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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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: http://thedragonstales.blogspot.ca/2015/04/agrobot-bringing-robopocalypse-to.html
“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 (http://grooveshark.com/). 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.””
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.”