there has not been much call for cost reduction through volume manufacturing. After all, radar modules can be bought for less than $10 today, a few orders of magnitude less than a few decades ago, so there is precedent. Just as lidar is relatively new, the problem it is solving is relatively new, and alternative solutions will likely be found. Cameras are very cheap, computational performance continues to increase, and algorithms are evolving.

“Anelia Angelova, a research scientist at Google working on computer vision and machine learning, presented a new pedestrian detection system that works on video images alone. Recognizing, tracking, and avoiding human beings is a critical capability in any driverless car, and Google’s vehicles are duly festooned with lidar, radar, and cameras to ensure that they identify people within hundreds of meters. But that battery of sensors is expensive; in particular, the spinning lidar unit on the roof can cost nearly $10,000 (or more if for multiple units). If autonomous vehicles could reliably locate humans using cheap cameras alone, it would lower their cost and, hopefully, usher in an era of robotic crash-free motoring all the sooner. But video cameras have their issues. “Visual information gives you a wider view [than radars] but is slower to process,” Angelova told IEEE Spectrum.”

5) Amazon is Looking for the Perfect Warehouse Worker

Amazon gets a lot of criticism for the working conditions its warehouse workers are subject to. The logistics of hiring and training vast numbers of temporary workers is probably not something the company enjoys either, so there is, in total a strong incentive for the company to “increase the productivity of its warehouse staff” (translation: get rid of as many warehouse employees as possible). The obvious way of doing so is further automation, however, many products do not lend themselves to automated “picking”. The company has started a competition to find solutions to these challenges, and, one way or another, those problems will be solved.

“ Inc.’s inaugural “Amazon Picking Challenge” inspired mechanical engineering and computer science students from around the world to design robots that can grab boxes of Oreo cookies and pencils from warehouse shelves and place them in bins, tasks ordinarily done by people. The Seattle retailer hopes to make its challenge a regular event that encourages innovation in robotics and steers academic research toward e-commerce automation.”

6) Fly-catching robot developed by Stanford scientists speeds biomedical research

One area which has benefited enormously from robotics is actually scientific research, where many chemical assays, etc., which used to be done by technicians are now done faster and better by robots. This robot is in the business of fruit fly wrangling, or carefully capturing fruit flies for examination, classification, testing, etc.. Previously this tedious work was done by technicians and/or grad students who anesthetized the creatures then sorted them manually but the robot appears to be far more productive and does not require anesthesia. The video is pretty fun to watch: no doubt fruit flies will soon be telling tales of alien abduction and probing.

“Underlying every significant discovery from fruit fly research – and there have been many, relating to almost every aspect of our own biology – is daily, monotonous time spent by scientists toiling over plastic dishes of conked-out flies. Now a team led by Mark Schnitzer, an associate professor of biology and of applied physics, has introduced a solution to the tedium: a robot that can visually inspect awake flies and, even better, carry out behavioral experiments that were impossible with anesthetized flies. The work is described May 25 in the journal Nature Methods. “Robotic technology offers a new prospect for automated experiments and enables fly researchers to do several things they couldn’t do previously,” Schnitzer said. “For example, it can do studies with large numbers of flies inspected in very precise ways.” The group did one study of 1,000 flies in 10 hours, a task that would have taken much longer for even a highly skilled human.”

7) Farms of the Future Will Use Drones, Robots and GPS

The adoption of mechanical systems by farmers resulted in a tremendous increase in agricultural productivity. My relatively cheap ($10,000) haybine cuts more hay in an hour than a family could cut in a day using scythes. Not only that, but manual work around a farm is hard work and it is near impossible to find people willing to do it. I doubt small family farms will be early adopters of such advanced technology as drones and robots, but I am pretty confident larger operations will be enthusiastic adopters once the bugs are worked out. One challenge will be the brutal work environment (hot, cold, wet, dry) on a farm and the tendency of farmers to be less than gentle with their equipment. Nevertheless, the agricultural sector is a large one and there are significant rewards for companies which develop machines which can do the work.

“Beyond the now de rigeur air conditioning and stereo system, a modern large tractor’s enclosed cabin includes computer displays indicating machine performance, field position and operating characteristics of attached machinery like seed planters. And as amazing as today’s technologies are, they’re just the beginning. Self-driving machinery and flying robots able to automatically survey and treat crops will become commonplace on farms that practice what’s come to be called precision agriculture. The ultimate purpose of all this high-tech gadgetry is optimization, from both an economic and an environmental standpoint. We only want to apply the optimal amount of any input (water, fertilizer, pesticide, fuel, labor) when and where it’s needed to efficiently produce high crop yields.”

8) Netflix Now Accounts for 36.5% of Peak Internet Traffic

Video streaming is used as an excuse for Internet providers to throttle traffic and argue against net neutrality and figures like this show why they are so keen to do so. Of course, the same arguments can (and were) made as the world transitioned from email to web pages and audio to video streams. In many parts of the world, broadband providers have a monopoly or a best minimal competition, and their market positions are a consequence of happenstance and poor regulation, not innovation. The solution to network congestion is a simple one: open the markets to competition. Besides the historical good fortune of market position there is no reason an Internet service provider should return an unusual return.

“A new analysis of Internet data indicates that Netflix now accounts for 36.5% of Internet traffic in North America during peak usage hours. According to the latest Sandvine breakdown of user behavior, the sharp climb in Netflix usage continues to coincide, rather un-coincidentally, with a notable drop in BitTorrent traffic. BitTorrent now accounts for 6.3% of total traffic in North America, and 8.5% in Latin America, notes the hardware vendor. The study notes that YouTube comprised 15.6% of peak downstream Internet traffic, while web browsing was 6%, Facebook 2.7%, Amazon Instant Video 2.0% and Hulu 1.9%. Sling TV accounted for less than 1% of peak downstream traffic. According to Sandvine, during the season five premiere of “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s two streaming properties (HBOGO and HBONOW) accounted for 4.1% of traffic on one US fixed network; an increase of over 300% of their average levels. HBO Now currently sees just 0.7% of peak total downstream traffic, likely due to the fact it’s a new offering only exclusively being offered by Cablevision and Apple.”

9) Internet capacity fears allayed

I missed the original event ( and I can’t find any good summary of the comments but rest assured I would have made fun of them if I had. “Exponential growth” never continues forever and it isn’t even that hard to calculate when bandwidth will top out. Imagine every human with electricity watches HD cat videos all the time – that is about 6 billion times 6 million bits per second, or about 36 x 1015 bits, or 36 petabits, per second. As good as that would be for cat video producers, it would result in the collapse of the global economy, but bear with me. Researchers have already shown petabit speeds ( and that was in 2013, which is ages ago, meaning all of the world’s HD cat videos could be sent over 36 special fibers. We have the technology. As the BT scientist points out, you build infrastructure to meet the need. No biggie.

“The internet will not need to be rationed in the future because of a “data capacity crunch”, according to a leading scientist from telecoms giant BT. Professor Andrew Lord, who leads optical research at BT, said that while the firm is seeing “exponential growth” in internet use, tests and research the company has done show the current infrastructure can deal with the demand. He was speaking at the opening of a Royal Society discussion on the internet called “Communication networks beyond the capacity crunch”, where the increase in data use and its impact are being discussed by leading scientists. It comes after one of the meeting’s organisers, Professor Andrew Ellis, an expert in optical communications at Aston University, said that at the rate consumers are using the web, existing cables will reach their data capacity limit by the end of the decade, leading to a “potentially disastrous capacity crunch”, and the possible need to ration internet use.”

10) I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How.

This somewhat lengthy article explains how the author created an apparently scientific basis for the claim you could lose weight by eating chocolate. The idea was to show the abysmal state of science journalism and it accomplished its goal. I don’t really know why he went through so much bother: there isn’t a lot of evidence the media bothers to fact check anything let alone science stories. After all, based on what I have read few journalists even seem to understand basic math, let alone physics or chemistry. Special interest groups and corporation pump out all kinds of unsubstantiated nonsense which never gets questioned let alone fact check. After all, it is the very basis of the neo-environmentalist, naturopathy, and dietary supplements industries that nobody bothers to check anything. Not only that, but peer reviewed research does not, in actually imply something is true, even if it isn’t made up (see item 11)! Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

““Slim by Chocolate!” the headlines blared. A team of German researchers had found that people on a low-carb diet lost weight 10 percent faster if they ate a chocolate bar every day. It made the front page of Bild, Europe’s largest daily newspaper, just beneath their update about the Germanwings crash. From there, it ricocheted around the internet and beyond, making news in more than 20 countries and half a dozen languages. It was discussed on television news shows. It appeared in glossy print, most recently in the June issue of Shape magazine (“Why You Must Eat Chocolate Daily,” page 128). Not only does chocolate accelerate weight loss, the study found, but it leads to healthier cholesterol levels and overall increased well-being. The Bild story quotes the study’s lead author, Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health: “The best part is you can buy chocolate everywhere.” I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.”

11) Science retracts gay marriage paper without agreement of lead author LaCour

This is a follow on to item 10. The fact the paper was about gay marriage is irrelevant, but the fact the paper was published in Science, one of the most reputable journals, is. To summarize the situation, this paper was published in a prestigious journal without anybody bothering to actually look at any of the numbers (including the coauthors), let alone do basic diligence. Presumably the role of the reviewers was to check spelling and grammar and not ask too many questions. None of this would have come to light if an independent research team had not tried to replicate the results. Attempting to replicate results used to be an important part of scientific progress, because until other people replicate the results you should assume the results cannot be replicated and therefore give no validity to the paper, regardless of who the authors are or which journal it appeared in. Unfortunately, nowadays a paper’s validity is more associated with the number of times it has been cited by other researchers (who, for the most part have not checked the numbers, let alone replicated the results), rather than whether its conclusions have been substantiated.

“Amid a tidal wave of criticism, Science is retracting a study of how canvassers can sway people’s opinions about gay marriage published just 5 months ago. The retraction comes without the agreement of the paper’s lead author, Michael J. LaCour, a political science Ph.D. student at the University of California (UC), Los Angeles. LaCour’s attorney has told Science that LaCour made false claims about some aspects of the study, according to the retraction statement, including misrepresenting his funding sources and the incentives that he offered to survey participants. “In addition to these known problems, independent researchers have noted certain statistical irregularities in the responses,” Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt wrote in the retraction statement. “LaCour has not produced the original survey data from which someone else could independently confirm the validity of the reported findings.””

12) Analysis: Understanding Tesla’s Potemkin Swap Station

How could I go a week without commenting on Tesla? Actually I had a number of candidates but the nonsense around the company’s numerous “breakthroughs” – which are only breakthroughs to the profoundly ignorant – made it too easy. This article takes a fairly deep dive look at the numerous subsidies around EVs in general and how the company has managed to game them. Unfortunately the subsidies do nothing to solve the real problem of EVs, namely the short lived and staggeringly expensive batteries, instead focusing on relatively meaningless milestones. As we have noted in the past, these sorts of subsidies are inherently self limiting as the state cannot afford to maintain them as the numbers grow. It is a matter of time before the entire illusion comes crashing down. Thanks to Alain Bélanger of NOVACAP for this item.

“The return of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) to the US market nearly a century after internal combustion technology swept them aside is one of the most compelling automotive stories of the last decade, bringing a much-needed injection of fresh ideas and enthusiasm to an increasingly mature and commodified industry. Though BEVs remain less than 1% of global auto sales, they have become immensely important to automakers by aiding compliance with various emissions regulations, as well as creating an aura of environmental responsibility and technological innovation. The immense power of these incentives is made manifest in Tesla, the Silicon Valley-based BEV maker that has defied the industry’s immense challenges to startups and become the hottest automotive brand in the world. Despite selling just 31,655 vehicles in 2014, a tiny fraction of the industry’s global volume, Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk receive huge amounts of (largely favorable) media coverage and enjoy a market capitalization that exceeds far larger competitors like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.”

13) “Privacy? I don’t have anything to hide.”

Last week I carried a series of recommendations on how to maintain a modicum of privacy online. This article has much more detailed series of recommendations. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this link.

“Over the last 16 months, as I’ve debated this issue around the world, every single time somebody has said to me, “I don’t really worry about invasions of privacy because I don’t have anything to hide.” I always say the same thing to them. I get out a pen, I write down my email address. I say, “Here’s my email address. What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts, not just the nice, respectable work one in your name, but all of them, because I want to be able to just troll through what it is you’re doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you’re not a bad person, if you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.” Not a single person has taken me up on that offer.”

14) AdBlock Plus mobile browser could devastate publishers

As online advertising has become more pervasive and intrusive, ad blocking technology has become more popular. I was an early adopter of ad blocking technology and now the only place I even see ads is when I use “free” apps on my mobile device, and I figure it is a matter of time before somebody figures out how to block those. I don’t know if AdBlock Plus Mobile Browser is that much different from, say, Firefox with Adblock (I prefer uBlock), but it is indicative of a trend.

“Within 24 hours of Adblock Plus launching an ad-free browser for Android devices last Wednesday, it logged more than 200,000 downloads. It took years for desktop ad blocking to become popular, and rapid mobile growth could devastate websites dependent on ad revenue. Experts say there’s a simple solution, however: stop making annoying ads and people won’t need ad blockers. “We’re not against advertising,” says Ben Williams, communications and operations director for Eyeo, which operates Adblock Plus. “We think that advertising can be better.””

15) A Murky Road Ahead for Android, Despite Market Dominance

This article summarizes some of the rivals and challenges to Android in the mobile device marketplace. It is legitimate to question how long Android will dominate, however, it is worth noting that new entrants come and go and very few ever develop market share. An operating system is important because it is an ecosystem, namely OS, apps, and devices. This is one reason Windows has done so well for so long despite its numerous shortcomings. Although I would be cautious to proclaim Google’s position is, in general, unassailable, I suspect both Android and Google could continue on nicely as separate entities. Thanks to Nick Tang for this item.

“Things have changed. In an era ruled by portable computers, Android has become essential to Google’s future. Like an unstoppable friendly bacteria advancing upon a powerless host planet, Android, in the last five years, has colonized much of the known world. Android is now not just the globe’s most popular smartphone operating system but the most popular operating system of any kind. More than a billion Android devices were sold in 2014, according to the research firm Gartner. That’s about five times the number of Apple iOS devices sold, and about three times the number of Windows machines sold.”

16) This Weird Powerbank Phone is Trending in Africa; Here’s Why

We tend to think of electric power as a right whereas in a lot of the world it is a relatively rare treat. For example, a major cost of wireless infrastructure in the developing world is diesel fuel and maintenance, often with a guy on sight to make sure the generator isn’t stolen. Needless to say, having mobile service but no mobile isn’t of much use if your phone isn’t charged. This monster comes with a 10 amp hour battery and, from the looks of it, is probably a relatively low power consumption 2nd generation device. Crude but effective. And remarkably cheap.

“One thing that quickly became clear when I spoke to people is that the number one reason they bought the phone is to use it as a power bank. Ghana is currently experiencing a severe power crisis  — city-wide blackouts of 36 hours or more have become the norm in Accra. A brisk business has grown around selling power banks, which are small portable rechargable batteries that can be used to charge small electronics such as MP3 players and, yes, phones.”

17) SanDisk has lightning-fast SSD drives that are as cheap as regular hard drives

The article is rather light on details as is the press release ( The largest drive they expect to offer is 240 GB which is at the low end of what you would install in your laptop, though you could probably get away with the 120 GB unit depending on what you were up to. The thing is, it is hard to find a 240 GB HDD drive to compare pricing with: the smallest HDD I was able to find is 250 GB for CDN $32 (I suspect surplus), while the “sweet spot” for pricing/GB is around 2 TB ($85). Suffice it to say I rather doubt SanDisk is gong to bring a $32 240 GB SSD to market, however, if they can come in well below the current $100 range for SSDs it could have a disruptive effect on the market.

“Solid-state drive (SSD) can significantly increase the performance of a computers compared to regular hard-disk drives (HDD), but flash memory has never been the most affordable option for buyers. However, that’s about to change, as SanDisk on Tuesday announced a new family of SSDs that should be as affordable as regular HDDs. The SanDisk Z400s it the new “cost-effective” SSD announced by the company. The device is supposed to be 20 times faster than HDDs and consume 20 times less power while offering five times better reliability than regular HDDs.”

18) Russian ‘troll factory’ flooding Internet with propaganda

I found this story to be amusing because it doesn’t appear the journalist understands than many, if not most, governments do exactly the same thing, as do many large companies. For example, Reddit has “life pro tips” which appear dominated from time to time with unusual applications of dryer sheets, an obvious attempt by the dryer sheet cabal to manage the narrative. The online discussion of most subjects, in particular political current events is clearly dominated by trolls working over the same carefully scripted talking points. Is it a surprise to CTV and The Associated Press that a lot of the stuff on the Internet isn’t true?

“Deep inside a four-story marble building in St. Petersburg, hundreds of workers tap away at computers on the front lines of an information war, say those who have been inside. Known as “Kremlin trolls,” the men and women work 12-hour shifts around the clock, flooding the Internet with propaganda aimed at stamping President Vladimir Putin’s world vision on Russia, and the world. The Kremlin has always dabbled in propaganda, but in the past year its troll campaign has gone into overdrive, adding hundreds of online operatives to help counter Western pressure over its role in the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The program is drawing Serbia away from its proclaimed EU membership path and closer to the Russian orbit, and is targeting Germany, the United States and other Western powers. The operation has worried the European Union enough to prompt it to draw up a blueprint for fighting Russia’s disinformation campaign, although details have not yet been released.”

19) Malware is not only about viruses – companies preinstall it all the time

Its been a slow news week, likely because of the US long weekend and it being the beginning of summer, so I figured I’d include this rant from Richard Stallman on the subject of non-free software, which he incorrectly characterizes as malware. He does make some excellent points regarding the nefarious nature of many proprietary vendors and their collaboration with security agencies, however, not all proprietary software is bad and not all GNU software is good.

“In 1983, the software field had become dominated by proprietary (ie nonfree) programs, and users were forbidden to change or redistribute them. I developed the GNU operating system, which is often called Linux, to escape and end that injustice. But proprietary developers in the 1980s still had some ethical standards: they sincerely tried to make programs serve their users, even while denying users control over how they would be served. How far things have sunk. Developers today shamelessly mistreat users; when caught, they claim that fine print in EULAs (end user licence agreements) makes it ethical. (That might, at most, make it lawful, which is different.) So many cases of proprietary malware have been reported, that we must consider any proprietary program suspect and dangerous. In the 21st century, proprietary software is computing for suckers.”

20) NASA Officially Begins Europa Life Searching Mission with Selection of Science Instruments

This is another slow news week kind of story. The headline does overstate the mission somewhat, at least based on the instrumentation they list: looking for the ability to support life is not the same as searching for life, which would likely require a lander of some sort. Most likely this will be the first of several missions leading to a landing and careful biological analysis. Europa is a good candidate for extraterrestrial life, however it might be under a few kilometers of ice. There is some hope that tectonic activity (basically water volcanoes) might deposit onto the surface fossils of whatever critters might exist in the oceans, which would greatly simplify detection.

“NASA has selected nine science instruments for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, to investigate whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life. NASA’s Galileo mission yielded strong evidence that Europa, about the size of Earth’s moon, has an ocean beneath a frozen crust of unknown thickness. If proven to exist, this global ocean could have more than twice as much water as Earth. With abundant salt water, a rocky sea floor, and the energy and chemistry provided by tidal heating, Europa could be the best place in the solar system to look for present day life beyond our home planet. “Europa has tantalized us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean, following the amazing data from 11 flybys of the Galileo spacecraft over a decade ago and recent Hubble observations suggesting plumes of water shooting out from the moon,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “We’re excited about the potential of this new mission and these instruments to unravel the mysteries of Europa in our quest to find evidence of life beyond Earth.””

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 22nd 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 22nd 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

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1) 2015 Patent Litigation Study A change in patentee fortunes

The details within the report are quite interesting. Setting aside the decline in cases, there were no “mega awards” in 2014 and the median damage award dropped to the second lowest level of the past 20 years – though the award for “Non Practicing Entities” (NPE) increased to 4.5x the median award of $2 million. A study of litigation does not provide the full story as many case are settled without resorting to court. Nevertheless, fewer cases and lower damage awards suggest the worm had turned for the traditional NPE patent trolls.

“Number of patent lawsuits filed in 2014 dropped by 13%; dramatic shift from recent years Driven by Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank, which raised the bar for patentability and enforcement of software patents. What will be the impact on future patent enforcement? Will existing patent cases before the US Supreme Court similarly impact litigation trends?”

2) Oregon to test pay-per-mile idea as replacement for gas tax

Years ago, when I followed Ballard Power, which, at the time, was hoping to sell fuel cells to the auto industry, I observed that one of the assumptions was that hydrogen “fuel” would not be taxed. The problem with this form of subsidy, as with any other subsidy, is that it only works when the numbers are small: if 1% of cars are subsidized, the government can afford it, 20% they can’t. Subsidies are therefore inherently self limiting. Evidently, Oregon’s politicians are facing that reality: generous subsidies result in a shift in driving habits which they have to roll back in order to make ends meet. Ending subsidies seems anathema to politicians so they have to come up with another scheme. The comments that the program “… targets hybrid and electric vehicles, so it’s discriminatory” is quite funny: the entire EV and Hybrid market only exists because of massive subsidies all all levels. It seems nothing is more of an outrage than a loss of privilege.

“Oregon is about to embark on a first-in-the-nation program that aims to charge car owners not for the fuel they use, but for the miles they drive. The program is meant to help the state raise more revenue to pay for road and bridge projects at a time when money generated from gasoline taxes are declining across the country, in part, because of greater fuel efficiency and the increasing popularity of fuel-efficient, hybrid and electric cars. Starting July 1, up to 5,000 volunteers in Oregon can sign up to drive with devices that collect data on how much they have driven and where. The volunteers will agree to pay 1.5 cents for each mile traveled on public roads within Oregon, instead of the tax now added when filling up at the pump. Some electric and hybrid car owners, however, say the new tax would be unfair to them and would discourage purchasing of green vehicles.”–oregon-charging_green_vehicles-eff38a74ea.html

3) China pushes for big jump in Internet speeds

Outside of North America (and in particular outside of Canada) governments understand that a modern telecommunications infrastructure is important to a modern economy. As such, many governments actually have plans to create and improve such an infrastructure or to cajole industry into doing to. This is not exactly rocket science from a policy or technological perspective: after all, these sorts of programs delivered electricity and telephone services to North Americans 50 years ago, when it was difficult and expensive to do so, and for the same reasons. Oddly enough the government of China appears to have a more lucid understanding of the importance of a modern telecommunications infrastructure than does that f the US or Canada. Imagine what would happen if they didn’t restrict actual Internet use …

“China’s government is pressing for faster Internet access speeds and lower prices, two moves that aim to boost the number of its citizens going online. On Friday, all three of China’s telecommunications operators announced plans to lower broadband and data plan costs for consumers. This came a month after China’s premier Li Keqiang said the country needed to do more to expand Internet access. China has the world’s largest Internet-connected citizenry at over 649 million users, but that’s still less than half of the country’s population. And average Internet speeds in China are 3.4 megabits per second (Mbps), far lower than the U.S. where average access speeds reach 11.1 Mbps, according to Akamai Technologies.”

4) European Internet users urged to protect themselves against Facebook tracking

These recommendations are apt even for Facebook users and non-Europeans. After all, why provide a large corporation with information about yourself, especially for no quid pro quo? Of course few people, even Europeans, will hear about, let alone implement these suggestions so the report itself will have little or no impact on privacy. What is needed is explicit, short term, opt in permission by users backed by serious fines for non-compliance.

“The Belgian Privacy Commission requests, among other things, that Facebook provide full transparency about the use of cookies, and to refrain from systematically placing long-life and unique identifier cookies with non-users of Facebook, as well as from collecting and using data by means of social plug-ins (unless they obtain the users’ consent). Users who wish to protect themselves against tracking by Facebook through social plug-ins are advised to use browser add-ons that block tracking – EFF’s Privacy Badger, Ghostery, or Disconnect – and to use the incognito or “private navigation” mode in their browser of choice. Facebook’s tracking decisions do not only impact Facebook users but all Internet users, they noted.”

5) ORNL demonstrates first large-scale graphene composite fabrication

Graphene is frequently in the news and I recently read a post questioning whether the material will ever be useful for anything. It is worth noting that graphene was first fabricated, in microscopic quantities, only 12 years ago. It took some time for the method to be widely known and for experimentation on the material to begin. Since then a number of potentially commercially significant uses have been discovered and the race is on to produce the stuff in large quantities. I am quite confident a cost effective high volume production process will be developed which will open the doors to those many applications. Unfortunately, I have no idea whether a particular scheme is “the one”, but progress is definitely being made.

“One of the barriers to using graphene at a commercial scale could be overcome using a method demonstrated by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Graphene, a material stronger and stiffer than carbon fiber, has enormous commercial potential but has been impractical to employ on a large scale, with researchers limited to using small flakes of the material. Now, using chemical vapor deposition, a team led by ORNL’s Ivan Vlassiouk has fabricated polymer composites containing 2-inch-by-2-inch sheets of the one-atom thick hexagonally arranged carbon atoms.”

6) Tiny grains of lithium dramatically improve performance of fusion plasma

Another technology with consider promise is nuclear fusion, which has been understood as the power source of the sun for about 85 years. Like volume production of graphene, creating a sustainable nuclear fusion reaction is an engineering problem, though not necessarily a solvable one. Attention tends to focus on large projects such as ITER but lots of labs are working on the problem as well. This discovery is another nugget which might lead along the path to a viable fusion reactor, but you never know. Of course there are also long shots like General Fusion, which recently received a $27M investment Again – you never know.

“Scientists from General Atomics and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have discovered a phenomenon that helps them to improve fusion plasmas, a finding that may quicken the development of fusion energy. Together with a team of researchers from across the United States, the scientists found that when they injected tiny grains of lithium into a plasma undergoing a particular kind of turbulence then, under the right conditions, the temperature and pressure rose dramatically. High heat and pressure are crucial to fusion, a process in which atomic nuclei – or ions – smash together and release energy—making even a brief rise in pressure of great importance for the development of fusion energy.”

7) New class of expanding magnets has potential to energize the world

I wish I had a better grasp of the implications of this discovery. What’s the deal with magnets and how do they work? Seriously, though the coverage of this article would have benefited from an animation or video showing the different effects rather than a photograph of what could easily be a wheat field. As near as I can figure, since this new material changes size, rather than simply changing shape, when exposed to a magnetic field, it can be used to create more powerful and compact actuators. Of course, that presupposes the material itself is stable, though the discovery of the effect might lead to materials which are even better for such applications.

“A new class of magnets that expand their volume when placed in a magnetic field and generate negligible amounts of wasteful heat during energy harvesting, has been discovered by researchers at Temple University and the University of Maryland. The researchers, Harsh Deep Chopra, professor and chair of mechanical engineering at Temple, and Manfred Wuttig, professor of materials science and engineering at Maryland, published their findings, “Non-Joulian Magnetostriction,” in the May 21 issue of the journal Nature.”

8) Brain implant controls robotic arm – with the power of thought

This is the best of many stories covering this development, however, I thought the video (second link) was somewhat better than the one embedded here. We have covered neural implants controlling prosthetic arms previously, but this approach is novel in that the patient is completely paralyzed and the area of the brain used for the implants is different. These are obviously early stage experiments, and, as the article notes, dexterity without a sense of touch is a challenge. Although it might make sense to control the patient’s limbs themselves, the use of a robotic arm removes many variables. This is an exciting and rapidly moving field.

“Until now, scientists have focused on the brain’s motor cortex, which generates the electrical signals that are sent down the spinal cord and control the contractions of every muscular movement. However, the resultant neuro-prosthetics, which have been trialled on a handful of patients, produced movements that were delayed and jerky: not the smooth and seemingly automatic gestures associated with natural movement. In the latest trial, scientists inserted implants into the “higher” brain region, called the posterior parietal cortex (PPC), that gives rise to the intention to move, rather than the details of how we execute the movements.”

A better video associated with the story

9) New Approach Trains Robots to Match Human Dexterity and Speed

Robotics is another field which is rapidly advancing and this article ties to item 8 in that the faster a robot (or prosthetic limb) can be taught to perform tasks, the better. Factory robots typically deal with carefully controlled situations and can require a lot of programming to get them to perform their tasks. Robots outside the shop must deal with a much “looser” environment and perform a much wider variety of tasks meaning the cost of programming would be astronomic. This novel approach would allow for much quicker implementation, at much lower cost, and with greater flexibility.

“In an engineering laboratory here, a robot has learned to screw the cap on a bottle, even figuring out the need to apply a subtle backward twist to find the thread before turning it the right way. This and other activities — including putting a clothes hanger on a rod, inserting a block into a tight space and placing a hammer at the correct angle to remove a nail from a block of wood — may seem like pedestrian actions. But they represent significant advances in robotic learning, by a group of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who have trained a two-armed machine to match human dexterity and speed in performing these tasks. The significance of the work is in the use of a so-called machine-learning approach that links several powerful software techniques that make it possible for the robot to learn new tasks rapidly with a relatively small amount of training.”

10) World’s first 3D fabric printer to make future clothing custom, seamless and a perfect fit

The video is amusing given the rudimentary nature of the garments which would not look out of place on a medieval peasant. However, it is unfair to judge a new technology on the basis of an early prototype and things can improve quickly. Or not – not all problems can be solved cost effectively. The use of a simple 2 dimensional mold is bound to limit what can be done at the moment as modern designs are typically made on a 3 dimensional sewing form even if they are eventually cut out of 2 dimensional material. Another problem is the use of non-woven textiles, which may have limited strength and/or durability. Finally, such a system would not be likely to produce the sorts of volumes possible with traditional techniques. Nevertheless, many of these issues might be solvable and niche markets may emerge.

“In the future we could be both better and more uniquely dressed, thanks to the development of a 3D fabric printer; the first of its kind. Although not yet ready for large-scale production, the Electroloom is an exciting prospect, enabling its users to design and print seamless clothing that perfectly fits their frame. The printer, which is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter and looks set to comfortably exceed its goal, uses a technique called field-guided fabrication to produce garments. This takes the form of a CAD-developed 3D mold placed inside the printer, which the printer deposits solid fibres onto, building up the final garment. The fibres themselves are shipped as a liquid solution, but the printer converts them using an electrospinning process, before guiding them onto the mold using an electric field.”

11) Huawei’s LiteOS Internet of Things operating system is a minuscule 10KB

Excitement over Internet of Things (IoT) ebbs and flows, though connected devices – which pretty much describes IoT are bound to increase. After all, a garage door opener or door lock you can open with your smartphone is pretty banal technologically even if it is IoT. Since many IoT devices will simply be non-IoT devices with a few cents worth of WiFi circuitry I don’t believe most of the hype cranked out by Wall Street or industry researchers. One challenge for IoT developers is a low footprint Operating System which can fit on most Systems On a Chip (SOCs) and leave room for application software. Huawei’s announcement us strange because there exists another (or perhaps the same), very similar, open source operating system called LiteOS (see Parenthetically, the odds of a closed platform being broadly adopted for IoT are next to zero.

“Chinese firm Huawei today announces its IoT OS at an event in Beijing. The company predicts that within a decade there will be 100 billion connected devices and it is keen for its ultra-lightweight operating system to be at the heart of the infrastructure. Based on Linux, LiteOS weighs in at a mere 10KB — smaller than a Word document — but manages to pack in support for zero configuration, auto-discovery, and auto-networking. The operating system will be open for developers to tinker with, and is destined for use in smart homes, wearables, and connected vehicles.”

12) Google developing “Brillo” Internet of Things OS based on Android

LiteOS (see item 11) claims a Linux legacy, however, with a 10KB size there probably isn’t much Linux left. There are low footprint Linux versions out there which implement the vast majority of Linux functionality, in particular a full networking stack. Android, which is a Linux fork, seems like an odd choice for an IoT operating system due to the fact a large part of it is associated with the User Interface – a function which is not that important in a garage door opener or coffee pot. Of course Google knows this and we can assume that Brillo is something different. I can see lots of reasons I would not want my IoT devices to run Google software – even if it is open source – and very few reasons why I would want to.

“The Information is back with more Google news before I/O. The outlet claims that Google is developing another operating system, this time for low-power “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices. The OS is codenamed “Brillo,” and the publication claims Google “is likely to release the software under the Android brand, as the group developing the software is linked to the company’s Android unit.” We’re going to take that to mean “it’s based on Android.” The report says Brillo will be aimed at ultra low-power devices with as little as 64 or 32MB of RAM. With the abundance of smart home technology like connected light bulbs, door locks, sensors, and whatever other crazy connected objects the IoT crowd dreams up on Kickstarter, Google clearly sees an opportunity.”

13) Philips turns LEDs into an indoor GPS for supermarkets

I worked for Philips for many years, and, as with most ex-Philips engineers it absolutely shocks me when they come up with a good idea. Not that the engineers are dumb, but the entire organization seems constructed to stamp out any creativity or imaginative solutions. I am stunned that they have come up with this. Not so much the application since many stores are designed to not be easy to navigate (consider the mastery of the Ikea maze). However, there are many buildings where knowing how to get where you want to go is a good thing. Such a system could download a map and establish your location at minimal cost by encoding that data in imperceptible changes in the light which would be picked up by a smartphone camera. Of course, to have any use, such a system would have to become commonplace, but that is possible given Philips’ market position.

“Philips believes that the days of endlessly roaming around a store looking for the right kind of balsamic vinegar may soon be at an end. The company’s lighting division has developed an indoor navigation system that enables your smartphone to direct you straight towards the Oils & Vinegars (Specialist) section. In addition, the technology helps to light everything up nice and bright, and save a bucketload of cash in the process. Rather than using Bluetooth beacons, which others believe will being reliable indoor navigation for retail outlets, the company has swapped out the traditional lighting for banks of white LEDs above each aisle. Each bulb is equipped with visible light communication (VLC), enabling it to beam out a code that’s imperceptible to the human eye. When a user opens the corresponding smartphone app and holds it horizontally, the forward-facing camera reads the VLC. Once the software knows where you’re located, it’ll follow this overhead breadcrumb trail to get you where you need to go.”

14) You can hang this 55-inch OLED TV to a wall and roll it up like a newspaper after watching a movie

There was a time when large screen TVs went from 10s of centimeters in thickness to a few centimeters. I observed to a friend that, once thicknesses got to a couple centimeters nobody would care even if a 2 dimensional set were introduced. This prototype is essentially a 2 dimensional set so if it ever hits the market I’ll find out if I was right. Besides thickness there are other reasons to be excited about this: OLED produces a very high quality image and a “rollable” TV would be a lot easier to transport, install, and stock. More importantly, OLED has always had the potential of being produced in a continuous sheet like paper or fabric, rather than the fragile “batch” process used for LCDs and formerly plasma. It is possible OLED will reduce the cost of displays dramatically while delivering better picture quality.

“Televisions are changing everyday. Very soon you will be able to carry your TVs anywhere, as you would your smartphone, phablet etc. LG Electronics just showed off a 55-inch flexible OLED ”Wallpaper” television that you can hang to the wall like a calender or newspaper using a magnetic mat, and can be removed when you are through watching a movie by gently peeling it off the wall. The South Korean giant displayed the tech at an event in Korea on Tuesday.”

15) Why an Apple HDTV Never Made Any Sense

I was relieved when I saw the headlines that the “Apple TV” was officially dead. Not so much because I ever thought the product would see the light of day (it was a stupid idea, since TVs are very cheap) but because I will be spared nearly daily articles hyping how Apple would disrupt the TV industry. Actually, come to think of it, those articles will probably now simply focus on Electric vehicles (another really dumb idea for Apple).

“Last night, after a brief resurrection by vocal billionaire investor Carl Icahn (he’s like Tony Stark minus everything but the money), rumors that Apple would sell an HDTV were finally laid to rest. Which is good! Because they, much like the nonsensical television sets in question, never should have existed in the first place. The Wall Street Journal finally (hopefully?) ended the era of dumb Apple-idiot-box rumors last night. The WSJ patiently explained that Apple abandoned any HDTV plans well over a year ago, the way one might outline the ways Santa Claus doesn’t line up with the laws of physics to an especially guileless tween.”

16) Google offers cut-rate computing for low-priority jobs

Cloud computing is in a “race to the bottom” cost wise. Consider the costs of running a large data center: rent (or depreciation), electricity, networking, and depreciation of computers. Unfortunately, if you populate a computer center today, you are paying more for your computers than a guy who populates one six months from now, so the most recent entry always has a cost advantage. Add to that massive companies such as Google who deploy staggering numbers of computers to deal with their peak computing needs, even though much of that processing power is unused at least some of the time. The solution is to offer low priority cloud computing at cut rate pricing (I suspect the price is similar to the cost of the electric power to run them). Many task do not really require on demand computing and these can be shuffled to Google at minimal cost. Needless to say I would not invest in a cloud services provider.

“The service, now in beta, would be good for fault-tolerant workloads that can be distributed easily across multiple virtual machines. Although jobs such as data analytics, genomics, and simulation and modeling can require lots of computational power, they can run periodically, or even if one or more nodes they’re using goes offline. Google’s budget service is somewhat similar to Amazon Web Service’s Spot Instances, also designed for jobs that can be interrupted. AWS’ model is different because its price can fluctuate according to demand, whereas Google’s prices are fixed. The Compute Engine Preemptible Virtual Machine can cost as little as US$0.01 per instance per hour.”

17) A Way to Brew Morphine Raises Concerns Over Regulation

Opium is actually pretty cheap when produced legally (raw paste is about $30/kg), it is the illegality which makes it expensive. Nevertheless, there is a good chance cooking the stuff up in industrial scale reactors would be even cheaper. News this pathway had been more or less figured out caused a great deal of excitement in the media despite the fact that many drugs, and even far more dangerous drugs, can be cooked up in a basement lab or ordered in industrial quantities from China. No doubt laws will be drafted restricting this process, however, the cat is pretty much out of the bag and if it it turns out that you can, in fact, cost effectively brew up morphine at home it is simply a matter of time before it happens. It only takes insertion of the right DNA sequence in a single yeast cell to start an industry and you can be pretty confident that, even in carefully monitored labs, there is at least one researcher with onerous student debt willing to do it.

“All over the world, the heavy heads of opium poppies are nodding gracefully in the wind — long stalks dressed in orange or white petals topped by a fright wig of stamens. They fill millions of acres in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Laos and elsewhere. Their payload — the milky opium juice carefully scraped off the seed pods — yields morphine, an excellent painkiller easily refined into heroin. But very soon, perhaps within a year, the poppy will no longer be the only way to produce heroin’s raw ingredient. It will be possible for drug companies, or drug traffickers, to brew it in yeast genetically modified to turn sugar into morphine. Almost all the essential steps had been worked out in the last seven years; a final missing one was published Monday in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.”

18) Self-Driving Cars Without Passengers

More fun and games with self driving cars: self driving EVs which know to park themselves and plug themselves in. It is hard to believe there are likely to be enough self-driving EVs out there to fill any more than a few spaces in a parking lot. Even setting aside the EV issue, there would be minimal advantage to self parking cars given the likely high cost of the technology to self park. As a technology demonstration within the current legal framework, of course this makes much more sense.

“The key legal obstacles to self-driving cars are the dangers they present to passengers — even if a driver is ready to take over in the case of emergency. Researchers in Germany, however, have found usage cases where that legal hurdle can be surmounted and expect to be doing so by 2016. That’s how long it will take to equip one deck of a downtown parking garage with standardized electric charge outlets, and to finish the algorithms that can be burned into flash of drive-by-wire electric vehicles already on the road. The work is being done at Forschungszentrum Informatik (FZI, Karlsruhe), a research institute where 22 engineers have been working toward what they call the “cognitive car” (CoCar) for several years. In fact, they entered the Defense Advanced Project Agency’s (DARPA’s) self-driving vehicle contest and made it to the finals, but their concentration since then has been on usage cases where no passengers need be present in the car as a stepping stone to fully autonomous vehicles.”

19) Why Today’s Automobile Industry Looks A Lot Like IBM in 1985

Frankly, I don’t think the analogy holds. There is a lot of engineering and production around the design and manufacture of automobiles that have nothing to do with electronics. Making an oil pump which costs $11 and lasts 500,000 kms is a lot harder than you think. On the other hand, software for infotainment systems are relatively straightforward and even though the Bluetooth in my car radio craps out every now and then, the ramification of such a failure is nothing compared to a malfunctioning airbag. Autonomous Vehicle systems are crazy state of the art voodoo today, but they will quickly become commodities. In other words, it is a lot easier to add electronics to a car than it is to build a car around electronics. All the large manufacturers might screw it up, but I would not bet on it.

“With the number of mobile phone subscriptions shortly expected to exceed the total global population, what is the next great connected device going to look like? Hint: It’ll have four wheels. Gartner predicts that there will be 250 million connected cars on the road by 2020. That means one in every three cars on the road will be connected. By then, digital diagnostics, infotainment channels and enhanced navigation systems are expected to constitute a $270 billion industry, up from $47 billion today. The only problem is that, now, the automobile industry is looking a lot like IBM did in 1985.”

20) Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us Like a Human-Driven Truck

Many articles on self-driving cars and robotics focus on the negative, in particular the job loss angle. This is pretty well written, although I doubt pilots will ever be removed from airplanes: the machine are far too valuable and they cannot “pull over and stop” in the event of an emergency. In my opinion it is quite likely the trucking industry, and logistics in general, will be transformed as autonomous systems become commonplace over the next 20 years. Nevertheless, just as the job losses due to the interstate system were more than offset but the resulting economic benefit of that system, the same will happen as a result of AV trucks. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, mechanization has led to displacement of labor but a strong net economic benefit to society in general.

“Late last year, I took a road trip with my partner from our home in New Orleans, Louisiana to Orlando, Florida and as we drove by town after town, we got to talking about the potential effects self-driving vehicle technology would have not only on truckers themselves, but on all the local economies dependent on trucker salaries. Once one starts wondering about this kind of one-two punch to America’s gut, one sees the prospects aren’t pretty. We are facing the decimation of entire small town economies, a disruption the likes of which we haven’t seen since the construction of the interstate highway system itself bypassed entire towns.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 15th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 15th 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

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1) Revolution in the Driver’s Seat: The Road to Autonomous Vehicles

This week saw a slew of articles concerning autonomous vehicles (AVs) and robots. Since AVs include robotic systems these are closely related subjects. I happen to believe robotics and in particular AVs will be profoundly important over the next 5 to 20 years, so I pay close attention to the space. This is a Boston Consulting Group study on the subject of AVs. It is pretty long but pretty good and I recommend anybody who is interested in the technology read the article.

“It is no longer a question of if but when autonomous vehicles (AVs) will hit the road. In the auto industry’s most significant inflection in 100 years, vehicles with varying levels of self-driving capability—ranging from single-lane highway driving to autonomous valet parking to traffic jam autopilot—will start to become available to consumers as soon as mid-2015 or early 2016. Development of autonomous-driving technology is gaining momentum across a broad front that encompasses OEMs, suppliers, technology providers, academic institutions, municipal governments, and regulatory bodies.”

2) Google acknowledges 11 accidents with its self-driving cars

One of the stories which got a huge amount of coverage this past week was the fact that Google’s AVs had been involved in 11 accidents. Since all accidents involving AVs have to be reported while many non-AV accidents are not reported it is not clear if 11 is a high number or a low number. Apparently, all were minor and none were the fault of the AV systems. If this is a high rate, one might blame at fault drivers for being distracted by the obviously novel vehicles. If this is a low rate, one might ascribe it to the fact the AVs are not driven around except under perfect conditions during which you would expect a lower accident rate.

“The company released the number after The Associated Press reported that Google had notified California of three collisions involving its self-driving cars since September, when reporting all accidents became a legal requirement as part of the permits for the tests on public roads. The leader of Google’s self-driving car project wrote in a web post all the accidents have been minor — “light damage, no injuries” —and happened over 1.7 million miles in which either the car or a person required to be behind the wheel was driving.”

3) Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Self-Driving Car Accidents

This article looks into the Google AV accident statistics a little more closely. IEEE is obviously very pro-technology, however their comments are probably valid. The real issue will arise when an AV hits a person (it’s bound to happen) whether or not the AV itself was at fault. Autonomous or not, the world is an unpredictable place and accidents are bound to happen. Of course, one thing about an AV collision is that, like vehicles with automated braking (see item 4), collisions are like to take place at lower speeds since the vehicles do not speed and are more likely to apply the brakes early due to superior “reflexes”.

“The Associated Press is reporting on the number of accidents that autonomous cars have been in since September, when California officially issued permits for companies to test autonomous cars on public roads. At first glance, the accident rate is alarmingly high: four cars have been in accidents out of the 50 that Google (and other companies) currently have on the road, resulting in an accident rate significantly higher than is typical for a vehicle driven by a human. This sounds bad, but if you look at what actually happened, it’s nothing to worry about at all.”

4) Meta analysis finds self-braking cars reduce collisions by 38 percent

As expected, cars which hit the brakes faster than you can hit fewer things and hit them at a lower speed. Unfortunately, that also means they tend to get rear ended more frequently since most drivers follow too closely – on Ontario highways any more than a car length at 120 km/hr is a luxury. Most likely, the greater the number of self braking cars, or those with adaptive cruise control, the lower the number of rear endings and the figures will go up even further. Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) communication (see item 5) would improve things somewhat and at a lower cost: if your car knew one of the cars in front of it hit the brakes, it could alert you or even begin to apply the brakes itself.

“In non-AEB cars, the split between striking and being struck was close to 50/50, improving significantly for cars with AEB. However, despite the apparent success of the study, the researchers noted that in order to get the best results out of the technology, widespread adoption was required; slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident requires following traffic to be alert enough to react to the situation and not cause a cascade. They also noted that AEB cars might be more likely to be struck from behind, as an unintended consequence of AEB’s better reaction time, compared to a human driver.”

5) Driverless cars are coming sooner than you think

There are many challenges associated with V2V communications including standards and the familiar “spectrum shortage”. Both would benefit from government policies designed to encourage the adoption of such technologies. Frankly I am beginning to get a little skeptical regarding the subject of spectrum shortages: spread spectrum technologies allow for spectrum reuse, and, in the specific case of cars the ranges need not be that great (more or less on the order of the braking distance of the vehicle). This should be an easily solvable problem.

“Cars that talk to one another and drive themselves may arrive on U.S. highways sooner than you think as the Obama administration launches an effort to expedite their progress. “We don’t want to be part of the problem of integrating this technology into the marketplace,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday. “We want to be part of the solution.” Foxx plans to reveal the administration’s strategy Wednesday during a speech in Silicon Valley. Though the three initiatives he’s taking sound modest, they may be far-reaching in influence when it comes to putting computer-connected autonomous vehicles on the road. Foxx plans to speed up the normally ponderous federal rulemaking process, move more quickly to resolve a simmering fight over who gets to use critical bandwidth and remove the array of federal obstacles traditionally faced by innovative technology.”

6) The job-killing-robot myth

On to robotics, or, at least, non AV robots. I don’t understand why people look upon a robot as any different from a “jobs” perspective compared to any other automated system. Not long ago people harvested grains by hand, not that work is done orders of magnitude faster with an enormous combine. As a result, agriculture not longer employs the majority of workers and food prices have plummeted. It is a pity when somebody loses their job as a result of automation, just as it is a pity when somebody loses a job as a result of stupid strategic decisions made by management. The difference is that automation leads to greater productivity overall and the employer becomes more competitive (or, more likely, remains as competitive since the competitors typically buy the same machines). Automation, whether through combines, pick and place machines, or robot janitors (see item 7) are simply a continuation of the industrial revolution.

“Are robots displacing millions of workers? Many people seem to think so. Recently, for instance, the New York Times ran an op-ed claiming that “the machines are getting smarter, and they’re coming for more and more jobs.” On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal sounded the alarm that “robots are taking over corporate finance departments.” The story goes that we can look forward to an ever greater problem of unemployment as technological advancement allows machines to replace a growing percentage of the workforce.”

7) Robot cleaner can empty bins and sweep floors

This is what most people think of when they think of a robot. As the video shows, the machine seems to do what it is supposed to do, however, in my opinion it does it in an odd way. You should not need to recognize a wastebasket since these should be RFID tagged. Similarly, a purpose built carpet sweeping attachment would probably work better and quicker. One issue which might be a problem is how many offices the machine would need before requiring a charge or battery swap (see item 8). The video on Youtube for those who have sworn off Adobe Flash

“ROOMBAS were just the start. An office cleaning robot is being put through its paces by Dussmann, one of Germany’s largest cleaning companies, at its Berlin HQ. The goal is getting it to work alongside human cleaners in large offices, emptying bins and vacuuming floors. The robot was developed by roboticist Richard Borman and colleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart. It is designed to do two tasks – clean the floors and empty wastepaper baskets – with complete autonomy. It can recognise dirt on the floor and identify wastepaper baskets before its robotic arm grabs and then empties each bin.”

8) Robots, Hungry for Power, Are Too Weak to Take Over the World

I saw the latest Avengers movie last week (spoiler alert: the good guys win and there is dubious physics involved in the scheme to destroy the world). The fictional character Iron Man, who has evidently changed allegiance from Tesla to Audi, and his minions, have access to nearly unlimited power thanks to an entirely fictitious power source. Real killer robots, whether good guys or bad guys, lack such a power a source. This means that a rampaging Terminator or Robocop would not get very far before needing a lengthy charge. In general, killing machines are not that frightening if you can simply unplug their extension cords.

“Even cutting-edge robots are notoriously bad at assessing their surroundings, but running out of breath as their batteries expire is just as big a challenge, according to the organizer of the contest on June 5-6 in Pomona, Calif. “Even the best ones are roughly 10 times less energy dense than the sugar and fat [humans eat],” Gill Pratt, Darpa’s program director for the robotics contest said on a media call. Worse, the robots ungainly movements consume a lot of energy. “Robots are also much less efficient than animals,” said Dr. Pratt, using as much as 100 times more energy to complete the same task. “You should expect to see a lot of robots fall down,” he added.”

9) Why the Chinese military is frightened of the Apple Watch

It didn’t occur to me previously, but does it make sense for soldiers to carry around any non-military electronics? I can understand the Chinese army not wanting the GPS coordinates of soldiers relayed to Washington in real time, but most gadgets give off radio waves which can be detected at quite a distance with the right type of equipment. This makes smart phones, etc., pretty much targeting beacons for a modestly technologically advanced enemy. Whether that gadget is made by Apple or anybody else is besides the point.

“The Apple Watch is expected to do big things in China — with even the high-end Apple Watch Edition selling out within its first hour of preorders in the country — but one place the company’s debut wearable device won’t take off is the Chinese army. That’s according to a recently released memo in which Chinese military leaders argue that wearable devices such as smartwatches and fitness trackers are sure to compromise soldiers’ security. “The moment a soldier puts on a device that can record high-definition audio and video, take photos, and process and transmit data, it’s very possible for him or her to be tracked or to reveal military secrets,” reads the message, which was published in China’s military mouthpiece The People’s Liberation Army Daily.””

10) I regret buying an Apple Watch (and I knew I would)

I have seen quite a few of these articles over the past couple weeks. It is not clear to me whether they represent the typical experience of Apple Watch early adopters of whether the authors are simply trying a novel angle to draw in clicks. Of course, the experience of many smart watch buyers is of disappointment and there really isn’t that much difference between the Apple Watch and similar products which have been on the market for some time, except marketing and price. Unfortunately, Apple has been known to black ball its critics from access to new products so criticizing them can be a dangerous path to tread.

“I bought an Apple Watch. I didn’t preorder it, because at first I didn’t even want one. I warned people who asked me about the company’s first wearable: These things (Apple things) always get much better on the second attempt. Apple’s product history, perhaps even more so than other tech companies, is peppered with examples: the substantially thinner second iPad, the next iPhone that had 3G data, the MacBook Air sequel that had decent battery life and a slimmer design. Despite knowing that, something changed for me. I became an early adopter. Our Editor-in-Chief Michael Gorman has already tested the Apple Watch. Thanks to a handful of early positive-but-with-caveat reviews and even more previews in the run-up to launch, I knew what it could do. Still, I felt like there must be a way that the watch would effortlessly dovetail into my life, reducing the need to constantly paw my phone and further lowering the barrier between myself and technology.”

11) The Golden Age Of Quantum Computing Is Upon Us (Once We Solve These Tiny Problems)

To be honest I understood very little of the article or the video, however, I can accept the likelihood a functional quantum computer will have a disruptive effect on certain fields of study, not the least of which being quantum computing. There are certain computationally difficult problems which should be a piece of cake once these systems are developed. Unfortunately, it is hard to be confident that the problems cited will be solved any time soon.

“Quantum computing is not easy. But researchers at IBM recently announced that they had taken a step toward solving one of its biggest challenges: developing a better way to detect and correct annoying errors. In a blog post, Mark Ritter, who oversees scientists and engineers at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Laboratory, wrote: “I believe we’re entering what will come to be seen as the golden age of quantum computing research.” His team, he said, is “on the forefront of efforts to create the first true quantum computer.” First, what that would mean: A quantum computer harnesses the science of the very small—the strange behavior of subatomic particles—to solve problems that are computationally infeasible for a classical computer or simply take too long. How molecules interact at the quantum level, for example, is difficult to study in a laboratory and impossible to simulate on a classical computer but could be simulated on a quantum computer.”

12) Is D-Wave a Quantum Computer?

A few weeks ago I mentioned D-Wave in a negative light and received an angry email, as well as a rare “unsubscribe”, from an investor in the company who claimed the device was “… benchmarking tens of thousands of times faster than traditional processors …”. At the time I was referring to the article in Science entitled “Quantum or not, controversial computer yields no speedup” ( so I was a bit surprised at the reaction. I would further note that a 10,000x improvement is something you notice: the Trinity Atomic test yielded an improvement of 10,000x over a chemical bomb of the same size and they did not exactly need tape measures and slide rules to determine whether it was an improvement.

“Recently I had to explain to a reader why critics say that D-Wave’s so-called quantum computer was not a “real” quantum computer, the answer for which he accepted on my authority. However, the question kept nagging me in the back on my mind “why” D-Wave markets what it calls a quantum computer if it is not for real. To get to the bottom of it, I asked Jeremy Hilton, vice president of processor development of D-Wave Systems, Inc. (Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada) about why critics keep saying its quantum computer is not for real. He also revealed details about D-Wave’s next generation quantum computer. “The Holy Grail of quantum computing to build a ‘universal’ quantum computer—one that can solve any computational problem—but at a vastly higher speed that today’s computers,” Hilton told EE Times. “That’s the reason some people say we don’t have a ‘real’ quantum computer—because D-Wave’s is not a ‘universal’ computer.””

13) New Memristors Could Usher in Bionic Brains

Neural networks are another type of computer with significant potential, however, the number of potential applications for neural networks is probably greater, and the nature of those applications are probably more familiar to people. After all, neural networks hope to replicate the function of a brain, and, in particular, the ability to deal with uncertain circumstances. Consider that the tiny neural network of a mosquito can fly, walk around, find food (i.e. you), avoid getting squashed or eaten, reproduce, and so on. That little brain is not a computer running a program but a neural network effecting behavior: mosquitoes can deal with all kinds of uncertainty in their environment and still survive. Despite my interest in neural nets, what really interests me in this article is the novel memristor fabrication techniques: near term, these things have the potential to revolutionize traditional computing as well.

“Last month we saw researchers in the US push the envelope of non-volatile memory devices based on resistance switching to the point where they are now capable of mimicking the neurons in the human brain. Now researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Australia have built on their previous work developing ultra-fast nano-scale memories. They used a functional oxide ultra-thin film to create one of the world’s first electronic multi-state memory cells. The researchers claim that the memristive devices they have developed mimic the brain’s ability to simultaneously process and store multiple strands of information. The research, which was published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, involved chemically manipulating amorphous strontium titanate memristors by adding faults to the material that both tuned and improved their switching characteristics.”

14) GE 3D prints a working RC jet engine

A few months ago we carried an item about a company which had produced non-working models of a jet engine through 3D printing. GE seems to have done one step better by producing a working model, albeit a small one. Not surprisingly since 3D printers cannot produce polished parts such as bearings or mating surfaces, the parts have to be hand finished, but it is still quite an accomplishment. Unfortunately, GE does not report on how well the unit worked or what its durability would be. I suspect the answers would be “not well” and “good enough for a short video”. Even so, this is quite an accomplishment.

“General Electric this week revealed that it has completed a multi-year project to print a working jet engine. The engine, small enough to fit in a backpack, was built by a team of technicians, machinists and engineers at GE Aviation’s Additive Development Center outside Cincinnati. The lab is working with additive manufacturing as a way to produce next-generation jet parts using a technique known as (DMLM). The engine also required some post-printing machining and polishing of parts. The research team then rigged up a data acquisition system to measure exhaust temperature, speed and thrust. The engine, which consisted of more than a dozen parts, was printed on an M270 industrial 3D printer from EOS. The machine can melt a variety of alloys, including cobalt chrome, nickel alloy, titanium and stainless steel.”

15) Auto industry first to get wireless charging open standard

This is the best charging solution I have seen despite a misleading headline (it is wire-free, not wireless). The “zero risk of cancer claimed” is utter nonsense since no charging system can cause cancer, unless there are carcinogenic chemicals in the device and you eat it. Essentially what JVIS has done is think “out of the box” and use basic and very cheap components to take the place of a USB connector for charging. The only drawback I can see to this approach is that there would need to be some raised conductive bumps on one surface of the device. Nevertheless, it should charge much faster than real “wireless” chargers and make it easy to produce a waterproof device. Since many phones are kept in bumper cases to save the displays, phones could be retrofitted with the charge function incorporated into a case or even sticky label on the back of the phone.

“JVIS notes that wire-free charging is gaining greater acceptance among automotive manufacturers because vehicle owners want a hassle-free “drop and charge” means to charge phones while they drive. However, the Open Dots platform expands this ecosystem to include, tablets, laptop computers, power tools and other commonly used electronic devices as well. “The standard employs a conductive technology that is fundamentally different than other technologies based on induction,” explains Mitch Randall, a director of Open Dots Alliance. “Consequently, the technology offers benefits that are not achievable by other standards.””

16) Starbucks still grappling with fraud in online accounts, gift cards

I confess that I have to restrain myself whenever I am in line at a Starbucks and see somebody pulling out a smartphone to pay for their order. I swear, it takes more time than if they paid with loose pennies. What’s the point, anyway? Rather than transferring money to an app and using the app to transfer to Starbucks, why not just skip a step and pay Starbucks? Not surprisingly, crooks have figured out how to exploit this and doubtless any other “pay with an app” type situation. The interesting thing about this sort of exploit is that, if the crook kept the amount small, people would probably never notice the money was missing.

“Starbucks is still grappling with fraud involving its customers’ online accounts and gift cards, with some victims seeing hundreds of dollars stolen. Gift-card related fraud with Starbucks cards is not new, but recent victims were highlighted earlier this week in an article by journalist and author Bob Sullivan. Starbucks officials could not be immediately reached for comment, although Sullivan wrote the company told him that customers would not be liable for charges and transfers they didn’t make.”

17) Hydrogels boost ability of stem cells to restore eyesight and heal brains

This work looks very promising, though early. Apparently, a lot of stem cells die after implantation and this technique improves the survival and implantation rates. Of course, the more stem cells to repair the damage the greater the likelihood of a therapeutic benefit. Unfortunately, I don’t know the significance of the results: how does a 15% pupil response in a blind mouse compares to one which has only had stem cell treatment?

“Toronto scientists and engineers have made a breakthrough in cell transplantation using a gel-like biomaterial that keeps cells alive and helps them integrate better into tissue. In two early lab trials, this has already shown to partially reverse blindness and help the brain recover from stroke. Led by University of Toronto professors Molly Shoichet (ChemE, IBBME) and Derek van der Kooy, together with Professor Cindi Morshead, the team encased stem cells in a hydrogel that boosted their healing abilities when transplanted into both the eye and the brain. These findings are part of an ongoing effort to develop new therapies to repair nerve damage caused by a disease or injury. Conducted through the U of T’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, their research was published in today’s issue of Stem Cell Reports, the official scientific journal of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.”

18) Walmart’s Answer to Amazon Prime Is Here. And It’s Way Cheaper.

Recently, Walmart has installed “Grab&Go lockers” in many of their stores which allows people to buy stuff online and simply pick it up from the locker. The idea is a good one and, in my opinion, does away with the need for delivery since Walmart stores are pretty much everywhere. Frankly, I’d prefer to pick up an order at my convenience than worry when UPS will come by or whether my dog will bite the FedEx guy again. Since I live in the country (and my dogs have a taste for delivery men) many of my orders have to be picked up anyways. Rather than focusing on delivery, Walmart should consider acting as a fulfillment center for third parties with online stores or charging online vendors for shipment to their lockers.

“A decade after Amazon launched Prime, its signature membership and free shipping program, Walmart has a rebuttal ready: unlimited shipping for half the price. Walmart said Wednesday that it will begin limited tests of a subscription shipping program for online shoppers. Those who sign up for the $50 annual service will get unlimited free three-day shipping on more than 1 million of Walmart’s top-selling items, with no minimum purchase required. Walmart says it will start testing the service on an invite-only basis in a limited number of markets later this summer. Ravi Jariwala, a company spokesman, declined to provide details on which markets in particular, or exactly how many. Walmart is also not sharing details on how it plans to fill the online orders or who will deliver them, but Jariwala added that Walmart works with “a number of different carriers.””

19) BitTorrent brings its Bleep secure messaging app out of alpha mode

Bit Torrents are often associated with piracy, so the technology has a bad rep. In reality it is a powerful way to move data around the Internet and is an integral part of some operating systems, including, so the rumor goes, Window 10. Torrent technology is open, however, BitTorrent the company has a number of differentiated proprietary offerings such as Sync, which I believe is a superior alternative to the like of DropBox. As the article suggests, a torrent based messaging system should be more secure than a server based one since there is no single point of failure such as server, to hack. In other words, your messages or my messages might be compromised, but not all my company’s messages.

““Bleep’s logo represents a folded note – a message passed directly, hand-to-hand. In our implementation, we keep messages and the encryption keys for images stored on your local device, not the cloud,” explained BitTorrent in its latest blog post. “For messages and metadata, there is no server for hackers to target and because you hold the keys, images can’t be leaked to haunt you later. We’ve solved serverless peer-to-peer messaging, including the ability to get offline friends your messages when they come back online.” Bleep certainly isn’t alone in its ambitions to make messaging more secure. Startups including Wickr, Telegram, Zendo, CryptoCat, Surespot and Open Whisper Systems (with TextSecure) are all active in this space.”

20) Philips And The Future Of LED Lighting

LED lighting has certainly hit the mainstream as prices continue to decline. This article looks at the future of lighting but I would treat it with a grain of salt. There might be some merit to controlling the color of your house lights and/or doing so through an app but any sort of communications system can lead to all kinds of technical issues, etc.. This might not be a problem for those with access to expertise but the modest benefit is likely to be numerically overwhelmed by angry consumers who can’t get the system to work reliably. Indeed that is likely a major issue with many Internet of Things applications, as is the vulnerability to having the (likely cloud based) control system going offline. Imagine how happy you’d be if your lights were “stuck on violet” for a few days.

“Manegold observes that he sees the LED industry continuing to make progress, and that there are two trends we will see: First, we will see LED bulbs get even more cost effective, and within 5 years we may see price parity with compact fluorescents. The bulbs themselves will also continue to get more efficient, but there is a natural limit: “You won’t see bulbs go from 10 watts to one watt.” Perhaps more interestingly, the market is focused on making things connected. An under-appreciated aspect of LEDs is that they are solid state (chip driven), so they can ‘talk’ to one another and to broader networks. Philips has recently spent a good deal of effort in this arena with its networked lighting product called Hue.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 8th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 8th 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

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1) Why Tesla’s Powerwall Is Just Another Toy For Rich Green People

Almost all of the coverage of Tesla’s Powerwall was the sort of pig ignorant fawning blather we have come to expect whenever Tesla does, or rather claims to do, almost anything. After all, a simple Google search would have shown there is nothing novel about using Lithium Ion batteries for household storage. Even though the math showing it is a dumb idea is pretty straightforward, few bothered: who needs numbers when you have hype? This looks at the basic math, though it skips important considerations like the extreme fire danger associated with a large lithium ion battery. It does kind of anger me to see a reference to 1,000 watts of current. Don’t they have editors?

“All the breathless coverage of Elon Musk’s Powerwall battery brouhaha last night is missing the most important thing: a sober discussion of real-world costs. So let’s take a look at the costs and see if this world-shaking, game-changing innovation really makes any sense. Musk said Tesla’s 7 kwh capacity battery would cost $3,000, while the 10 kwh capacity one would be $3,500. (That doesn’t include the cost of a DC-AC inverter – about $4,000 $2,000– plus professional installation.) The implication is that a 10 kwh system could supply 1,000 watts of current to your home for 10 hours. That’s a good amount of energy. The average American home draws an average of 1,200 watts of power around-the-clock, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. For a sense of scale, a desktop computer draws about 100 watts, a big TV 200 watts. Refrigerators cycle on and off, but average about 100 watts.”

2) Tesla’s New Battery Doesn’t Work That Well With Solar

This is another article which looks beyond the hype associated with Tesla’s announcement. I thought there was no way these specifications could be true, but they are (see The unit is rated “Power 2.0 kW continuous, 3.3 kW peak”. You won’t be able to run virtually anything with those specifications. Since your electrician would size for continuous load, that is really a single 15 amp circuit at 120 volts – in other words, don’t expect your tea kettle AND your refrigerator to work at the same time. If you have a forced air furnace the fan would not spin up with those specs. I have a portable generator the size of a carry-on bag that supplies 2 kW continuous. Tesla claims they have 38,000 preorders (at least $144 million) for the unit, but I expect most will be canceled once the afterglow wears off, especially since no down payment or commitment is required (see This simply proves my assertion that introducing the word “energy” into a conversation causes IQ to drop 50 points. At least.

“SolarCity is only offering the bigger Powerwall to customers buying new rooftop solar systems. Customers can prepay $5,000, everything included, to add a nine-year battery lease to their system or buy the Tesla battery outright outright for $7,140. The 10 kilowatt-hour backup battery is priced competitively, as far as batteries go, selling at half the price of some competing products. But if its sole purpose is to provide backup power to a home, the juice it offers is but a sip. The model puts out just 2 kilowatts of continuous power, which could be pretty much maxed out by a single vacuum cleaner, hair drier, microwave oven or a clothes iron. The battery isn’t powerful enough to operate a pair of space heaters; an entire home facing a winter power outage would need much more. In sunnier climes, meanwhile, it provides just enough energy to run one or two small window A/C units.”

3) Norway Puts The Brakes On Generous EV Incentives

It is mathematically inevitable that subsidies can only help an industry when that industry is very small. Take Electric Vehicles (EVs) for example: subsidies benefit an emerging minority such as EV vendors and owners at the sizable cost of of a majority of traditional vehicle vendors and owners. The larger the EV contingent, the smaller the non-EV contingent the more money needed and the less money there is to transfer. Note that the subsidies of the past few years have have only achieved 2% penetration, a figure which has enriched Tesla shareholders (and impoverished Norwegians to the tune of $400 – $500 million per year in subsidies) but would have no measurable environmental impact. I once read that Norway’s direct purchase subsidy on a Tesla was such that it cost almost the same as a Honda Accord in that country. The fact a government is rolling back incentives at such a low level indicates that the pain threshold for these nonsensical projects is quite low.

“The country had outdone itself by juicing the buying public with zero value added tax (VAT), toll-free driving, free public parking, and free access to the bus lanes … Those pesky EVs in the bus lanes however were already starting to receive pushback in 2013 from folks noting three out of four vehicles in the bus lanes during rush hour were electric. But a prime kicker spurring agreement between the right-wing government and center right allies has been reduction of tax revenues that are costing the government too much money according to the Telegraph. As we wrote last month, Minister of Finance Siv Jensen explained last year during her state budget presentation that the county’s current rush toward plug-in electrified vehicles has cost state coffers three to four billion krone ($384 – $512 million) in tax revenue per year.”

4) Dutch Homes Get Free Heating If They Agree To Host A Computer Server

There has been a number of schemes whereby companies were trying to set up distributed data centers in peoples’ homes. Most such plans assumed consumers were oblivious to the electrical casts of such a project (and, no doubt, many are). This project might make some sense: if the company pays for the electricity, the consumers get free electric heat which can be a benefit, at least some months of the year. Since a significant operating cost of a data center is air conditioning it can be win/win. Of course this might burden the local Internet infrastructure since servers tend to upload (send to the Internet) much more than they download, which is the exact opposite of traditional internet use.

“Leupe says 60% of the cost of conventional data farms comes from buying up and putting in the required building. Nerdalize, he says, can reduce costs for its clients by about 50% by hosting in people’s homes instead. Eneco, which has a minority stake in the startup, says households can save about $440 a year on their heating bills. Leupe insists there are no privacy or security concerns about storing data in people’s homes. One, the company knows if someone is tampering with its box. Two, the data is encrypted. And three, it’s distributed—anyone wanting to hack the network would have to know which households are carrying out work they’re interested in.”

5) Freightliner Inspiration Truck Receives Autonomous Vehicle Licensing from Nevada DMV

Trucks are extremely important to the economy and, at least where I live, a major factor in traffic congestion. Safety rules dictate drivers can only be at the wheel for so many hours, and the cargo can be both valuable and perishable. It would seem there would be advantages to automating some or all all truck functions and this may happen earlier than with cars. I have seen plans to operate “convoys” of trucks whereby, for example, the lead vehicle would include a human driver while following ones would essentially autonomously play follow the leader. Of course, a truck can cause a lot of damage so you can expect a lot of testing will be done before you even see trucks with drivers playing a passive role. See also

“At a ceremony today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval officially granted the first license for an autonomous commercial truck to operate on an open public highway in the United States to Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA). At the event, hosted by DTNA President & CEO Martin Daum, Gov. Sandoval took part in the inaugural trip of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck in autonomous mode with Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG Daimler Trucks & Buses, at the controls.”

6) Automation in Cars: A $100 Billion Market by 2030

I always take industry research with a large grain of salt, however, I agree with the general idea that this might be a very large market. There are just shy of 90 million cars and light trucks sold annually and it is reasonable a full automation system could cost as little as $1,000 per vehicle by 2030. Furthermore, it is also possible such systems may actually increase vehicle sales, at least until most of the global fleet has switched over.

The advantages of autonomous cars seem so obvious and revolutionary that we don’t need really need a report from a research company to tell us that there’s going to be a huge market in vehicle automation. Nevertheless, Lux Research has actually crunched the numbers and told us what kind of premiums we should expect to pay over the next few decades for autonomy. Lux Research is predicting that advanced driver-assist systems (ADAS) will be a $102 billion opportunity by 2030. This is a lot; right now, the market opportunity for driver assist systems is a mere $2.4 billion. Lux splits driver assist into “basic” and “advanced,” which seems to refer more to the perception of the technology involved than the technical difficulty or achievablility.”

7) Google reveals its self-driving car can keep an eye on cyclists – and even understand their hand signals

Unfortunately, I suspect very few cyclists use hand signals let alone know how to use them. Nevertheless, most drivers would (or should) act more cautiously when a cyclist comes into view and attempt to parse their actions, hand signals or not. This article looks at some of the technology Google has developed to do just that. It is easy to dismiss this sort of thing as computationally extravagant, as it likely is today, but with software the barely achievable tends to become the unimpressive within a decade.

“A Google patent has revealed that the firm’s self-driving cars will be able to detect and respond to a cyclists’ hand signals. The documents reveals that the car’s array of sensors will notice a cyclist among other objects and vehicles on the road. It can then watch their arms and hands for gestures indicating that they are about to turn or slow down, and change its own speed in response.”

8) ‘Centimetre accurate’ GPS system to be integrated into phones

I am not entirely sure the article actually says that this accurate GPS will be incorporated into phones, though is does seem the technology makes it possible to eventually create such a system using cheap antenna and a lot of signal processing. It is not obvious to me that precision GPS would be significantly more useful than existing technology in a phone or pocket device, however, such a system would greatly enhance autonomous vehicles and other robots.

“Knowing exactly where you are in the world, to the centimetre, is going to get a whole lot easier thanks to scientists who have created a new ultra-accurate GPS system. Researchers at University of Texas created the system, which will be able to provide centimetre-accurate GPS locations on mobile phones, tablets and other mass market devices. As well as being embedded in mobile phones, potential applications range from self-driving cars to virtual reality. The system, which allows cheap antennas to access location data, may also be used in delivery drones to help them drop-off parcels at an exact location.”

9) Neural network chip built using memristors

Memristors are a novel form of memory which was predicted in 1971 but only invented in 2008. The technology is the basis of Hewlett-Packard’s proposed “Machine” computer which is expected to do away with tiered memory (cache, DRAM, Disk Drive). As we noted a number of years ago, the characteristics of memristors also make them particularly suited to the fabrication of “real” artificial neural networks as this article explores the design of one such system. As a proof of concept, it isn’t much, but the article provide some indication of the incredible power of such a system once scaled up. The comments about the variability of memristors built on CMOS behaving erratically is interesting. The full article is accessible at

“Memristors have relatively simple behavior: they’re a type of circuitry where the present resistance to current is a product of the currents that have flowed through them in the past. The more current that goes through, the easier it will travel through in the future. Interest in memristors comes in part from the fact that the resistance persists even after current is turned off, making them a possible option for non-volatile memory. But the behavior of memristors is also fairly similar to that of a radically different type of circuitry: the synapses of neurons. Synapses are sites where nerve cells establish connections. The more signals that pass through these connections, the stronger the link between the two neurons becomes. This behavior has raised the prospect of using memristors to implement the equivalent of synapses on a neural chip, where more traditional circuitry would control the logic of the neurons, and the memristors would control the links among them.”

10) Optalysys prototype proves optical processing technology will revolutionise Big Data analysis and Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD)

I admit to not keeping up with advances in optical processing. It can be hard to separate “proofs of concept” type lab bench experiments from actually commercially useful systems. Furthermore, most of my experience is in discrete sequential computation and the true power of optical processing is in truly concurrent processing. Therefore, I am not in a position to figure out whether Optalsys’ system is technically or commercially viable. Nonetheless, the applications cited are exactly the kind you would expect concurrent processing to excel at. See also

“The prototype demonstrates optical derivative functions – mathematical building blocks commonly used in complex engineering model simulations such as weather prediction and aerodynamic modelling. It also performs correlation pattern matching used in Big Data analysis such as DNA analysis and financial modelling. The prototype achieves a processing speed equivalent to 320 gigaFLOPs and, because it uses light rather than electricity as the processing medium, it is incredibly energy efficient. Now the principles of the approach have been proven, Optalysys is ramping-up the processing capabilities of the technology. The first project to utilise Optalysys technology starts next month in collaboration with The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) to build a Genetic Search System called GENESYS. The system will perform large-scale DNA sequence searches with energy savings of over 95% per year. The project has been granted £0.5 million in funding from the government partner Innovate UK.”

11) Creating the Open Drone Ecosystem

This and the next article look at two approaches to the manufacture of drones: open and closed. There is not much difference between toy drones and professional ones except, perhaps, fail safes and certifications. One of my many rules of thumb is that “open” almost always wins, or at least that has been the rule for most of the part 20 years (Apple, arguably, being a notable exception). Most likely I figure a de facto standard based on Linux will emerge in this base.

“While there are many companies making drones from toy quadcopters to professional applications, most take a similar proprietary approach of building their technology privately in-house. An exception to this this rule is Berkeley, California based 3D Robotics. Co-founded by Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, Makers, Free, and ex-editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, the company is building products while working closely with a passionate Open Source community.”

12) Dubbed the ‘Model T’ and ‘Apple’ of drones, China’s DJI rakes in $75M funding

In contrast to the open approach, above, we have DJI’s efforts to establish itself as the de facto standard for drones. I figure there is near zero probability of this actually occurring as there is really nothing that complicated about making or controlling a drone, and, in particular, there is no “stickiness” associated with the operation of such a thing. You have to give them credit for trying, I guess. Most baffling of all is the silly valuation ascribed to the company – of course, that is par for the course nowadays. Provided valuations remain hyper-inflated the investors probably hope to IPO the company and sell their position at an even more ridiculous valuation.

“Shenzhen DJI Technology, the world’s biggest make of consumer and prosumer aerial drones, this week announced a US$75 million investment from Accel Partners, according to the Verge. Now valued at US$10 billion, it’s the undisputed champ both in sales revenue and in market cap. Accel’s injection values the company at US$8 billion, but the company is reportedly in ongoing negotiations that will raise its valuation even further. DJI expects to sell US$1 billion worth of drones this year, up from US$130 million in 2013. Previous investors include Sequoia Capital, but the company has taken in relatively little funding up to this point.”

13) Cable companies are scrambling as more viewers become cord-cutters

People terminate their cable subscriptions for a number of reasons, including economization. Nevertheless, cable providers continue to increase their rates while the content providers continue to debase the quality of the offering. Netflix and other streaming options provide a viable alternative, if you are fortunate enough to have reliable broadband service, however, streaming typically is not a solution for local news and sports. A relatively inexpensive antenna, broadband, and Netflix is increasingly an option. The logical response by cable companies and/or content providers would be to offer value for money, however, it seems more likely they will follow the newspaper industry down the rabbit hole while yelling “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

“The cable TV industry is setting its sights on consumers who are shunning their business. Viewers who get their favorite shows for free by using over-the-air antennas have made “OTA” the buzzy acronym at the Internet & Television Expo being held this week in Chicago, where cable companies are gathered to mull over their fast-changing future. There are now more than 12.3 million homes that depend solely on over-the-air broadcasting for their live TV viewing, a net gain of 1 million over the last year, according to audience measurement service Nielsen. That’s about 11% of all U.S. households with TV — hardly a mass migration to the old-school technology. But as the cable and satellite industries see a downward trend in the overall number of customers signing up for their video offerings while broadband Internet service continues to grow, it’s getting more attention.”

14) Light Gives Us Life But Actually Is a Terrible Business

We predicted the emergence of LED lights as replacements for incandescent and CFL bulbs a number of years ago. At the same time we opined that the extreme long life of LEDs would have significant negative consequences for the lighting industry which was based on the fact prior technologies are essentially consumables. For the record, we also predicted that LED lamps would alter how light fixtures, including car headlamps, were designed since there would be no need to provide for occasional replacement of the lamp. Perhaps McKinsey will get around to that eventually.

“The 10-year lifespan of an LED has killed the classic light-bulb business, where manufacturers could depend on consumers buying replacements every three years. The consultant McKinsey expects the global lighting market to grow by 5 percent this year and next, and then slow to 3 percent annually through 2020. Wolfgang Dehen, the CEO of Osram, the world’s second-biggest lighting company, resigned last year after admitting he had underestimated the pace at which sales of traditional lightbulbs would decline.”

15) Kitchen microwaves baffle Australian space scientists

This story is good for a chuckle, but it shows that, over the long term, science is self correcting. It is truly a pity it took 17 years for somebody (a grad student no less) to figure it out. A lot of very smart people have probably spent a lot of mental effort trying to solve this problem over the past 17 years: there were hundreds of articles (including scholarly articles) written about this phenomenon over the past 17 years. Never mind.

“After 17 years of fruitlessly searching the galaxy, Australian scientists have discovered the source of mysterious radio signals hitting a telescope. It turns out the source was their own kitchen microwaves. PhD student Emily Petroff made the discovery at the Parkes telescope, after noticing that the signals were only received during business hours. The rays, known as “perytons”, were emitted when impatient staff opened the microwave door prematurely. Although discovered in January the revelation has only come to light after Ms Petroff published her paper, “Identifying the source of perytons at the Parkes radio telescope.””

16) Deep-ocean microbe is closest living relative of complex cells

Just in case you’ve forgotten your high school biology, life can be separated into prokaryotes and eukaryotes where prokaryotes such as bacteria lack complex internal structures while eukaryotes have such structures, including, in particular, a nucleus containing the genetic material. The “jump” from prokaryote to eukaryote has been somewhat of a mystery since there does not seem to be a middle ground. Of course, there is no reason to believe such a critter would still exist: it could have gone extinct a billion years ago. Nevertheless, DNA “fishing expedition” (almost literally) has unveiled clues that a missing link may still exist since traces have been found in ocean sediments. Since DNA has a very short half life, there is an excellent chance they can actually find live cells once they figure out how to keep them alive for study.

“It’s one of the most significant, and most vexing, splits in life’s history. About 
2 billion years ago, the prokaryotes, relatively simple single-celled organisms that include bacteria and archaea, gave rise to the more elaborate eukaryotes, the lineage that ultimately spawned multicellular life forms such as fungi, plants, and animals like us. Now, researchers combing through muck from the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean have identified an archaeon that is the closest living relative of eukaryotes so far discovered. The microbe, informally dubbed Loki and described this week in Nature, has set off a buzz among evolutionary biologists.”

17) LinkedIn serves up resumes of 27,000 US intelligence personnel

This should be in the next James Bond film: the super villain unmasks 27,000 spies and their respective programs by … searching social media. The national security state has a few million intelligence personnel so this is just a drop in the bucket, but you might think that part of the massive surveillance apparatus would have noticed their own spies are publicly posting this sort of thing.

“The resumes of over 27,000 people working in the US intelligence community were revealed today in a searchable database created by mining LinkedIn. Transparency Toolkit said the database, called ICWatch, includes the public resumes of people working for intelligence contractors, the military and intelligence agencies. The group said the resumes frequently mention secret codewords and surveillance programs. “These resumes include many details about the names and functions of secret surveillance programs, including previously unknown secret codewords,” Transparency Toolkit said.”

18) Apple Has Plans for Your DNA

I’m sure they do. While genomics is a very powerful medical technology I don’t think people should be keen to turn their genome over to the likes of Apple and, from there, to whomever they want to sell it to (including, no doubt, security services). Your genome is a deeply personal piece of data and it can be used to discriminate against you or incriminate you. These sorts of medical advances are also subject to pseudo-scientific abuse, so don’t be surprised if companies start to discriminate against employees on the basis of their genetics. You might give Apple access to your genome today and in 5 years you might not be able to get auto, health, or life insurance. There needs to be laws about this sorts of thing.

“Apple is collaborating with U.S. researchers to help launch apps that would offer some iPhone owners the chance to get their DNA tested, many of them for the first time, according to people familiar with the plans. The apps are based on ResearchKit, a software platform Apple introduced in March that helps hospitals or scientists run medical studies on iPhones by collecting data from the devices’ sensors or through surveys.”

19) New Airbus A350 XWB Aircraft Contains Over 1,000 3D Printed Parts

This article is pretty light on details but it does provide some information with respect to increased use of 3D printed parts in industry. It is not clear whether this is a stopgap measure in order to get the thing into production on schedule, nor does it speak towards percentages (I suspect there are millions of parts on aircraft) or value add. Nevertheless, as a low volume, high value industry it does stand to reason the aircraft industry would adopt 3D production earlier than most.

“The A350 XWB utilizes state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques to reduce the overall weight and increase aerodynamics, ensuring safer, more fuel efficient travel. Available in three different sizes, the 800, 900 and 1,000 models, the A350 is the first Airbus manufactured aircraft with a fuselage and wingspan which are manufactured out of a light-weight carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer. Officially launching in December with the first plane being delivered to Qatar Airways, it was revealed this week that the company has also relied heavily on 3D printing for its production. Back in March, Airbus had announced that they would be using 3D printing within the new A350 XWB aircraft, however the scale of such use was not divulged. Today Stratasys has announced that over 1,000 parts within the aircraft are 3D printed, replacing out a3traditionally manufactured parts.”

20) This Library On A Chip Gives People Without Internet Access All The Information They Need

I don’t believe I had heard of this before, but it makes a tremendous amount of sense: basically “scrape” the Internet for various subject and store the actual information on hard drives for distribution to impoverished areas without Internet access. Of course, now that 32 gigabyte microSD cards are relatively cheap, you can put a huge amount of information on these devices for distribution to individuals with smartphones, tablets, or laptop computers. Since a book can take only a few megabytes you can fit thousands of books on an SD card, and since most important information regarding health, agriculture, education, etc., really doesn’t change much, this provides many of the benefits of the Internet to those who benefit the most. It is really a worthy project.

“There may come a day when the whole world logs on effortlessly to the Internet, but it ain’t happened yet. Today, there are about 7.1 billion people on Earth and only about 3.1 billion have private access to porn and cat videos. The rest have to use some form of public connection, or they do without. This digital divide creates a bifurcated world, where some people have the information and knowledge to get ahead, while others are left behind. But the solution isn’t necessarily to roll out more Internet. In fact, you can get a lot of information to people using more old-fashioned methods, like hard-drives and SD cards.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 1st 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 1st 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

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1) Fetch Robotics Introduces Fetch and Freight: Your Warehouse Is Now Automated

The field of robotics has been moving forward at quite a pace. The market has been dominated by industrial robots (i.e. an arm on a base) and is relatively mature due to the cost of the machines. What has begun to change is that robots are increasingly mobile, which vastly increases the number of applications. We have a couple of examples this week: this article and the videos is about a company which has two complimentary systems for warehouse order fulfillment. The first video is Freight, which is interesting, but the second video with Fetch, showing the system in operation is even better.

“As of just a few months ago, all we knew about Fetch Robotics was that the core team from Unbounded Robotics, all of whom had been at Willow Garage before that, were working on not just one but two brand new robots designed to tackle the logistics market. Today, Fetch Robotics is announcing Fetch and Freight, a beefy mobile manipulator and zippy mobile base designed to automate logistics in places like warehouses. We have all the details, exclusive video of the robots in action, and an in-depth interview with Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise about why these robots are exactly what companies like Amazon and Google desperately need.”

2) Robots Step Into New Planting, Harvesting Roles

This is the second article about robots taking over and it discusses a robotic strawberry picker. Many fruits and vegetables are picked by hand and that work is typically done by migrant laborers. I picked strawberries when I was a kid and it is, indeed, low paid, backbreaking work, albeit something a child can do. The introduction of labor laws and immigration policies are limiting availability of such labor, which can put the crop at risk – after all, fruits don’t wait to be picked. Of course, a solution might be to raise the price of a quart of strawberries by $0.05, thus increasing the labor pool, but that is plain crazy talk. Here is a link to the WSJ video:

“A 14-arm, automated harvester recently wheeled through rows of strawberry plants here, illustrating an emerging solution to one of the produce industry’s most pressing problems: a shortfall of farmhands. Harnessing high-powered computing, color sensors and small metal baskets attached to the robotic arms, the machine gently plucked ripe strawberries from below deep-green leaves, while mostly ignoring unripe fruit nearby. Such tasks have long required the trained discernment and backbreaking effort of tens of thousands of relatively low-paid workers. But technological advances are making it possible for robots to handle the job, just as a shrinking supply of available fruit pickers has made the technology more financially attractive.”

3) Makerbot’s Saddest Hour

Two years ago Stratasys spent $400 million to buy Makerbot which was at the time a sort of crowd supported 3D printer. Shortly thereafter, the company thought it would be a good idea to restrict “its” IP (some of which was actually developed by the Makerbot community). This included trying to patent developments made by Makerbot users, in direct contravention of US patent law. Needless to say, this outraged the community, which, for the most part, moved on to any one of hundreds of other consumer grade 3D printer architectures. It now appears, not surprisingly, that Makerbot is imploding and it seems likely Stratasys will soon write the whole thing off, supporting my hypothesis that there is no greater joy for the management of a tech company than to give your shareholders’ money away to the shareholders of other companies through stupid, overpriced, acquisitions.

“First, we must remember that Makerbot has always been simultaneously lauded and fraught with controversy. The company – and former CEO Bre Pettis – appeared on the covers of a number of tech publications including Wired and Popular Science. It was a Brooklyn darling, beloved by New York makers for having the tenacity to manufacture right along the waterfront. I would argue that Makerbot was the main engine of growth for the manufacturing renaissance that is happening in New York now and that’s wildly important. Makerbot changed tech in Brooklyn. But Makerbot also lost a lot of goodwill. Thanks to primarily specious claims of IP theft – which Pettis addressed publicly – the maker community turned on Makerbot. Why should they pay some fat cat capitalist for a 3D printer the average engineering student could build at home with a few hundred dollars in parts and a few months spent debugging?”

4) Lowes Introduces In-Store 3D Printing for Customized Products & Outdated Replacement Parts

I am a big believer in 3D printing, especially in industrial applications. Even though the things are loved by the maker community, I don’t see much utility for home use. After all, very few people have the knowledge or tools (i.e. a screwdriver) to fix their own light switches so they are not likely to go through the ordeal of having a custom part made, especially in a store where getting the right sized nut and bolt, let alone technical advice, can be a pain. I suspect, most of all, the utility of 3D printers for companies like Lowe’s and Home Depot is promoting and marketing a “high tech” position within the market.

“Have you ever had a product that you absolutely loved but you had to get rid of it because of the fact that the manufacturer was no longer creating replacement parts for it? Have you ever loved a product but wished that you could make a few modification to it in order for it to better suit your needs or match your home’s decor? Surely all of us have run into at least one of these problems in the past. Today, Lowe’s has moved in a direction to help solve these common issues, with the introduction of 3D printing and 3D scanning as the solution. Through a partnership with Authentise, the company will begin offering some of their customers this convenience inherent within 3D technology.”

5) Tesla launches Powerwall home battery with aim to revolutionize energy consumption

I guess if you are mostly known for selling, at a loss, a heavily subsidized, unreliable, short lived vehicle and you used that to justify building a heavily subsidized battery plant, it only stands to reason you’ll try sell heavily subsidized batteries for home use to fill up that plant. None of this is surprising: once you get enough of a following (including dimwits who write investment research) you can do pretty much anything with other people’s money. What I do find interesting is the slathering coverage by the press and Wall Street. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – novel or revolutionary about lithium ion batteries, home use of batteries for solar storage, etc., (see item 6), and that doesn’t even address the questionable utility of such a system. One thing worth considering is how awesomely dangerous Lithium Ion batteries are, especially during a fire. Have a look at the packaging of anything with a lithium ion battery in it (an effort, apparently too strenuous for journalist or stock analyst). I’d no sooner have a large lithium ion battery pack inside my home than a large cylinder of propane.

“Tesla CEO Elon Musk is trying to steer his electric car company’s battery technology into homes and businesses as part of an elaborate plan to reshape the power grid with millions of small power plants made of solar panels on roofs and batteries in garages. Musk announced Tesla’s expansion into the home battery market amid a party atmosphere at the company’s design studio near Los Angeles International Airport. The festive scene attended by a drink-toting crowd of enthusiasts seemed fitting for a flashy billionaire renowned for pursuing far-out projects. For instance, colonizing Mars is one of Musk’s goals at Space X, a rocket maker that he also runs.”

6) Backflow from distributed power systems is challenging an antiquated power grid

What a strange world we live in: use massive subsidies to add a trifling amount of rooftop solar power then declare the electric power grid “antiquated” for not being able to cope with that configuration. The solution, no doubt, will be to massively subsidize battery installations in order to “stabilize” the grid. Chart 1.1 is entertaining, if is is to be believed (the fact storage is given in megawatts rather that megawatt-hours is enough to question its veracity). Note that a substantial proportion of energy storage projects are purportedly Lithium-ion, even while highlighting Tesla (see item 5) as purportedly having an advantage. No doubt other Lithium-ion suppliers are perplexed at how a latecomer to providing a commodity product is getting all the press. It is enough to make your head explode.

“The Edison Electric Institute estimated in 2008 that by 2030 the U.S. electric utility industry would need to make a total infrastructure investment of $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion, of which electrical transmission and distribution are expected to account for about $900 billion. Lithium-ion battery systems, which have become the de facto standard for homes and utilities, like the ones Tesla is planning to announce this week, will enable electricity generated through renewable power, such as wind and solar, to be stored on site.”

7) Audi have successfully made diesel fuel from carbon dioxide and water

The “alternative energy” world is a whacky one indeed. The solution to our problems has been found: make diesel fuel from water and carbon dioxide! Its amazing nobody has though of this before. Except they have: its called the Fischer–Tropsch process and it was developed almost a century ago. Evidently even a website called “sciencealert” doesn’t hire anybody with basic knowledge of, you know, science. Since this is recycled every year or too, evidently a knowledge of “google” is also too much to ask. You don’t really need to to much to dismiss this daffy idea: if it was an efficient use of energy every city on the planet would have a factory cranking out hydrocarbons. Mind you, once they figure out nuclear fusion we’d be good to go.

“German car manufacturer Audi has reportedly invented a carbon-neutral diesel fuel, made solely from water, carbon dioxide and renewable energy sources. And the crystal clear ‘e-diesel’ is already being used to power the Audi A8 owned by the country’s Federal Minister of Education and Research, Johanna Wanka. The creation of the fuel is a huge step forward for sustainable transport, but the fact that it’s being backed by an automotive giant is even more exciting. Audi has now set up a pilot plant in Dresden, Germany, operated by clean tech company Sunfire, which will pump out 160 litres of the synthetic diesel every day in the coming months.”

8) Study: Cities Will Put $64 Billion Into LEDs + Smart Streetlights By 2025

While stock promoters are busy generating market cap out of hype and subsidies, actual technological developments are doing something about energy consumption (which actually makes a real world difference. About 15% of electricity consumption in the US is related to lighting and LED lights can reduce that by 67% (vs CFL) to 97% (vs incandescent). Not only that but LEDs are long lived, instant on, and deliver excellent quality light. Interestingly, street lamp use is driven more by the long-lived aspect than energy use: traditional streetlamps are very expensive, last a couple years and you have to send a crew of people with a cherry picker to replace them. LED equivalents last for a decade or more, saving the cost of the lamp and the labor to replace it.

“Cities around the world will invest up to $64 billion into light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and ‘smart’ streetlights by the year 2025, according to a new study from Northeast Group. In addition to that rather blunt statement (finding), the study also predicts that 84% of all of the streetlights in the world will be LEDs by that time; and that 37% will be ‘smart’ (networked). Given that there are currently more than 2,000 different LED and smart streetlight projects around the world, the findings of the new study aren’t that hard to believe — that does seem to be the overall trend. In addition to the relatively fast deployment of LEDs over the past few years, the deployment of ‘smart’ systems — utilizing sensors + communications + analytics — has been fairly fast as well. According to the new study, this is largely due to falling costs and the potential for fast benefits (the payoff for upgrading doesn’t have to wait that long).”

9) The Coming Problem of Our iPhones Being More Intelligent Than Us

I don’t really understand the cult of Kurzweil. You’d think his star would have dimmed somewhat since the revelation of his bizarre and unscientific beliefs regarding nutrition were made public. I’ve seen some of his presentations and made the mistake of buying “The Singularity Is Near” but I couldn’t finish it because it was pseudo-scientific claptrap of the lowest order. I think Choprah or Dr. Oz are more credible. Oddly enough the idea that “Moore’s Law” will somehow lead to computers as intelligent as the human brain has credibility, at least among people who don’t actually study the question. You see, brains are neural networks, not digital systems. Not only that but we have only a very basic idea how they work. Nobody who studies brains gives any credibility whatsoever to Kurzweil.

“Ray Kurzweil made a startling prediction in 1999 that appears to be coming true: that by 2023 a $1,000 laptop would have the computing power and storage capacity of a human brain. He also predicted that Moore’s Law, which postulates that the processing capability of a computer doubles every 18 months, would apply for 60 years — until 2025 — giving way then to new paradigms of technological change. Kurzweil, a renowned futurist and the director of engineering at Google, now says that the hardware needed to emulate the human brain may be ready even sooner than he predicted — in around 2020 — using technologies such as graphics processing units (GPUs), which are ideal for brain-software algorithms. He predicts that the complete brain software will take a little longer: until about 2029.”

10) Why You Should Give A Damn About Supercomputers

Setting aside my derision of Kurweil and his acolytes, there is reason to believe computing power will continue to increase, albeit more slowly, in the future (though there is the possibility memristors will provide another up leg). These systems have actual utility and are unlikely to be plotting the overthrow of humanity. This article looks at some of the trends and applications of supercomputers.

“The fictional stories about supercomputers (Skynet, Mother, HAL, and so forth) rarely depict benevolent systems, and in fact, the more aware they are, the more dangerous they become. This is not to say there isn’t something to be concerned as we create ever-smarter machines, but that’s the not the point just now. And to be fair, this same sort of “bad press” around a technology is happening with artificial intelligence. To make it worse, if one says, “yes, well, to do artificial intelligence at proper scale, we will need powerful supercomputers” to anyone outside the bubble, eyes widen and heads shake. Add in the idea that (eek!) robots will be involved in that mix and there will be utter pandemonium.”

11) IBM gets closer to real quantum computing

One potentially disruptive development in the computing field would be an actual useable quantum computer. These machines have the potential to solve extremely computationally difficult, such as protein folding, extremely quickly. (In contrast with D-Wave’s purported “quantum” computer which does not, alas, appear to be able to solve difficult problems faster than traditional techniques.) The good news is, progress is happening and there are extremely important problems which should become solvable with this technology. The bad news is that quantum computing is not particularly good at doing the sort of things we mostly use computers for so don’t expect this to evolve into a mass market like the PC.

“Quantum computing is often considered one of the most logical successors to traditional computing. If pulled off, it could spur innovation across many fields, from sorting through tremendous Big Data stores of unstructured information — which will be key in making discoveries — to designing super materials, new encryption methods, and drug compounds without trial-and-error lab testing. For all of this to happen, though, someone has to build a working quantum computer. And that hasn’t happened yet, arguably aside from that giant (and controversial) D-Wave machine. We’re a big step closer now, though. IBM researchers, for the first time, have figured out how to detect and measure both bit-flip and phase-flip quantum errors simultaneously. They also outlined a new, square quantum bit circuit design that could scale to much larger dimensions.”

12) Grooveshark Faces $736 Million In Copyright Damages

Most people facing off a copyright lawsuit get legal advice. I have to assume Grooveshark didn’t, or if it did, they chose to ignore that legal advice. When the other side has proof you directed people to break the law, and the judge starts off by characterizing your activities as “willful” its gong to be an uphill battle. Long story short, it seems that Grooveshark’s business model involved streaming music and not paying for it. Sort of like Napster, except Napster had the advantage of not having 15 years of legal precedent against it. I’m guessing the executives and investors in Grooveshark didn’t think the whole thing through. In any event, April 30th they realized the error of their ways (and, more likely, personal liability) and shut the site down ( As a consequence they have become Internet martyrs in the cause against “greedy” music companies. In my mind they were just dumbasses.

“As Grooveshark parent company Escape Media prepares to face off against the world’s largest record labels in New York later today, the company is bracing for the worst. In a pre-hearing ruling a judge described Grooveshark’s copyright violations on 4,907 tracks as “willful”, potentially putting the company on the hook for $736 million in damages. … While the suit itself is complex, at its core is the complaint that Grooveshark co-founders and employees historically uploaded more than 150,000 infringing tracks to Grooveshark in order to increase its popularity.”

13) 99 problems: Why Jay Z’s Tidal streaming service became a train wreck

An article about technology always looses me when it has an error in the first few paragraphs (kbps is kilobits per second, not kilobyte), but this might be worth a read. The immediate problem I see is that there is not a chance in hell very many people will pay $19.99/month to listen to music, even if you are getting a “high quality stream” which is being played back through a device and headset incapable of delivering the same quality of sound. I am led to believe “Jay Z” is a celebrity of some repute, which doubtless explains the obliviousness of the pricing scheme.

“Tidal, the music streaming service bought for $56 million and relaunched by Jay Z earlier this year, seemed like it had everything going for it in its battle with rival services, such as Pandora and Spotify. It had technical superiority; unlike those other services, Tidal streams music at the near-CD quality level of 1411 kilobytes per second. (Spotify streams at either 96, 160 or 320 kbps.) It had star power, as became clear at the March 30 launch (pictured, above). And it had a compelling narrative: Tidal was going to rescue artists from the clutches of those other services, which it claimed pay a mere pittance for streams.”

14) Transparent Armor from NRL; Spinel Could Also Ruggedize Your Smart Phone

My father – who served in combat in WWII – used to tell me there is no limit to the imagination or money when it comes to people killing each other. Sometimes, despite their best efforts, the military industrial complex will come up with something which is potentially useful outside their domain of expertise and Spinel, a sort of super Gorilla Glass appears to be one such example. Now they have apparently figured out how to make larger batches of the stuff with predictable characteristics it may be commercialized. Based on my limited understanding of the process, it may be possible to vastly scale up production and dramatically lower costs even further. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“As a more durable material, a thinner layer of spinel can give better performance than glass. “For weight-sensitive platforms-UAVs [unmanned autonomous vehicles], head-mounted face shields—it’s a game-changing technology.” NRL invented a new way of making transparent spinel, using a hot press, called sintering. It’s a low-temperature process, and the size of the pieces is limited only by the size of the press. “Ultimately, we’re going to hand it over to industry,” says Sanghera, “so it has to be a scalable process.” In the lab, they made pieces eight inches in diameter. “Then we licensed the technology to a company who was able then to scale that up to much larger plates, about 30-inches wide.””

15) Enter the graphene era

This is a bit of an update on applications of graphene, a material which I believe has the potential to disrupt many industries. Of course, graphene is extremely expensive and most of the applications are theoretical. Nevertheless, graphene is simply carbon, and carbon is practically free, so the challenge is the development of a process which converts carbon to graphene cost effectively (much like Spinel in item 14). It is easy to mock excitement over graphene, but it is worth noting that the stuff was only discovered in 2004 and we have come a long way since. Ultimately, I believe the production problem will be solved but I have no idea whether that will be in 5 or 20 years.

“The newly-minted 2-D material did not disappoint. Graphene was extraordinarily conductive – electrons could skate unfettered across a surface of carbon atoms, instead of bouncing off them pinball-style as happens in metals. Graphene was also super strong. It resisted poking with a sharp diamond tip, meaning its chicken-wired atoms were more strongly bonded than those in diamond. In a relatively swift recognition of their discovery, Geim and Novoselov were awarded the Nobel prize in physics in 2010. Graphene is the strongest, sheerest material on the planet. “Our research establishes graphene as the strongest material ever measured, some 200 times stronger than structural steel,” says James Hone, the mechanical engineer at Columbia University who was a member of the team that conducted the diamond-point strength test. “It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran wrap,” he enthused.”

16) A New Bionic Eye: Infrared Light-Powered Retina Implant Coming

Bionics is another field which seems to be moving apace. It is interesting to note that this prototype looks somewhat like La Forge’s visor in Star Trek: The Next Generation, though La Forge’s visor had a direct neural interconnect whereas this relies on stimulating existing optic pathways. What is exciting about this field is the apparent fact the system can deliver 20/250 vision, which is only half the accuity required to no longer be considered blind. It seems that in this field doubling in performance is happening every 4 to 5 years, suggesting perfect bionic vision may be less than 20 years away.

“Lorach’s team also got promising results when it came to visual acuity. Their rats achieved a vision level that translates to 20/250 in humans, which means the person would probably be able to read the top letter on an eye chart, but none of the letters below. With the next-generation device, Lorach said, “we’re working to get to 20/120, which would be below the limit of legal blindness” in the United States.”

17) The Next Generation of Medical Tools May Be Home-Brewed

Certain technologies have been the purview of very large companies due to the complexity and regulatory environment associated with them. You can imagine the degree of expertise required to develop, let alone build a CAT scan. Of course, the same could have been said for early ultrasound machines – though I would be leery of any home brew machine which emitted ionizing radiation. We have covered people “hacking” insulin pumps and the like, and this is a similar phenomenon. Technology has a way of democratizing technology over time.

“When you think of MIT, images of ultra-high tech come to mind: Nobel Prize winners and world-class thinkers inventing their way into the future, pushing the boundaries of genetic engineering and robotics. The future, however, doesn’t always meet our expectations. Take, for example, researcher José Gómez-Márquez, whose big thoughts shape “Little Devices,” the lab he directs at MIT. The Little Devices lab takes a DIY approach to designing and building tools, mainly for healthcare. The diagnostic kits that come out of his hacking have a lot more in common with what you’d read about in Make: magazine than in The Lancet or IEEE Spectrum.”

18) The Real Cost of Free Mobile Apps: 79% More Data Use, 16% Battery Hit

This is an interesting albeit short piece which shows that “free” versions of app may end up actually costing more due to the power and bandwidth burden advertizements place upon the smartphone. I suspect it depends a lot on the app: not all “free” apps have advertizements, and some are only used occasionally. Nevertheless, if you use a free app regularly you might consider the possibility that paying the $1 or so for the paid version is actually a cost saving. Thanks to Nick White for this item.

“If you have an option to choose between a free, ad-supported mobile app or pony up a dollar or whatever the apps costs, you might be better off buying the app. New research from the University of Southern California, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Queen’s University found that compared to apps without ads, apps with ads are a big drain on your battery, take up more processing time, and also use much more data. We’ve noted a while back that most of the energy used up goes towards powering the ads in these free apps, but now we have some real world figures on what this means. These apps can lower your phone’s battery life by 0.4 to 0.8 hours, depending on how you use them. The bigger memory usage also means your phone will run slower.”

19) An iPad glitch grounded several dozen American Airlines planes

When American Airlines announced they were dropping flight manuals in favor of iPads I was surprised: after all the aviation world is noted for its strict regulations and use of a consumer grade product in a mission critical application seemed unwise. Fortunately, this “glitch” did not show itself during a flight emergency.

“American Airlines flights experienced significant delays this evening after pilots’ iPads—which the airline uses to distribute flight plans and other information to the crew—abruptly crashed. “Several dozen” flights were affected by the outage, according to a spokesperson for the airline. “The pilot told us when they were getting ready to take off, the iPad screens went blank, both for the captain and copilot, so they didn’t have the flight plan,” Toni Jacaruso, a passenger on American flight #1654 from Dallas to Austin, told Quartz.”

20) Evaluating NASA’s Futuristic EM Drive

When reports of this gizmo first came out I was dismissive: basic physics says you can’t have thrust without throwing something in the other direction. The results appear to have 0been verified, though the effect appears to be extremely small – close to the measurement error of the system. Above all, when something defies physics, like faster than light neutrinos, the most likely explanation is experimental error. Nonetheless, like “cold fusion” (since debunked) the impact would be profound if it proves to be true.

“A group at NASA’s Johnson Space Center has successfully tested an electromagnetic (EM) propulsion drive in a vacuum – a major breakthrough for a multi-year international effort comprising several competing research teams. Thrust measurements of the EM Drive defy classical physics’ expectations that such a closed (microwave) cavity should be unusable for space propulsion because of the law of conservation of momentum.”