The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 26th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 26th 2015

Hello,

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.

Brian Piccioni

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1) SSD Prices In A Free Fall

I predicted that flash memory would displace tape in video cameras and that Solid State Drives (SSDs) would displace Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) a number of years ago. The tape prediction now seems obvious (it wasn’t at the time) and there are many who remain skeptical about the end of HDDs (see the next article). This article predicts price parity on a per bit level, which might be a challenge, with retail HDDs at $50 to $90/TB and SSDs about 5 to 8x that, though even a cheap SSD will handily outperform the fastest HD in all respects. Therefore, broad abandonment of HDDs doesn’t require price parity, just getting close.

“By packing 32 or 64 times the capacity per die, 3D NAND will allow SSDs to increase capacity well beyond hard drive sizes. SanDisk, for example, plans 8 TB drives this year, and 16 TB drives in 2016. At the same time, vendors across the flash industry are able to back off two process node levels and obtain excellent die yields. The result of the density increase is clear: This year, SSDs will nearly catch up to HDD in capacity. Meanwhile, hard drives appear to be stuck at 10 TB capacity, and the technology to move beyond that size is going to be expensive once it’s perfected. HDD capacity curves already were flattening, and the next steps are likely to take some time. This all means that SSDs will surpass HDDs in capacity in 2016. There’s even serious talk of 30 TB solid-state drives in 2018.”

http://www.networkcomputing.com/storage/ssd-prices-in-a-free-fall/a/d-id/1320958

2) The rise of SSDs over hard drives, debunked

This article is a counterpoint to the above article and makes the case that HDDs will continue to be much cheaper than SSDs. Of course, a low end SSD is much faster, uses much less power, and is more reliable than even a high end HDD so you have to be careful with such comparisons since system cost and performance is the important metric. When I buy a new laptop, I immediately go to the computer store and buy an SSD to upgrade it. This gives me a significant lift in speed. I would always choose a laptop with a 500 GB SSD over the same machine with a 4TB HDD at the same price.

“In spite of a recent report to the contrary, solid-state drives (SSDs) will not surpass hard disk drives (HDDs) in either price or capacity any time soon, according to industry analysts. In fact, hard drives will remain the dominant mass storage device in laptops and desktops for years to come. For example, a data center-class HDD with 6TB of capacity sells for $185 today and will drop to about $165 by the end of the year — about 3 cents per gigabyte, according to market research firm Gartner. A 4TB HDD for a laptop sells for $95 to computer manufacturers or about 2 cents per gigabyte. And HDD prices are expected to continue to drop as areal platter density increases. Gartner predicts that over the next five years, HDD prices will drop to as low as 1 of a cent per gigabyte of capacity.”

http://www.computerworld.com/article/2939438/data-storage-solutions/the-rise-of-ssds-over-hard-drives-debunked.html

3) Tesla Battery Swap: CARB’s Bridge To Nowhere

This article looks at the absurdity of California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) credit and fairly obvious signs Tesla has been gaming that program. ZEVs are a subsidy which gets less wealthy people who can’t afford highly subsidized electric sports cars to subsidize electric sports cars for rich people. CARB’s lack of transparency on the issue suggests collusion or stupidity (with government you never know). Calls for an audit of the program are well founded, but likely to be fought tooth and nail since the results are unlikely to favor CARB or Tesla (see next article). Thanks to Alain Bélanger of Novacap for this article.

“Given that CARB’s public assessment of the battery swap credit program is so at odds with the facts, it’s clear that more transparency and oversight is needed. Indeed, given how little opportunity remains to clean up the battery swap credit mess before it sundowns, increasing transparency around the ZEV program may be the only viable response to Tesla’s credit gaming and CARB’s studied lack of action to end it. Staffers for California state representatives who asked not to be named tell Daily Kanban that they are currently looking into the options for a ZEV program audit in response to concerns raised about battery swap credits. Though it is almost certainly too late to prevent Tesla from earning untold millions for a technology it has no intention of making widely available, at least the citizens of California may still be able to gain some better understanding of this expertly-concealed boondoggle and precisely how much money it has diverted to Tesla.”

http://dailykanban.com/2015/06/tesla-battery-swap-carbs-bridge-to-nowhere/

4) Tesla knows how far you’ve driven

This article clearly shows how ineffective subsidies for EVs are: “570,000 tons of carbon emissions” (a figure which probably ignores the coal burned to provide the electricity) saved sounds like a lot, but it is a trifle. The going rate for a carbon credit is around $5/tonne, (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-09-03/carbon-credits-give-664-benefits-per-ton-imperial-study-shows), so the total value of carbon “saved” is less than $3M, compared to hundreds of millions of subsidies to Tesla and its customers. In other words, government subsidies to allow wealthy people to buy EVs yield about 1% of the purported environmental benefit on the state simply buying carbon credits. Oh, another thing: as is typical with figures released for Tesla the 570,000 tons is also apparently vastly inflated: 1 billion miles works out to 420,000 tons of CO2 assuming average US fleet fuel economy (see http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-resources/refs.html), which includes pickup trucks, SUVs, etc.. So the real (un-Teslaed) figures is closer to $2M of environmental benefit.

“It’s a big moment for Tesla: Altogether, the company’s Model S vehicles have traveled more than a billion miles. For some perspective, a billion miles is about as far as 4,200 trips to the moon. It also adds up to some 570,000 tons of saved carbon emissions, thanks to the Model S’s electric battery, Tesla says.”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2015/06/24/tesla-says-its-drivers-have-traveled-a-billion-miles-and-tesla-knows-how-many-miles-youve-driven/

5) New manufacturing approach slices lithium-ion battery cost in half

Another week, another major advance in battery technology. As is typical, it is what is not said regarding this amazing breakthrough is what matters: how does durability, charge time, and all the other numerous parameters compared to a standard off the shelf lithium ion battery? One other note: as the article glosses over, Professor Chiang also founded a previous revolutionary battery company, A123, which managed to burn through hundreds of millions of investor dollars – including public shareholder dollars – without actually delivering the promised revolution or even a tiny part thereof.

“An advanced manufacturing approach for lithium-ion batteries, developed by researchers at MIT and at a spinoff company called 24M, promises to significantly slash the cost of the most widely used type of rechargeable batteries while also improving their performance and making them easier to recycle. “We’ve reinvented the process,” says Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Ceramics at MIT and a co-founder of 24M (and previously a co-founder of battery company A123). The existing process for manufacturing lithium-ion batteries, he says, has hardly changed in the two decades since the technology was invented, and is inefficient, with more steps and components than are really needed.”

http://phys.org/news/2015-06-approach-slices-lithium-ion-battery.html

6) All hail Xiaomi, the slayer of tech giants

Sometime in 2000, while I was still following Nortel, I learned of Huawei, a Chinese competitor. Huawei’s strategy was simple: sell good stuff cheap. Of course, most everybody ignored the threat because they figured no self-respecting carrier would use Huawei equipment. Perhaps they were right, but enough carriers starting putting pricing pressure on the entire sector. It might not be an apt comparison, but Xiamoi is an increasingly important vendor in China, India, and emerging markets. Even if they never sell their products in North American or Europe, their success is bound to blunt developing world revenue growth for top tier vendors.

“Three years ago, nobody knew about Xiaomi, and most people probably won’t even like to know. It was like in a Fast & Furious movie; the speed at which Xiaomi overthrew nearly everybody and raced to the position of world’s third largest smartphone vendor within this short period. Bar veterans Samsung and Apple, the Chinese phone maker would have been crowned king of smartphones even as Xiaomi phones are legally available on sale in less than 1% of the earth’s countries, shockingly. That’s a huge lesson to everyone: when you introduce something different and appealing to everyone, you become a crowd favorite — at least in Xiaomi’s case. Interestingly, it’s not only the affordability of Xiaomi products that makes the brand sell very well. After all, thousands of Chinese start-ups offer even more affordable Android handsets but their popularity comes nowhere near the Apple of China, Xiaomi; or as we now call them, the Slayer Of Tech Giants. Xiaomi’s mojo lies in packaging.”

http://bestmobs.com/hail-xiaomi-slayer-tech-giants-25404/

7) Android on BlackBerry: More harm than good

BlackBerry reported yet another dismal quarter this week. As usual, most of the coverage of the company’s performance seemed bent on misdirection (ignore the bad, pay attention to the good, however little there might be). One rather bizarre rumor was that BlackBerry would introduce a handset based on Android. Superficially, this is probably not as bad an idea as their current strategy since people actually buy Android handsets, unlike BlackBerry handsets. Nevertheless, from a holistic perspective, it would be a very bad idea, not that that has ever stopped high tech companies in the past.

“With its latest smartphones, the BlackBerry Classic and BlackBerry Passport, continuing to attract no buyer interest, BlackBerry’s hardware business seems destined for the dustbin of history. Yet fans continue to hope for some Hail Mary move from the once-dominant mobile device maker. The latest straws for the BlackBerry faithful to grasp was a rumor last week reported by Reuters that BlackBerry might adopt Android for a new device to ship this fall. In response, BlackBerry’s PR staff issued what’s called a nondenial denial, saying it was committed to its current BlackBerry 10 OS but saying nothing about future plans that might involve Android. Nothing ruled in, nothing ruled out — the Android straws remain available for the grasping.”

http://www.infoworld.com/article/2935977/blackberry/android-on-blackberry-more-harm-than-good.html

8) WiFi Offloading To Skyrocket

Offloading data to WiFi makes a lot of sense, especially if you are offering unlimited plans. Of course, you have to have access to enough access points. This should be “seamless” as in the phone automatically registers to the hotspot, otherwise people aren’t likely to click through the permissions page as you have to do at Starbucks (though that is pretty pointless in any event). I wouldn’t worry about running out of WiFi spectrum since many modern phones can work off 5GHz, and WiFi itself continues to evolve and add bandwidth to the available frequencies.

“Cellular carriers will offload nearly 60% of mobile data traffic to WiFi networks over the next four years, according to a new study from Juniper Research. Carriers in North America and Western Europe will be responsible for over 75% of the global mobile data being offloaded in the next four years, Juniper said. The amount of smartphone and tablet data traffic on WiFi networks will will increase to more than 115,000 petabytes by 2019, compared to under 30,000 petabytes this year, representing almost a four-fold increase. WiFi offloading, also called carrier WiFi, has become pervasive as many big cellular carriers and ISPs have deployed large numbers of WiFi hotspots in cities using the existing infrastructure of their customers’ homes and businesses. This enables carriers to offload the saturated bandwidth on 3G and LTE networks.”

http://www.networkcomputing.com/wireless-infrastructure/wifi-offloading-to-skyrocket-/d/d-id/1321007

9) Graphene booms in factories but lacks a killer app

This article takes a rather skeptical look at graphene, a very promising material with many potential applications. Some of the criticism is valid: few actual applications of graphene have panned out, and most of the market is probably research driven. However, there is a bit of chicken and egg here: applications are limited for this staggeringly expensive material, and pricing won’t come down until demand drives improved production techniques. It is entirely unfair to compare the total amounts invested to date with a forecast market of $349 million by 2025: market forecasts are notoriously inaccurate even about the near term. A forecast 10 years hence for a material only discovered 11 years ago is not likely to be anywhere near correct. The real figure could be much less or a couple orders of magnitude more depending on how the technology evolves.

“The city of Manchester, UK, is gearing up for a graphene jamboree. Graphene Week 2015, which kicks off on 22 June, is sure to delight its more than 600 attendees with a conference and celebrations of the ‘wonder material’. Graphene’s commercial future, however, is much less certain. The atom-thin flakes of carbon are being produced in record volume and have found their way into a handful of eye-catching gizmos. But experts fret that graphene production far exceeds requirements, and that the material offers only marginal benefits over incumbent technologies in many of its target applications. “There’s a heck of a lot of production capacity and not much demand, because we just haven’t seen any compelling technologies coming through,” says Ross Kozarsky, a senior analyst at market-intelligence company Lux Research, who is based in San Francisco, California. This mirrors the trajectory of carbon nanotubes, which were once touted as transformative but have so far failed to make a significant commercial impact. “Graphene looks much closer to the next carbon nanotube than the next silicon,” says Kozarsky. In a 2014 report, Lux predicted that the global market for graphene would be worth US$349 million by 2025; by comparison, the University of Manchester estimates that graphene has already attracted $2.4 billion for research.”

http://www.nature.com/news/graphene-booms-in-factories-but-lacks-a-killer-app-1.17771

10) You’re being secretly tracked with facial recognition, even in church

I recall a movie about 10 years ago where, in a dystopian future, every billboard calls you out by name. This is looking increasingly unlikely as facial recognition evolves in the absence of meaningful regulation. Unfortunately, governments, which consist mainly of middle aged lawyers who fundamentally do not understand the Internet, let alone facial recognition, are not likely to act. As we have already seen, a lack of regulation leads to a complete an irreparable loss of privacy. Distopian indeed. Thanks to Avner Mandelman for this item.

“Instantly, when a person in your FaceFirst database steps into one of your stores, you are sent an email, text, or SMS alert that includes their picture and all biographical information of the known individual so you can take immediate and appropriate action,” says the Facefirst brochure. It doesn’t say what happens when that person isn’t you but is actually a doppelgänger with a bad reputation. Or how someone who doesn’t want to get greeted by name gets their face taken out of the database.”

http://fusion.net/story/154199/facial-recognition-no-rules/

11) China says hello to Mr. Roboto

Workers in the developed world lament a loss of jobs to automation (i.e. robots) and/or cheap labor. Interestingly, robots can be a “leveler” for a manufacturer since everybody has access to the same robots at more or less the same price. It is interesting that some Chinese manufacturers have decided it makes financial sense to increase the amount of automation in their factories as suggests they are dealing with wage inflation, quality issues, and a looming labor shortage associated with demographic shifts. Of course the robots in the picture look nothing like the one they’ll be using on the factory floor.

“An increasing number of Chinese factories are ditching human workers for machines as a robotic revolution gets underway in the world’s second-largest economy. In the past month, two companies in the southern province of Guangdong, a major manufacturing hub, have reported plans to fill their factory floors with robots. Evenwin Precision Technology is building a factory that will boast more than 1,000 industrial robots, China Daily reported in May. A maker of mobile phone components, Evenwin told the newspaper the move would reduce the number of frontline workers by at least 90 percent. Meanwhile, home appliance maker Midea recently replaced 14 workers on one of its major assembly line, according to a Caixin report last month. Soon, it plans to replace quality-control supervisors with robots too.”

http://www.cnbc.com/id/102768670

12) AI’s Next Frontier: Machines That Understand Language

The term Artificial Intelligence (AI) means different things to different people. For the most part, among experts, it does not mean sentient or self-aware machines, but machines which are able to process complex information and figure out its meaning. Understanding words is one thing but understanding language is a whole other challenge. I find it interesting they are using neural networks for the problem. This makes sense since our brains are neural networks. Most likely, they are actually simulating neural networks in software, which is computationally intensive. If the technique can be mastered and progress in memristors yields actual programmable neural networks as I believe it should, then natural language processing could become cheap and commonplace.

“With the help of neural networks—vast networks of machines that mimic the web of neurons in the human brain—Facebook can recognize your face. Google can recognize the words you bark into an Android phone. And Microsoft can translate your speech into another language. Now, the task is to teach online services to understand natural language, to grasp not just the meaning of words, but entire sentences and even paragraphs. At Facebook, artificial intelligence researchers recently demonstrated a system that can read a summary of The Lord of The Rings, then answer questions about the books. Using a neural networking algorithm called Word2Vec, Google is teaching its machines to better understand the relationship between words posted across the Internet—a way of boosting Google Now, a digital assistant that seeks to instantly serve up the information you need at any given moment. Yann LeCun, who oversees Facebook’s AI work, calls natural language processing “the next frontier.””

http://www.wired.com/2015/06/ais-next-frontier-machines-understand-language/

13) 3 Companies Using Drones to Improve Inspections

I would not exactly count the Royal Navy as a company, especially since the military rarely represents a paragon of common sense, however, this article provides three real world examples of the use of drones to cost effectively solve otherwise costly and sometimes even dangerous problems.

“Drones have much the subject of nearly relentless media speculation over the past year (or more). But while it’s easy to make bold predictions about the possibilities of widespread drone use, we wanted to highlight a few ways that these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are actually being used right now. One of most obvious benefits of drones is their ability to easily go where humans can’t. This could have far-reaching implications for service companies, which often need to inspect difficult to reach buildings and assets. Here are three organizations that recently started testing and employing drone inspectors: Allstate, The Royal Navy, Consumers Energy …”

http://technologyadvice.com/news/blog/companies-using-drones-for-inspections/

14) Here’s a Perfect Example of Why We Need More Consumer Drone Regulation

In contrast with the above item, consumer drones can cause problems. Of course, most drone operators are likely responsible, but there are many of them and the hobby is unregulated, so situations like this are not all that rare. As with drones flying near airports, little will happen until people are killed.

“In the last week, state and federal firefighters have fought more than 270 wildfires in California alone. One fire burned nearly 18,000 acres of land and cost more than $7 million to contain. Here’s the problem: firefighters are seeing more unauthorized consumer drones flying over active wildfires. Maybe the drone owners don’t know or maybe they don’t care, but temporary flight restrictions are placed over wildfire areas due to the aircraft used to help contain the fires. Aircraft is used during wildfires to knock down flames and survey the burn area. When drones are in that restricted airspace, they’re in the path of aircraft. “A couple times yesterday we noticed some drones in our airspace,” said Cal Fire’s Steve Kaufmann (watch the KSEE video below).“I can’t encourage the public enough that when we have a fire in the area, they really need to try to have restraint.””

http://www.roboticstrends.com/article/heres_a_perfect_example_of_why_we_need_more_consumer_drone_regulation

15) New FLIR One thermal camera for iOS and Android lets you ‘see’ in the dark

A few years ago a friend of mine spent a few thousand dollars for a FLIR thermal camera to do house inspections. I am sure his is much better than the FLIR One, but the way things go its probably a matter of time before the capabilities catch up. Thermal cameras have lots of real world applications though I don’t think they are the sort of thing a typical consumer would buy, despite the ability to spot zombies. Still, $249.99 is a pretty compelling price point.

“The company’s back with a second-generation FLIR One camera and this time it’ll work with more than just two iPhone models. It’s also cheaper at $249.99. The new FLIR One camera works with iPhones and iPads, and Android smartphones and tablets. The case-like design has been replaced by a smaller module that weighs a third as much and attaches directly to an iOS device’s Lightning port or an Android device’s Micro USB port. Unlike the first-gen model, the new FLIR One is more pocketable and easier to operate. It’s a massive improvement, for sure.”

http://mashable.com/2015/06/25/flir-one-second-generation-review/

16) Samsung’s ‘Safety Truck’ Features a Camera and Live View Display

This is an interesting idea, but it is more of a publicity stunt than a viable technology. The idea is quite simple: trucks have big trailers which block the view so put a huge display on the back of the truck and a camera on the front, so drivers behind the truck can see what is in front of the truck. The problem is that big displays are expensive and fragile (being made of glass and all) so they would not last very long before being damaged. What the article does show is the long term potential of Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) communication and automated safety systems. In the future, the vehicle in front of you will detect oncoming traffic and the oncoming traffic will send out beacons, all of which will sound an alarm or prevent you from making an unsafe lane chance or pass maneuver. Thanks to my friend Allan Brown for this link.

“Samsung wants to help make roads safer by incorporating some camera technology into semi-trailer trucks. By adding a front camera and a giant rear “live view” display to the trucks, Samsung’s ‘Safety Truck’ project makes it easier for drivers to see “through” the trucks and know when it’s safe to pass. According to the statistics, an average of one person in Argentina dies every hour to a traffic accident, and many of those deaths are caused by reckless passing on the country’s two-lane roads. Samsung wants to use its technology to make this type of passing safer and easier for drivers — at least when following behind Samsung’s trucks. Each of Samsung’s Safety Trucks have a wireless front-facing camera installed on the grill, and on the backside of the truck is a giant four-screen display showing a live feed from the camera.”

http://petapixel.com/2015/06/20/samsungs-safety-truck-features-a-camera-and-live-view-display/

17) Windows 10 to be adopted by 73 per cent of IT pros

I always take surveys with a grain of salt, but it is worth noting that the abomination which is Windows 8 meant that IT departments looking to replace Windows XP had nowhere to go, except, perhaps, to the soon to be obsolete Windows 7. Microsoft’s free “upgrade to 10” program probably is not a major factor in the decision to upgrade since many companies are paying a subscription fee which includes the option to upgrade their OS, should they desire. I am hopeful Windows 10 will actually be a decent OS, and reviews are thus far favorable. If it is, there might be a surge in demand for PCs for a few quarters at least.

“A total of 73 per cent of IT professionals will deploy Windows 10 within the first two years, a new report by Spiceworks shows. The report, called “Windows 10: Will it Soar?” found that 96 per cent of IT decision-makers are interested in Windows 10, and 60 per cent of IT departments have tested or are actively testing the new operating system. The survey also found that 40 per cent of companies plan to begin rolling out Windows 10 within the first year and an additional 33 per cent expect to begin deploying Windows 10 within two years. Even though Windows 10 offers new features, such as Cortana or the new Edge browser, IT professionals are mostly interested in the system’s stability and simplification of everyday tasks. Sixty-four per cent of IT professionals said they were most interested in the return of the Start button, 55 per cent cited the free upgrade from Windows 7 and 8/8.1, and 51 per cent referenced enhanced security.”

http://www.itproportal.com/2015/06/25/windows-10-to-be-adopted-by-73-per-cent-of-it-pros/

Link to the PDF http://www.spiceworks.com/voit/reports/windows-10-will-it-soar/

18) New Mode of Transmission May Double Fiber Optic Capacity

This might be a significant advance. As near as I can figure, the idea is that with current techniques the distortion which is introduced as different carriers of light travel down the fiber is random. By deriving the carriers from the same laser source, that distortion becomes predictable and therefor can be corrected for, allowing for either longer reach or higher data rates. Unfortunately the article does not discuss the costs or complexities of this approach.

“Data signals traveling as laser pulses through an optical fiber are vulnerable to optical distortions resulting from interference among multiple signals of different wavelengths traveling down the same fiber. These nonlinear wave interactions mean that data signals can degrade over great distances unless they regularly get regenerated along the way — that is, converted to electrical signals, subjected to computer analysis to weed out any distortions, and then converted back to optical signals. This process not only slows data traffic, but also accounts for most of the cost of setting up new optical network infrastructure. Now UC-San Diego researchers say they may have discovered a way to easily get rid of these distortions, greatly reducing the need for constant and expensive signal regeneration. The research team told Science magazine this could lead to a two- to four-fold boost to either the amount of data a fiber can carry or the distance that signals travel before they need to be regenerated.”

http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/semiconductors/optoelectronics/new-mode-of-transmission-may-double-fiber-optic-capacity

19) China and Russia Almost Definitely Have the Snowden Docs

Last week the Sunday Times carried an article which essentially claimed the Russians and Chinese had somehow decrypted the (unpublished) document cache which Snowden claimed to have carefully encrypted. This allegedly led to compromised secret agents, etc.. This article argues, probably correctly, that Chinese and Russian spies already had the information. In fact they probably had full access to NSA files and were as angry at Snowden as the NSA was for compromising their sources. After all, the NSA was so sloppy with security a contractor like Snowden, who is not some sort of hacker genius, managed to download top secret files onto a USB drive. Snowden acted out of a sense of justice but there were (and are), no doubt, lots of NSA contractors who would do the same for cash.

“Last weekend, the Sunday Times published a front-page story (full text here), citing anonymous British sources claiming that both China and Russia have copies of the Snowden documents. It’s a terrible article, filled with factual inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims about both Snowden’s actions and the damage caused by his disclosure, and others have thoroughly refuted the story. I want to focus on the actual question: Do countries like China and Russia have copies of the Snowden documents? I believe the answer is certainly yes, but that it’s almost certainly not Snowden’s fault.”

http://www.wired.com/2015/06/course-china-russia-snowden-documents/

20) What If Authors Were Paid Every Time Someone Turned a Page?

This potentially disturbing experiment. Amazon carries tremendous power in the book biz, and any move to change remuneration in the area could have a profound impact. It seems to be trying the idea out on self published authors, who likely have much less power than those who have a contract with a publisher. As the article suggests, such a payment scheme would likely lead authors to favor certain styles of writing over others in order to maximize their paychecks. It is also a system unlikely to favor sober analysis when writing non-fiction.

“Soon, the maker of the Kindle is going to flip the formula used for reimbursing some of the authors who depend on it for sales. Instead of paying these authors by the book, Amazon will soon start paying authors based on how many pages are read—not how many pages are downloaded, but how many pages are displayed on the screen long enough to be parsed. So much for the old publishing-industry cliche that it doesn’t matter how many people read your book, only how many buy it. For the many authors who publish directly through Amazon, the new model could warp the priorities of writing: A system with per-page payouts is a system that rewards cliffhangers and mysteries across all genres. It rewards anything that keeps people hooked, even if that means putting less of an emphasis on nuance and complexity.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/06/amazon-publishing-authors-payment-writing/396269/

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 19th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 19th 2015

Hello,

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.

Brian Piccioni

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ps: sorry I’m late – minor operation.

1) Autonomous Vehicle Implementation Predictions: Implications for Transport Planning

This is a lengthy and relatively comprehensive look at the impact of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), primarily from the perspective of its impact on Transport Policy, however, the facts, figures, and perspectives are more broadly applicable. Although I believe many projections for AV adoption are unrealistic, one has to be cautious with respect to using past examples of new technologies to predict adoption of AVs. A more or less favorable regulatory environment, rate of cost reduction, and other factors could accelerate or retard AV penetration. I believe AVs will profoundly impact our economy and disrupt many sectors, so this is a “must read”.

“This report explores the impacts that autonomous (also called self-driving, driverless or robotic) vehicles are likely to have on travel demands and transportation planning. It discusses autonomous vehicle benefits and costs, predicts their likely development and implementation based on experience with previous vehicle technologies, and explores how they will affect planning decisions such as optimal road, parking and public transit supply. The analysis indicates that some benefits, such as independent mobility for affluent non-drivers, may begin in the 2020s or 2030s, but most impacts, including reduced traffic and parking congestion (and therefore road and parking facility supply requirements), independent mobility for low-income people (and therefore reduced need to subsidize transit), increased safety, energy conservation and pollution reductions, will only be significant when autonomous vehicles become common and affordable, probably in the 2040s to 2060s, and some benefits may require prohibiting human-driven vehicles on certain roadways, which could take longer.”

PDF download: http://www.vtpi.org/avip.pdf

2) Autonomous Vehicles Will Replace Taxi Drivers, But That’s Just the Beginning

Yet another article discussing the impact of AVs (which are really just robots) on the economy. Such articles tend to speak of absolutes and create a sense of panic. In reality the loss of jobs will likely take 30 years and the labor market will have ample time to adapt. Nevertheless, the numbers are big and worth considering.

“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are about 178,000 people employed as taxi drivers or chauffeurs in the United States. But once driverless technology advances to the point that vehicles can be fully autonomous — without the need for any human behind the wheel in case of emergencies — professional drivers will become a thing of the past. Bus drivers, whether they’re for schools, cities, or long-distance travel, would be made obsolete. Once cars drive themselves, food deliveries will be a matter of restaurants filling a car with orders and sending it off, eliminating the need for a delivery driver. Each of these professions employ more people and are better paid than taxi drivers, as shown in the table below.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-tracy/autonomous-vehicles-will-_b_7556660.html

3) Insurers Unprepared for Self-Driving Car Disruption: KPMG

This is evidently the week for AV analysis. One industry which will probably be disrupted out of existence by the emergence of AVs over the next few decades is the auto insurance industry since the collisions, the severity of collisions, and the number and severity of injuries will almost certainly plummet. It is hard to justify a thousand dollars or more for auto insurance when risk levels drop to a few percent of what they are today. Unfortunately, the KPMG study seems to imply 2025 is a time line which should concern insurance companies, however this is unreasonably optimistic (or pessimistic depending on your perspective). Even things like auto-braking are unlikely to have much penetration by then and you really get significant shifts when fleet penetration is high. I doubt I’ll live to see it but I’d be surprised if there is an auto-insurance industry by 2045.

“The majority of property/casualty insurers do not expect autonomous or self-driving vehicles to have a real impact on their auto insurance business for another decade and have not adjusted their business models to prepare for the disruption. Many insurer executives also believe that government will slow the introduction of autonomous vehicles. That’s according to a new report based on the Automobile Insurance in the Era of Autonomous Vehicles Survey by the advisory services firm, KPMG. In surveying senior U.S. insurance executives whose companies, in aggregate, account for almost $85 billion in personal and commercial auto premium, KPMG found skepticism about the potential transformation autonomous vehicles will bring in the near-term.”

http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2015/06/18/372214.htm

4) How will self-driving cars affect the economy?

This is a relatively superficial look at some of the issues associated with autonomous vehicles, and mostly from a Canadian perspective. I rather doubt Canada will be much of a player in the space but that might change over the 20 or so years it will take for the technology to emerge. Among the challenges associated with self driving vehicles in Canada is it’s 3rd world, albeit extremely expensive, telecommunications infrastructure. QNX is often mentioned as a potential platform for AVs. This is extremely unlikely as the segment will almost certainly be exclusively Linux based.

“Automated Vehicles: The Coming of the Next Disruptive Technology, a report from the Conference Board of Canada in collaboration with Calgary’s Van Horne Institute and CAVCOE, calls on governments and business to start planning because automated vehicles will change just about everything: infrastructure needs, the nature of jobs, the economy and healthcare. The report anticipates benefits to be as high as $65 billion largely because of significantly fewer traffic collisions, which immediately translates into healthcare, legal and auto-repair savings. The figures are even more staggering in the US, where traffic accidents alone cost almost US$900 billion annually. This may be why the US seems to be preparing more aggressively for a future with driverless cars than Canada, where only Ontario appears to be working on legislation to permit testing of self-driving vehicles.”

http://www.gaaaccounting.com/how-will-self-driving-cars-affect-the-economy/

5) DARPA Robotics Challenge: Amazing Moments, Lessons Learned, and What’s Next

The DARPA Robotics Challenge was held recently. Because it was DARPA I assumed it was mostly meant as a test of military robots, but I have read recently that the Fukushima nuclear disaster was more of a motivator. The problem is, how do you send a robot into a place designed for people and turn valves, etc., which were meant for human hands. These are not really fully autonomous robots as per the terminator, but more or less remotely operated. The article has a number of rather comical videos which demonstrate how far we are from having something which can climb a ladder into a reactor and shut it down. Nevertheless, it is worth noting similar DARPA challenges regarding Autonomous Vehicles, with similar results, were being held not that long ago.

“The DARPA Robotics Challenge is over. It will certainly be remembered as one of the defining robotics competitions of the decade—full of drama, hardship, and inspiration. We brought you as much of it as we could, including a detailed look at the winning robot, a fun compilation of robots falling, and our impressions of the first day of the competition. And we still have a lot more to come! But for now, to cap it all off, here are things that stood out to us about the final day of the DRC Finals, and a hint of what to look forward to in the future.”

http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/darpa-robotics-challenge-amazing-moments-lessons-learned-whats-next

6) Who Will Own the Robots?

This is a lengthy and somewhat meandering article which looks at the potential impact of automation on the job market. As is typical with such things, the author implies that the current wave of automation (i.e. “robots”) is somehow different from prior waves. It is not. The emergence of novel technologies always takes work away from some while providing work to others. We no longer have keypunch operators and weaving is mostly a craft rather than an occupation. This tends to impact older workers who may find their expertise is no longer required, however, younger workers still have the time to retrain. As always, the least skilled and least educated, get the short end of the still. This is not exactly new.

“Many economists see little convincing evidence that advances in technology will be responsible for a net decrease in the number of jobs, or that what we’re undergoing is any different from earlier transitions when technology destroyed some jobs but improved employment opportunities over time. Still, over the last several years, a number of books and articles have argued that the recent advances in artificial intelligence and automation are inherently different from past technological breakthroughs in what they portend for the future of employment. Martin Ford is one of those who think this time is different. In his new book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Ford points to numerous examples of new technologies, such as driverless cars and 3-D printing, that he thinks will indeed eventually replace most workers. How then will we adapt to this “jobless future”?”

http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/538401/who-will-own-the-robots/

7) The Future of Small Radar Technology

Stories about self driving cars and other autonomous systems often mention in passing the use of radar. Most people’s exposure to radar technology is pretty limited and one tends to associate it with military and avionics applications, which are extremely expensive. Of course, cars don’t need radar capable of spotting fast moving objects hundreds of kilometers away: a few hundred feet is more than enough. It turns out that such radar systems are cheap ($10) and readily available for use by even hobbyists. The thing is that their nature remains exotic, even to many hobbyists.

“A tremendous knowledge gap exists between writing the application and emitting, then detecting, scattered microwave fields and understanding the result. Radar was originally developed by physicists who had a deep understanding of electromagnetics and were interested in the theory of microwave propagation and scattering. They created everything from scratch, from antennas to specialized vacuum tubes. Microwave tube development, for example, required a working knowledge of particle physics. Due to this legacy, radar textbooks are often intensely theoretical. Furthermore, microwave components were very expensive—handmade and gold-plated. Radar was primarily developed by governments and the military, which made high-dollar investments for national security. It’s time we make radar a viable option for DIY projects and consumer devices by developing low-cost, easy-to-use, capable technology and bridging the knowledge gap! Today you can buy small radar sensors for less than $10. Couple this with learning practical radar processing methods, and you can solve a critical sensing problem for your project.”

http://circuitcellar.com/tech-the-future/the-future-of-small-radar-technology/

8) A Robotic Dog’s Mortality

This is a rather strange story (watch the video, skip the article which is a summary of the video) which looks at the strange attachment some Japanese have to their “robot dogs”. Alas, like real dogs, robot dogs eventually go live on a farm in the country now that Sony has stopped fixing them. Since the product came out in 1999, it appears the life of a robot dog is roughly the same as the life of a real one but for the intervention of a repair man. These people look genuinely attached to their robots, a sentiment I simply cannot understand. However, there is much about Japanese culture I do not understand.

“Back in 1999, Sony released a robotic dog called Aibo, a canine companion that didn’t crap everywhere and only ate electricity. It sold pretty well — 150,000 units, despite the $2,000 price tag. Some owners became remarkably attached, which makes it even more sad that Sony has stopped repairing Aibo. Slowly but surely, they’re all dying. The New York Times has recorded the plight of current-day Aibo owners in a completely heartbreaking video. They interviewed a series of owners, whose Aibos are a central part of their lives, but are slowly having to come to the fact that their dogs have a life expectancy.”

http://gizmodo.com/sonys-robotic-dogs-are-dying-a-slow-and-heartbreaking-d-1712160637

You really want to watch the video instead of looking at the article.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/18/technology/robotica-sony-aibo-robotic-dog-mortality.html?_r=0

9) Miniature Heart Sensor Keeps Heart Failure Patients Out of the Hospital

Unfortunately, this article is pretty lean on what CardioMEMS actually is, but that information can be found here www.sjm.com/cardiomems, and, in particular the video here http://videos.sjm.com/health/hfa/CMEMS_Patient_VIDEO_FINAL_5292014_US-2000187AEN.mp4. Essentially the gizmo is a pressure sensor which is installed in the pulmonary artery using a catheter. Once it is installed pressure measurements can be made by the patient at home and the data logged and analyzed, allowing early intervention. I think it is a good example of how implantable electronics system can make a big difference to the practice of medicine.

“Cardiologists at The Mount Sinai Hospital have begun implanting tiny, state-of-the-art microchip sensors in patients with advanced heart failure to better monitor symptoms and reduce their chances of returning to the hospital. The implantable sensor, called the CardioMEMS™ HF System, developed by St. Jude Medical, is a battery-less, dime-sized device placed directly inside the heart to monitor its pulmonary artery. Implanted through a minimally invasive procedure, the sensor detects increases in pulmonary artery pressure, an early sign of worsening heart failure that can be detected before symptoms arise. Among the symptoms of advanced heart failure is shortness of breath, the kind of frightening experience that sends people racing to emergency rooms.”

http://www.mountsinai.org/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/miniature-heart-sensor-keeps-heart-failure-patients-out-of-the-hospital

10) New UW app can detect sleep apnea events via smartphone

This is another example of technology being applied to medicine. Sleep Apnea is a serious condition where you stop breathing during sleep. This places stress on the body’s systems and result in poor sleep, leading to industrial accidents, car accidents, etc.. Chances are if you’ve heard of a middle aged person falling asleep on the job, sleep apnea is to blame. Unfortunately, diagnosis requires a visit to a sleep lab, which is inconvenient and expensive for the medical system. This app seems to allow diagnosis (or, at least, triage) for next to no cost. Of course, treatment with a CPAP machine requires titration (adjusting the machine) which would require a visit to the sleep lab, but inexpensive diagnosis is bound to increase the number of people being treated

“Determining whether your snoring is merely annoying, or crosses the threshold into a life-threatening problem, isn’t convenient or cheap. The gold standard for diagnosing sleep apnea — a disease which affects roughly 1 in 13 Americans — requires an overnight hospital stay and costs thousands of dollars. The patient sleeps in a strange bed, gets hooked up to a tangle of wires and undergoes an intensive polysomnography test to count how many times a night he or she struggles to breathe. By contrast, a new app developed at the University of Washington uses a smartphone to wirelessly test for sleep apnea events in a person’s own bedroom. Unlike other home sleep apnea tests in use today, ApneaApp uses inaudible sound waves emanating from the phone’s speakers to track breathing patterns without needing special equipment or sensors attached to the body. In a clinical study that will be presented at the MobiSys 2015 conference in May, ApneaApp captured sleep apnea events as accurately as a hospital polysomnography test 98 percent of the time.”

http://www.washington.edu/news/2015/04/27/new-uw-app-can-detect-sleep-apnea-events-via-smartphone/

11) Professors experiment with handheld DNA sequencer

Not long ago sequencing a single gene was 10 years of work for a group of researchers. DNA PCR and automated sequencing have changed things so entire genomes can be sequenced is fairly short order. The equipment remains expensive and bulky which limits its use by doctors and researchers. This project has led to a somewhat rudimentary handheld DNA sequencer which produces remarkable results. In the no so distant future, the technology will result in small, affordable units in every doctor’s office, allowing for inexpensive diagnosis of infections.

“In February, when snowfall closed campus and kept her away from the lab, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who was stuck at home did the kind of work typically reserved for scientists with ample lab space, large machines and a lot of funding. Bonnie Brown, Ph.D., associate chair of the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, plugged a small device into her laptop and sequenced the DNA derived from James River water samples. “From a bucket of water, I can tell what organisms were there, whether it’s frogs, fish or pathogenic microbes,” said Brown, who studies at-risk populations, invasive species and disease-causing organisms in the James River. “And this little device is going to revolutionize sequencing and change the way we collect data.””

http://phys.org/news/2015-06-professors-handheld-dna-sequencer.html#inlRlv

12) Amazon says its 30 minute drone delivery service will be ready in a year – if FAA changes it rules on flights

Flying a drone from one place to another isn’t exactly rocket science: hobbyists are building machines that do that every day. The question is whether the FAA (or any other safety body) is willing to let Amazon, and by extension anybody else who wants to, fill the skies with machines large enough to do damage when they fail, as they surely will. One can the benefit of drones in certain applications, however, there are also significant risks to life and property, especially if the number of machines rises. The use of drones in rescue or police work may be an acceptable tradeoff – 15 minute delivery of “50 Shades of Grey” not so much.

“Amazon told Congress its plan to use drones to deliver packages in 30 minutes or less will be ready in a year. However, it warned that FAA regulations needed to change before the service can launch. When government regulations catch up with emerging technologies, ‘it could revolutionize the way people shop for items they need quickly,’ said Paul E. Misener, vice president of global public policy for Amazon.com.”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3128822/Amazon-says-30-minute-drone-delivery-service-ready-year-FAA-changes-rules-flights.html

13) Amazon considering paying people to deliver packages: WSJ

Frankly this make a lot more sense than threatening to deliver stuff with drones. Essentially the model sounds like Uber for delivery: people with time on their hands and transportation can earn money by delivering stuff. Of course, considerable vetting of couriers would be required or a lot of stuff would end up being lost or stolen. Nonetheless, logistical systems have probably developed to the point where the result would not be that dissimilar from UPS. One can imagine that payment would be in piecework (per parcel kilometer) and probably not that high. If the idea catches on, it could possibly be more broadly applied to delivery of practically anything.

“Amazon Inc is developing a mobile application that would pay ordinary people, rather than courier companies, to deliver packages en route to other destinations, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday. Amazon would enlist brick-and-mortar retailers in urban areas to store the packages, likely renting space from them or paying a per-package fee, the Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter. The company’s timing for the service, known internally as “On My Way”, could not be learned, the Journal reported. The service could give Amazon more control over the shopping experience and help limit shipping costs, the report added.”

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/16/us-amazon-com-delivery-idUSKBN0OW24120150616

14) Google Glass for the Shop Floor

Google Glass seemed to be designed to have mass market appeal, something I correctly gauged to be unrealistic. People are people and they have limited capacity to process information and that sets aside the question of whether they even want that information. This is not to say the product is entirely useless: like VR headsets (which will probably find application in entertainment and training) Google Glass and things like can find applications on the shop floor in a variety of applications. I often disassemble parts of a car with a laptop version of the shop manual beside me: it would be a lot easier if I had the same information in my field of vision. I can’t say that bar code scanning would be my first choice of application from a cost benefit perspective but they seem to think so.

“Not long after a Google Glass prototype appeared on the face of Sergey Brin more than three years ago, the technology that has never been nearly as prevalent as Google probably wished started to be mocked, lampooned and dismissed by the general public. TechCrunch described its early “explorers” as “glassholes,” a writer for The New Yorker was told he looked like he had a nervous tic and a lazy eye while wearing a pair, “The Simpsons” and “The Daily Show” railed against its invasiveness, and The New York Times wondered earlier this year what went wrong after Google temporarily appeared to have shuttered the product. None of that matters, though, on the Fisher Dynamics shop floors in St. Clair Shores, Mich. Critics have panned Glass for more popular and wider use, but in certain settings – like the medical and manufacturing industries – it still has tremendous potential. At Fisher, which manufactures engineered seating systems and mechanisms about 20 miles northeast of downtown Detroit, a number of employees recently started to wear Glass in an effort to operate more efficiently and, perhaps in the near future, more safely, too.”

http://www.industryweek.com/cloud-computing/google-glass-shop-floor

15) 82% of Viewers Want A La Carte Pay TV Options: Digitalsmiths

I don’t watch sports, but I am told that it is a major driver in the broadcast space, and, in particular, with respect to cable TV. The very nature of the cable TV distribution model is to present a “lowest common denominator” offering which bundles channels in such a way that people who never watch something like ESPN end up paying for it. So consumer pay for 100 channels and only watch perhaps 10, most of them very occasionally. The rise of streaming has enabled consumers to pull the plug on cable and stream the content they would otherwise pay the cable company for or to simply do without. Streaming is also asynchronous, meaning you can watch what you want when you want to watch it. “A La Carte” would likely devastate cable company earnings, so they would rather a slow death as it is better for management bonuses. I am rather surprised that Discovery and History were top picks, but garbage sells: where else are you going to “learn” about Ancient Aliens or Megasharks?

“With online TV packages such as Sling TV growing in popularity, video metadata specialist Digitalsmiths decided to examine the area of smaller pay TV bundles in its Q1 2015 Video Trends Report. Of those surveyed, 81.6 percent showed interest in à la carte services. Given a list of 75 popular cable channels and asked to create an ideal lineup, respondents chose an average of 17 channels. The average price they would pay for such a plan is $38. The most popular channels in this hypothetical service were ABC, Discovery channel, CBS, NBC, and the History Channel. The report presents a full ranking of the channels, pointing out that ESPN came in 20th.”

http://www.streamingmedia.com/Articles/News/Online-Video-News/82-of-Viewers-Want-A-La-Carte-Pay-TV-Options-Digitalsmiths-104639.aspx

16) Remote Mass. towns welcome broadband’s arrival

A number of months ago we carried an item about UK farmers who had deployed fiber Internet to their respective properties. One thing about farmers is they own the land and can usually do what they want, plus they often have the equipment to do their own excavating. Things are a bit more complicated when dealing with towns. Massachusetts appears to have the sort of enlightened government (at least with respect to Internet service) which is willing to use its resources to extend broadband to “remote areas. This cost is typically not that high, as the article shows.

“By the end of this month, Leverett will have linked every home in town to broadband. Nearby communities are not far behind in bringing broadband to their residents; they see high-speed Internet as an economic boon akin to rural electrification in the 1930s, one that could bring higher home values, better business climates, and easier access to the modern economy. These new connections are the culmination of an eight-year, $90 million effort by the state to build a “backbone” of fiber-optic data transmission lines across Western Massachusetts. The network, financed with state and federal stimulus money, will extend broadband to 45 isolated towns where 40 percent of homes have no Internet access and the rest are relegated to dial-up, DSL, and satellite connections operating at a fraction of speeds available in Eastern Massachusetts.”

http://www.betaboston.com/news/2015/06/13/remote-mass-towns-welcome-broadbands-arrival/

17) How Facebook is eating the $140 billion hardware market

I hate carrying BusinessInsider articles but, despite the source, this is a reasonable summary of the Open Compute Project to date. Essentially most of the innards of a data center have become commodities and various contributors, most notably Facebook, have opened the designs which allows anybody to build the systems, including erstwhile contract manufacturers which offer off the shelf versions. Just as Linux is the software which power the Internet, and the most popular operating system (albeit as Android) there is a good chance data center hardware will become Open Compute based. Needless to say this is not good news if you are in the business of supplying hardware for data centers (i.e. Cisco and others) but it is the way these things play out.

“It started out as a controversial idea inside Facebook. In four short years, it has turned the $141 billion data-center computer-hardware industry on its head. Facebook’s extraordinary Open Compute Project is doing for hardware what Linux, Android, and many other popular products did for software: making it free and “open source.” That means that anyone can look at, use, or modify the designs of the hugely expensive computers that big companies use to run their operations — all for free. Contract manufacturers are standing by to build custom designs and to build, in bulk, standard designs agreed upon by the group. In software, open source has been revolutionary and disruptive. That movement created Linux, which is the software running most data centers around the world, and Android, the most popular smartphone platform in the world. Along the way, massively powerful companies like Microsoft, Nokia, and Blackberry were disrupted —some to the brink of extinction. OCP threatens to do the same to decades-old hardware companies like Cisco.”

http://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-open-compute-project-history-2015-6

18) Apple Revokes Monster’s Authority to Make Licensed Accessories

Its really hard to know who to cheer for here: Apple, a large company known for running roughshod over others’ intellectual property while at the same time using the patent system to crush competition, or Monster, a company which produces moderate quality gear and uses marketing to convince rubes to vastly overpay for it. One has to assume Monster was smart enough to evaluate the risk of the loss of its Apple license when it decided to sue Beats but you never never know.

“Audio-equipment maker Monster LLC is finding out the hard way what happens when you cross Apple Inc. Monster said Apple revoked its authority to make licensed accessories for Apple devices after Monster and its chief executive sued Beats Electronics LLC in January. Monster said the move was retribution for the lawsuit against Beats, which Apple acquired last year for $3.2 billion. Monster had been making licensed accessories, including Lightning charging cables and headphones, for Apple devices under Apple’s MFi program since 2005. Short for “Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad,” MFi gives third-party manufacturers components, technical support and a certification logo to ensure that those accessories will work with Apple products. Some of Monster’s accessories were sold in Apple’s retail stores.”

http://www.wsj.com/article_email/apple-revokes-monsters-authority-to-make-licensed-accessories-1434481512-lMyQjAxMTA1MzE3NjcxNjYwWj

19) The secret alliance that could give the Web a massive speed boost

It sounds pretty conspiratorial, but this is simply an effort to modernize client side web browser script software, currently dominated by Javascript, which I did not realize was not the same thing as Java until I looked it up. The idea is to move to the WebAssembly platform to replace a 20 year old approach. The interesting thing is that it appears various browser developers are actually collaborating on the project rather than pushing their own agenda. This, and the fact the browsers themselves will be the early adopters suggests this will be deployed rather quickly.

“An unlikely partnership between rivals may be the key to a much faster experience on the Internet. After working behind closed doors for months, browser engineers on Wednesday unveiled a project called WebAssembly. The effort, now taking place in public, aims to marry the unbeatable reach of the Web with the speed of software written to run natively on operating systems like Apple’s iOS, Microsoft’s Windows and Google’s Android. WebAssembly could potentially rebuild the foundations of the computing industry and is the result of the unification of two groups — one from Mozilla’s Firefox team and supported by Microsoft, the other from Google’s Chrome team — that were previously deadlocked on opposite sides of a sometimes fractious debate. The result: an ability to browse the Web much faster, as well as a smoother experience when loading Web apps like Google Photos. The unification might sound like an arcane matter only coders need care about, but it could prove important to everyone. WebAssembly — wasm for short — is designed to give developers a high-performance alternative to JavaScript, the programming language of today’s Web. By joining forces, programmers can be confident that wasm has a mainstream future. They could write browser-based versions of a new class of software for things like performance-intensive gaming, video editing and virtual reality exploration.”

http://www.cnet.com/news/the-secret-alliance-that-could-give-the-web-a-massive-speed-boost/

20) Ex-Googler wants to disable ad-blocking software

Big fleas have little fleas, it seems. Advertisers saturate web content with as many annoying and bandwidth hogging ads as they can and, increasingly, users are adopting adblock technology to hide those ads. Now we have an attempt to frustrate adblock software. Note that there doesn’t seem to be an effort to pull back on the noise generated by advertisers. This may or may not work, but as the article suggests, somebody will doubtless find a workaround which will block the adblock blocker.

“A technology war is brewing between those who want to block internet advertising and those who want to stop their software working. CEO and co-founder is Ben Barokas has founded a company called Sourcepoint which launched yesterday with $10 million in Series A investment funding. Barokas wants to help publishers by providing them with technology to punch through “all the ad blockers”. He said that it was important that publishers have a more open dialogue with readers about the transaction that takes place when they consume content. He said that publishers serve ads in exchange for content being presented for free. And that a transaction needs to take place in the first place because content requires investment.”

http://channeleye.co.uk/ex-googler-wants-to-disable-ad-blocking-software/

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 12th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 12th 2015

Hello,

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.

Brian Piccioni

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1) NTSB calls for collision prevention systems on all light vehicles

Automatic braking is a safety feature which is exactly as it sounds: it hits the brakes when a car is likely to hit an object directly ahead. Current editions only look ahead and do not “anticipate” possible collisions at intersections, however, even so, some braking will reduce the severity of any collision. Toyota recently announced it would roll out the technology as a low cost option across its product line and it is just a matter of time before the technology becomes standard equipment like seat belts. The impact on safety will be more pronounced as more of the fleet has the feature, so the faster it is rolled out the better. Making auto braking a required safety feature would obviously speed up this process. It might make sense to do it first on commercial vehicles since these are already quite expensive and very heavy, making collisions even more deadly.

“U.S. safety officials called on automakers to begin installing collision avoidance systems in all new passenger and commercial vehicles, saying existing technology could save lives and avoid injuries by reducing rear-end collisions. The National Transportation Safety Board said in a 63-page report on Monday that rear-end crashes kill about 1,700 people and injure half a million annually. It said more than 80 percent of the human toll could be mitigated if vehicles were equipped with collision avoidance systems. Collision avoidance systems use radar, lasers or cameras to detect potential crash situations and either warn the driver or apply the brakes automatically. NTSB, whose recommendations are not binding, wants the technology included as a standard feature in new cars, trucks and buses, and criticized federal auto regulators for taking “slow or insufficient action” to require the innovation.”

http://www.autonews.com/article/20150608/OEM11/150609874/ntsb-calls-for-collision-prevention-systems-on-all-light-vehicles

2) How Canada’s oilsands are paving the way for driverless trucks — and the threat of big layoffs

Fully autonomous vehicles are probably another 20 years away, though that might be earlier in the case of transport trucks. As this article suggests, use of automated trucks might be commonplace even sooner on mine sites. Some mines are already using the technology and one can immediately see the benefits in terms of cost and safety. Mining vehicles operate in a carefully controlled environment and there is little chance a malfunction could kill or injure somebody, at least compared to the public roads). Not only that, but a sizable number of vehicles could be overseen by a small number of operators in a centralized location, which might be located off site or even in a low labor cost area. Eventually, most mine equipment will likely be robotic.

“Suncor Energy Inc., Canada’s largest oil company, confirmed this week it has entered into a five-year agreement with Komatsu Ltd., the Japanese manufacturer of earthmoving and construction machines, to purchase new heavy haulers for its mining operations north of Fort McMurray. All the new trucks will be “autonomous-ready,” meaning they are capable of operating without a driver, Suncor spokesperson Sneh Seetal said.”

http://business.financialpost.com/news/energy/how-canadas-oilsands-are-paving-the-way-for-driverless-trucks-and-the-threat-of-big-layoffs

3) Internet nightmare: AT&T sells DSL to your neighbors, but not to you

I recall having a conversation with a tech entrepreneur who had come from the UK in the 1970s. He explained that, at that time, having a telephone installed in place of business could take up to a year, a situation he blamed on British Telecom. I have heard similar horror stories about Europe prior to deregulation. It is therefore ironic that deregulation appears to have done the opposite in North America where telecommunications infrastructure has gone from world leading to am embarrassment. Of course, telecom is, actually, regulated in Europe, which is far ahead of North America is most related metrics, whereas it is unfettered here, leading to stories such as this. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“Mark Lewis and his wife bought a house in Winterville, Georgia, in August 2012. They figured getting Internet service would be as simple as calling up AT&T, because the prior owners had AT&T DSL (Digital Subscriber Line). The neighbors also have AT&T DSL service providing about 3Mbps. “The previous owners had left their DSL modem and everything in the house,” Lewis told Ars. But when he called AT&T, the company said they were “at maximum capacity, but if someone else in your neighborhood terminates their service that should open up something for you.” In October 2013, two of Lewis’ neighbors moved out, and he called AT&T to see if that opened up a spot for him. The answer was no. It continues to be no.”

http://arstechnica.com/business/2015/06/internet-nightmare-att-sells-broadband-to-your-neighbors-but-not-to-you/

4) Internet by Satellite Is a Space Race With No Winners

Bad ideas never die, they just get recycled. Current satellite broadband uses geostationary satellites in an orbit around 26,000 miles up. Because they are 22,200 miles up, a “ping” to a server takes at least 4*22,200/186,000 seconds or about 500 milliseconds plus whatever other delays there are. The thing with a geostationary satellite is that a single satellite can cover a vast area (i.e. North America). If you bring the satellites closer they move faster relative to the ground but you need more of them. Lots more. Hundreds or thousands more. But here’s the thing: a geostationary satellite can be pointed at an area where there is a financial case to be made rather than, say the Atlantic or Pacific oceans, deserts, and so on. This is not an option for lower orbit Internet satellites which have to blanket the planet in order to function. Long story short, this technology requires an investment equal to providing Internet service for the entire planet while targeting a tiny portion of the land mass and population. Not only that, but by the time the constellation gets launched (in the unlikely event that happens) wired and terrestrial wireless will have been deployed to serve those areas anyway.

“Satellite internet has been around for years, but extreme latency—the gap in time between the satellite receiving a request and responding—is a problem, making it impractical for real-time or near real-time applications such as online games or teleconferencing tools like Skype. Both Musk and Wyler plan to eliminate that latency by placing their satellites in what’s called low Earth orbit, which ranges from roughly 100 to 1,250 miles above Earth. By bringing their satellites closer to home than other satellites, SpaceX and OneWeb could cut latency from 500 milliseconds to 20 milliseconds, which is about what you’d expect from a fiber optic home internet connection in the US.”

http://www.wired.com/2015/06/elon-musk-space-x-satellite-internet/

5) Tesla May Not Pursue Battery Swap Tech Due to Unpopularity

Of course battery swaps are unpopular: its a fundamentally stupid idea only intended to game California’s Electric Vehicle subsidy program which set goals for fast charging and range and which are not attainable using current or even expected battery technologies. Tesla’s response was carefully crafted to keep the money coming in while limiting the financial damage to the company since battery swaps would expose the true costs of batteries. The real question is what happens to the subsidies: “fast fueling” grosses up “Zero Emissions Vehicle” credits significantly, and that is only possible with a battery swap. Since subsidies are pretty much Tesla’s business, no doubt lobbyists are moving into overdrive to redefine the rules to keep taxpayers’ money flowing.

“Driving long distances in an electric car once seemed like a dream from the distant future, but Tesla’s Supercharger network makes driving cross-country not only possible, but pretty darn convenient, too. The fast-charging system may be too good, in fact, as it’s making another Tesla innovation obsolete: the battery swap station. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said at the company’s annual shareholder meeting that it’s unlikely the battery swap capability will be further expanded. “It’s just, people don’t care about pack swap,” Musk explained to shareholders at the meeting. “The Superchargers are fast enough that if you’re driving from L.A. to San Francisco, and you start a trip at 9 AM, by the time you get to, say, noon, you want to stop, and you want to stretch your legs, hit the restroom, grab a bite to eat, grab a coffee, and be on your way, and by that time, the car is charged and ready to go, and it’s free. So, it’s like, why would you do the pack swap? It doesn’t make much sense.””

http://wot.motortrend.com/1506_tesla_may_not_pursue_battery_swap_tech_due_to_unpopularity.html

6) Tesla doubles the power output of the Powerwall without changing the price

Good news! Now you can run your refrigerator and make a cup of tea at the same time. For an hour or two. I am somewhat curious by the juxtaposition of “38,000 reservations” (which required no commitment on behalf of the buyer) and a “mixed” overall reaction. Setting aside the still questionable utility and high price of the device, given the proclivity of Lithium Ion batteries to burn with extreme vigor, there is no way I would keep a large one in my house.

“Musk admitted that even though the demand for the Powerwall has been overwhelming with over 38,000 reservations in just one week, the overall reaction was mixed. The biggest complaint was the steady output of only 2KW which isn’t really enough for an average household. They listened to the complaints and adjusted the offering to a now impressive 5KW.”

http://electrek.co/2015/06/09/tesla-doubles-the-power-output-of-the-powerwall-without-changing-the-price/

7) Retailers Cite ‘Insufficient Customer Demand’ as Biggest Reason for Not Supporting Apple Pay

Apple Pay only works with a small number of iPhone models, and iPhones represent a minority of the smartphone market, and only a subset of iPhone users would be inclined to use Apple Pay so it is hardly surprising “not even a small percentage” of customers of some retailers have any interest. Presumably the likes of Whole Foods finds a marketing benefit, or, perhaps they have a better class of customer with less riffraff, which explains their adoption. Strategically, it would make a lot more sense for Apple to pay vendors to install and use the terminals to create some pull, rather than trying to get them to install it at there own cost and risk.

“Interviews with retailers suggest that the company has relied on aggressive marketing to recruit participants. “They have been pushing hard and it’s been that way for months,” said the representative of one large retailer that has no plans to accept Apple Pay. “They have called and tried to persuade us even after we communicated our decision to them.” The company hasn’t adopted Apple Pay, he said, because not even a “small percentage” of its customers have asked for it. When searching for a reason why so many companies were against backing the service, “insufficient customer demand” was the biggest reason cited by merchants. This was followed by lack of data access granted through observing customer buying habits, cost of installation, and support of other contactless payments solutions like Current-C. Twenty-eight total retailers noted that lack of data access, and the inability to send customized advertisements to individual users like traditional credit cards allow, is a “key reason” they won’t accept Apple Pay.”

http://www.macrumors.com/2015/06/05/apple-pay-retailers-skeptical/

8) A blow for mobile advertising: The next version of Safari will let users block ads on iPhones and iPads

I figure there must be a tech equivalent of Schrodinger’s Cat whereby no tech trend, no matter how old or well known it is, exists until Apple catches up. After all, Adblock and uBlock (which I use) have been available on Android for some time, and Android represents, by far, the majority of the market. The real opportunity for mobile add blocking is in-app ads since the majority of these appear to be deceptive and/or fraudulent.

“It didn’t get a mention in Apple’s big keynote announcements Monday — which already had plenty of interest to publishers — but deep within Apple’s developer documentation lies perhaps the most important item of all to the news industry. Adblocking is coming to the iPhone with iOS 9. Adblocking — running a piece of software in your web browser that prevents ads on most web pages from loading — has moved from a niche behavior for the nerdy few to something mainstream. A report from 2014 found that adblock usage was up 70 percent year-over-year, with over 140 million people blocking ads worldwide, including 41 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds. You can understand why that would be troubling to the publishers who sell those ads. But until now, adblocking has been limited almost entirely to desktop — mobile browsers haven’t allowed it.”

http://www.niemanlab.org/2015/06/a-blow-for-mobile-advertising-the-next-version-of-safari-will-let-users-block-ads-on-iphones-and-ipads/

9) In TV’s new golden age, consumers are already online. Industry must follow

This is a somewhat superficial article looking as some of the trends in broadcasting as consumers shift from traditional to online viewing. The major points are valid, though I have to confess that citing a Rogers executive lamenting the country’s poor showing (13 out of 16 peers) in tech innovation is rich given that Canada’s telecommunications oligopoly is, to a significant extent, itself responsible for that decline. After all, a country with some of the most expensive mobile costs, ranked 44th and falling in Internet infrastructure, lacks the infrastructure to support tech innovation. Thanks to Nick Tang for this item.

“The global reorganization of the TV business, however, lags behind. Here’s a lesson for Ms. Turcke from print media: Good luck goading customers toward revenue streams from outdated distribution models. I wonder if fear might explain her remark about “stealing” Netflix? Watching its U.S. version (which MBA students freely admit to) seems like a business-to-business game, in which TV consumers have no skin. One of my Ottawa co-panelists, Nina Duque, is about to publish a study suggesting that young Canadians don’t even really know what broadcast channels are. They watch TV online.”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-commentary/in-tvs-new-golden-age-consumers-have-the-gold-we-should-follow-their-lead/article24879478/

10) Cell tower on Deering High roof undergoes tests after fish die in classroom

I had a good chuckle over this item. After all if you are a biology teacher and your fish die, it has to be the cell tower, right? What else could it be? I am sure Portland taxpayers are delighted their tax dollars are being used to see if the diabolical tower is responsible. Its not really true that radio emissions are unlikely to cause cancer, it is a physical fact there is no way they can cause cancer since the packet energy is orders of magnitude too low. Perhaps the fish had heart attacks.

“Responding to some teachers’ concerns about health risks, the Portland School District hired a company to test the level of radio frequency emissions from a cell tower on the roof of Deering High School this week. Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said the teachers’ concerns were the first he’d heard regarding the tower, which has been in place since 2006. He ordered the tests after a biology teacher reported that fish she kept in Room 305 – located right below the tower – kept dying. According to the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute, most scientists agree that emissions from cellphone antennas or towers are unlikely to cause cancer. “To date there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals or humans that radio frequency energy can cause cancer,” the National Cancer Institute says on its website.”

http://www.pressherald.com/2015/06/11/cell-tower-on-deering-high-roof-undergoes-tests-after-fish-die-in-classroom/

11) Snowden revelations costly for US tech firms: study

The Snowden revelations of widespread spying on innocent civilians aided by the enthusiastic collusion of essentially all large US tech companies, caused a fair bit of outrage. The political response has been to let the old Orwellian named Patriot Act die and replace it with the even more Orwellian USA Freedom Act with does substantially the same thing. Something tells me there are no massive layoffs at the NSA. Regardless, US spy laws, to the minimal extent they protect US citizens, have no protection for foreigners. The interesting thing about Snowden was not what the NSA was doing (since this was all pretty much outlined in the text of the Patriot Act) but the fact the US tech industry was vigorously aiding and abetting its efforts. There is no reason to believe they have had a “come to Jesus” moment and governments, business, or individuals, domestic or foreign, should not use that any proprietary system unless they are comfortable with the prospect their data will get into the wrong hands. If it matters, at least make it hard for them.

“US technology companies are getting hit harder than anticipated by revelations about surveillance programs led by the National Security Agency, a study showed Tuesday. The study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington think tank, said the impact would be greater than its estimate nearly two years ago of losses for the cloud computing sector. In 2013, the think tank estimated that US cloud computing firms could lose between $22 billion and $35 billion in overseas business over three years. It now appears impossible to quantify the economic damage because the entire sector has been tarnished by the scandal from revelations in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the report said. “These revelations have fundamentally shaken international trust in US tech companies and hurt US business prospects all over the world,” the report said.”

http://www.france24.com/en/20150609-snowden-revelations-costly-us-tech-firms-study

12) Nexus 5 standby time increases sharply after installing Android M

One of the major annoyances with smartphones is short battery life. A big part of this the fact style, by way of thin devices, has won out over functionality. A slightly thicker phone with an integral protector could have a significantly larger battery in a smaller package than a thin phone with an external protector. Until manufacturers decide to offer such a thing, battery life will continue to be extended to improved software and more power efficient semiconductors. Software can have a significant impact on standby power as these features suggest. More power efficient semiconductors, in particular receiver Digital Signal Processors (DSPs) will have a much greater impact when active.

“Android M is going to have a few interesting and exciting features. One of them is called Doze and is activated when your Android handset is inactive for a period of time. With Doze, the phone goes into a deeper sleep than it currently does and as a result, standby times are more than doubled. Once Doze is disabled (which happens when you pick up the phone), syncs and open tasks which were halted are carried out by the model. Another feature of Android M is App Standby. With this feature, once your phone is unplugged, apps deemed to be inactive are prohibited from receiving network support and any syncs and open jobs are suspended. Once you plug in your phone, the idle apps will regain network connectivity. Android M will most likely offer those who need specific apps to run at all times, the ability to disable the feature on certain apps.”

http://www.phonearena.com/news/Nexus-5-standby-time-increases-sharply-after-installing-Android-M_id70164

13) How graphene could revolutionize the tech industry

This is a superficial summary of some of the applications for graphene. There article notes that cost remains a major factor, although I continue to believe the problem of cost effective manufacture will eventually be solved. I did get a good chuckle at the comments about limited supplies of graphite: any substance priced by the ton (http://northerngraphite.com/graphite-labs/graphite-price/) is not exactly scarce and only an infinitesimal portion of the cost of graphene today is associated with the materials cost.

“Like most good ideas, it all started with a pencil. Derived from the graphite that’s been used to make the lead in your pencil for over 500 years, graphene has been hailed as the miracle material of the twenty-first century. It’s the world’s strongest, thinnest and most conductive material, but what is graphene and why is it so important? Theoretically possible since the 1940s, graphene was discovered and produced by Konstantin Novoselow and Andre Geim at the University of Manchester in 2004. Both scientists won the Nobel Prize in 2010 for their pioneering work, and since then the race has been on to make graphene a commercially viable industrial material. Super-thin, super-strong and super-flexible, the uniquely two-dimensional graphene conducts electricity better than copper and it conducts heat better than any other known material in thermal conductivity. Near-transparent sheets of carbon graphite molecules just one atom in thickness, graphene sheets are described as ‘chicken wire made of carbon atoms’. But what’s it for?”

http://www.techradar.com/us/news/world-of-tech/how-graphene-could-revolutionise-the-tech-industry-1295940

14) Software Is Eating The Job Market

This article looks at some of the issues associated with demand for software developers. I can’t help but wonder if some of the demand is due to the ongoing Internet bubble, which is probably putting upward pressure on wages in places like Silicon Valley. Of course a large number of companies run some form of e-commerce today, and that has created incremental demand for developers of all sorts. One thing of note is that in the current environment, students are being tempted to drop out of college because they can get jobs. Unfortunately, when supply comes into balance with demand as it surely will, those without a degree in the subject will be at a disadvantage. I speak from experience: I had a 13 year design career without a degree and probably would have had a lot of trouble finding work if I hadn’t changed careers.

“In 2011, Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz co-founder Marc Andreessen coined the phrase “software is eating the world” in an article outlining his hypothesis that economic value was increasingly being captured by software-focused businesses disrupting a wide range of industry sectors. Nearly four years later, it is fascinating that around 1 in every 20 open job postings in the U.S. job market relates to software development/engineering. The shortage of software developers is well-documented and increasingly discussed. It has spawned an important national dialogue about economic opportunity and encouraged more young people, women, and underrepresented groups to pursue computing careers – as employers seek individuals skilled in programming languages such as Python, JavaScript, and SQL. Although most of these positions exist at the experienced level, it is no surprise that computer science and engineering are among the top three most-demanded college majors in this spring’s undergraduate employer recruiting season, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.”

http://techcrunch.com/2015/06/09/software-is-eating-the-job-market/

15) Why the Internet of Things isn’t the same as the new hardware movement

Many of us are familiar with rising demand for software expertise (see the above item) but fewer are aware there have been big changes in the world of hardware as well. Until relatively recently, electronics distributors would not sell parts to individuals and many components were almost impossible to get. Design CAD software was expensive, circuit boards cost a fortune to make, enclosures were costly, test and measurement tools cost in the thousands, and so on. Nowadays you can buy almost anything (even radar modules), software is free or very cheap, and test equipment can be bought for less than $100. This, along with the collaborative potential of the Internet, has led to the emergence of the “maker” culture. To date, few “maker” projects have become mainstream commercial successes, but it is probably just a matter of time.

“The Internet of Things (IoT) has been committing a lot of buzzword imperialism lately. It’s a hot term, marching across the technological countryside and looking for rich disciplines to capture. Electronics, manufacturing, and robotics, among others, have all become dominions of the IoT. The result is that the meaning of IoT has broadened to include practically anything that involves 1. technology, and 2. something physical. At the same time, practitioners have been trying to escape the IoT — and its early association with Internet-connected refrigerators — for years. Big enterprises that want to develop serious applications for the Internet of Things have come up with other terms for what they’re doing, like Internet of Everything (Cisco) and Industrial Internet (GE). Let’s put a stop to this and define some boundaries. In my view, the Internet of Things is the result of a much larger and more important movement that’s about making the physical environment accessible in the same way that the Internet has become accessible over the last 20 years. I’ll call this the “new hardware movement.””

http://radar.oreilly.com/2015/06/why-the-internet-of-things-isnt-the-same-as-the-new-hardware-movement.html

16) Injectable electronics holds promise for basic neuroscience, treatment of neuro-degenerative diseases

This is an amazing technological development which promises to significantly improve the study of the brain. Although they seem to have figure our how to make the structure, it is not clear from the article whether they have been able to apply it practically. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this article.

“A team of international researchers, led by Lieber, the Mark Hyman, Jr. Professor of Chemistry, an international team of researchers developed a method for fabricating nano-scale electronic scaffolds that can be injected via syringe. Once connected to electronic devices, the scaffolds can be used to monitor neural activity, stimulate tissues and even promote regenerations of neurons. The study is described in a June 8 paper in Nature Nanotechnology.”

http://phys.org/news/2015-06-electronics-basic-neuroscience-treatment-neuro-degenerative.html

17) Artificial leg allows patient to feel

It is pretty obvious that the sense of touch would be an important feature of an artificial hand, however, feedback is equally important for a leg or foot. Having a sense for how the surface “feels” even through shoes can make a big difference. Apparently, having some nerve stimulation also helps eliminate phantom limb pain, which can be a major problem for amputees. No doubt the rudimentary sensors in this system will be further enhanced as the technology develops.

“Scientists in Austria have created an artificial leg which allows the amputee to feel lifelike sensations from their foot. The recipient, Wolfang Rangger, who lost his right leg in 2007, said: “It feels like I have a foot again. It’s like a second lease of life.” Prof Hubert Egger of the University of Linz, said sensors fitted to the sole of the artificial foot, stimulated nerves at the base of the stump. He added it was the first time that a leg amputee had been fitted with a sensory-enhanced prosthesis. Surgeons first rewired nerve endings in the patient’s stump to place them close to the skin surface. Six sensors were fitted to the base of the foot, to measure the pressure of heel, toe and foot movement.”

http://www.itsmypart.com/artificial-leg-allows-patient-to-feel/

18) Scientists show future events decide what happens in the past

Quantum physics is fun for no other reason that you can use it to impress people (or fleece them if you are in the self help business). Of course I don’t know enough to say whether or not the researchers interpretations of the results make sense within the context of quantum physics, but the results are pretty interesting nevertheless.

“… They expected the atom to behave just like light, meaning that it would take on both the form of a particle and/or a wave. This time they fired the atoms at two grate-like forms created by lasers, although the effect was similar to a solid grate. However, the second grate was only put in place after the atom had passed through the first one. And the second grate wasn’t applied each time, only randomly, to see how the particles reacted differently. What they found was that, when there were two grates in place, the atom passed through it on many paths in a wave form, but, when the second grate was removed, it behaved like a particle and took only one path through. So, what form it would take after passing through the first grate depended on whether the second grate was put in place afterward. Therefore, whether it continued as a particle or changed into a wave wasn’t decided until a future event had already taken place.”

http://www.digitaljournal.com/science/experiment-shows-future-events-decide-what-happens-in-the-past/article/434829

19) Tiny Robotic Tentacles Can Lasso an Ant

It is probably a bit of a misnomer to call these robotic tentacles since they are just a cleverly designed micro-grasper. Presumably the device can be affixed to some form of remote control which would allow the gentle manipulation of tiny objects. I suspect this is much more useful in a research environment and has limited practical application unless you are an ant wrangler.

“With a diameter just twice that of a human hair, these looks more like short snips of fishing line than advanced robotic appendages. But these micro-tentacles can curl and grip. They can lasso an ant or scoping up a tiny fish egg. And they could give a robot of any size an astonishingly gentle but precise grasp. A team of three material scientists at Iowa State University have just invented this new way for robots to softly handle delicate and diminutive objects.”

http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/a15991/tiny-robotic-tentacles-can-lasso-an-ant

20) Your Wireless Internet Could Power Your Future Devices

Ah, the allure of “free” wireless electricity from radio waves. A curious fact about radio is that, with few exceptions, transmitters don’t put out much power and, since power falls off at roughly the square of the distance from the source, a receiver any distance away doesn’t see much of that power. Not only that but the device you are charging represents a load a few orders of magnitude greater than a typical Wi-Fi device, so you are essentially draining power other devices might use to, for example, communicate. It would be interesting if they had compared this system to say, a system using a small solar cell.

“Wi-Fi allows us to connect to the Internet by transmitting data through the air itself, but what if it could be used to power our devices wirelessly as well? Scientists at the University of Washington are currently working to make it happen. PoWiFi, short for power over Wi-Fi, tricks routers into sending out a constant signal that’s captured and converted into DC power by a harvester. Wi-Fi already transmits a small amount of power to carry data, up to 1 watt by FCC guidelines, compared to the 5 watt output of a typical Android or iPhone charger. This technology captures that power that’s already being sent, and puts it to work.”

http://www.popsci.com/your-wireless-internet-could-power-your-future-devices

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 5th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 5th 2015

Hello,

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.

Brian Piccioni

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1) HP Destroys a Dream Computer to Save It

This is extremely disappointing news. The “Machine” was intended as a demonstration platform for memristor memory, a novel technology which has the speed and durability of DRAM but is non-volatile. Memristor memory would be ideal for a computer architecture with a single memory map as there would be no slow “disk drive” for non-volatile storage. It has always been possible to create DRAM based single memory map computer, but without the right memory technology (i.e. memristors) there was no reason to do so. Clearly, HP has realized it will not meet its memristor commercial production targets and is now putting lipstick on the pig. Unless they can produce the devices in a relatively short time frame the very considerable cost of the development of the Machine will have been entirely wasted. My major concern is for the development of commercial memristor memories, which I remain hopeful will eventually occur – after all, memristors were only discovered in 2008.

“On Tuesday, however, Martin Fink, HP’s chief technology officer, repositioned the Machine as a “memory-driven computer architecture,” which focuses on the large amounts of data stored, rather than the processing power. Memristors were barely in sight. A prototype of the new computer could be out next year, Mr. Fink said, based on more conventional DRAM memory. Instead of a special-purpose computer operating system, he said, the Machine will initially have a version of the popular Linux system. The major reason for the change is that HP has no idea when, exactly, it will be able to produce memristors in commercial quantities. “We way over-associated this with the memristor,” Mr. Fink said in an interview. “We’re doing what we can to keep it working within existing technology.””

http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/06/03/hp-destroys-a-dream-computer-to-save-it/?_r=1

2) World’s first biolimb: Rat forelimb grown in the lab

This is really the stuff of science fiction movies, but it shows how far lab grown body parts have come. Essentially, what the scientists have done is created a scaffold from a donor limb and grown a new one on that scaffold. It looks like a limb, and the muscles work, but, based on the article it still lacks bones and other cell types, including, probably most importantly, nerves. So as much progress as this represents, the difficult bits remain.

“IT MIGHT look like an amputated rat forelimb, but the photo above is of something much more exciting: the limb has been grown in the lab from living cells. It may go down in history as the first step to creating real, biologically functional limbs for amputees. “We’re focusing on the forearm and hand to use it as a model system and proof of principle,” says Harald Ott of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who grew the limb. “But the techniques would apply equally to legs, arms and other extremities.””

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22630243.300-worlds-first-biolimb-rat-forelimb-grown-in-the-lab.html

3) Driverless taxis to become a major form of transport ‘in 10 years’

I chuckled when I read the headline because I thought it was an impossible goal given the state of the art. However, as the article explains, these are low speed (30 km/hr) vehicles, not typical automobiles, and that probably makes the goal a lot more achievable. Urban traffic tends to move at a crawl and managing these low speeds robotically is much more manageable than even 60 km/hr, especially if infrastructure improvements are made to simplify the problem.

“People in cities will shift from using private transport to using self-driving public taxis, as fleets of shared, low-speed electric cars are introduced over the next decade, according to European researchers working on the future of automated transport. By contrast, travel in rural areas and for long journeys will continue to rely on private cars, although these will become more and more automated to increase safety and comfort. Dr Michel Parent, an advanced road transport expert at INRIA, the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation, has been working on various EU-funded projects since the 90s to develop self-driving cars that would operate in city centres. He says that fleets of on-demand driverless vehicles that pick people up from their homes and connect them with mass public transport networks could be operational within a decade.”

http://horizon-magazine.eu/article/driverless-taxis-become-major-form-transport-10-years_en.html

4) Patent Act Clears Senate Committee With Compromises Aimed at PTAB

There have been a number of attempts at patent litigation reform over the past decade, so it is hard to know how far this one will get. I figure the key feature is “loser pays” which would raise the pain threshold for troll patent lawsuits considerably. Of course, not all patent litigation, even those started by Non Practicing Entities (NPEs) are “trolls”, however, there is a lot of patent trolling which goes on. True patent trolls are law offices who essentially shake down all manner of businesses (for example, those who use WiFi) figuring they can extort settlements due to the low risk that, even if their cases are thrown out of course their only cost is time whereas the business owner has to pay for a costly defense.

“Tech companies got one step closer to patent reform Wednesday as a Senate committee voted overwhelmingly to approve legislation that includes fee-shifting, heightened pleading requirements and limits on demand letters. But the 16-4 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee came with a price: tweaks to the postgrant review process before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB)—a reform that’s proven effective the last few years. An amendment added to the PATENT Act Tuesday night and approved Thursday provides that patents would start inter partes review with a presumption of validity. The amendment also narrows the PTAB’s claim-construction standard to conform with district courts, while allowing patent holders to amend claims and to submit expert testimony earlier in the case.”

http://www.therecorder.com/id=1202728456419/Patent-Act-Clears-Senate-Committee-With-Compromises-Aimed-at-PTAB

5) Tesla Battery Swap Invites Go Out, $80 Per Swap

Tesla is in the business of converting taxpayer’s money into market capitalization, and the gravy train in California requires meeting range targets which are impractical given battery technology. Fortunately, there is a workaround: by allowing a small number of drivers to swap batteries, the subsidies keep flowing. As is frequently the case, the company is being liberal with the facts: $80 may be “slightly less than a full tank of gasoline for a premium sedan”, however, if that sedan is a BMW 760, which has an 80 liter (21.1 USG), a fill up with premium gas is $72 in San Francisco. What is truly interesting is that a doctoral thesis could be written about the economics. If you swap batteries, you are either going to get a newer one, an older one, or, very unlikely, one the same age as the car you drive. Now, batteries are about $30K and if yours is a few years old, if the average swap is a new battery, you can save a pile of money by swapping for $80. On the other hand, unless you know, for a fact, you’ll get a new battery, unless your car is a few years old you want to stay away from a swap. Then there is the impact on the car’s battery warranty, which excludes “wear and tear”.

“It’s been more than six months since Elon Musk announced Tesla’s battery swap pilot station in Harris Ranch, California, though since then there’s been little movement or news on the alternative to Superchargers. Finally though, the first Tesla Model S owners have received their invites to test out the battery swap stations for themselves, though there are some caveats that come with the invite. The invite, which you can read for yourself above, lays out what Model S owners can expect from their first, and subsequent visits to the battery swap station. This includes: A swap time of three to five minutes (though the first swap takes 10 to 15 minutes), The need to schedule an appointment (currently two days ahead of time), Will cost “slightly less than a full tank of gasoline for a premium sedan” (about $80).”

http://gas2.org/2015/06/05/tesla-battery-swap-invites-go-out-80-per-swap/

6) New technology could put an end to drunken driving, officials say

I have little sympathy for drunk drivers and the development of technologies and systems to keep them off the road would be welcomed. I see problems with these types of systems, however: a skin sensor could be easily defeated with a tissue paper and an ambient breathalyzer would probably produce false positives, especially if a designated driver was ferrying about a group of drinkers (not behaviour you want to discourage). The potential liability of the manufacturer if a car let a drunk drive is another matter.

“A technological breakthrough that could virtually eliminate the drunken driving that kills 10,000 Americans each year was announced Thursday by federal officials, who said it could begin appearing in cars in five years. The new equipment won’t require a driver to blow into a tube, like the interlock devices some states require after drunken-driving convictions. Instead, either a passive set of breath sensors or touch-sensitive contact points on a starter button or gear shift would immediately register the level of alcohol in the bloodstream.”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/new-technology-could-put-an-end-to-drunk-driving-federal-officials-say/2015/06/04/1cd31176-0a5b-11e5-9e39-0db921c47b93_story.html

7) SourceForge locked in projects of fleeing users, cashed in on malvertising

You might recall that some time ago we lamented that SourceForge, once a leading repository for open-source software, had become a platform for distributing malware. It is not at all unusual for crowdsourced platforms and software to transition to a profit driven model eventually, but they have to watch their step. Like uTorrent, which was found to be distributing malware along with a recent “upgrade”, if you push a bit too far, things hit the fan. SourceForge’s corporate overlords probably realize that now but the damage has likely been done.

“The takeover of the SourceForge account for the Windows version of the open-source GIMP image editing tool reported by Ars last week is hardly the first case of the once-pioneering software repository attempting to cash in on open-source projects that have gone inactive or have actually attempted to shut down their SourceForge accounts. Over the past few years, SourceForge (launched by VA Linux Systems in 1999 and now owned by the tech job site company previously known as Dice) has made it a business practice to turn abandoned or inactive projects into platforms for distribution of “bundle-ware” installers. Despite promises to avoid deceptive advertisements that trick site visitors into downloading unwanted software and malware onto their computers, these malicious ads are legion on projects that have been taken over by SourceForge’s anonymous editorial staff. SourceForge’s search engine ranking for these projects often makes the site the first link provided to people seeking downloads for code on Google and Bing search results. And because of SourceForge’s policies, it’s nearly impossible for open-source projects to get their code removed from the site. SourceForge is, in essence, the Hotel California of code repositories: you can check your project out any time you want, but you can never leave.”

http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2015/06/sourceforge-locked-in-projects-of-fleeing-users-cashed-in-on-malvertising/

8) Batteriser is a $2.50 gadget that extends disposable battery life by 800 percent

Example #436 of how any discussion of energy results in people’s IQs dropping by 50 points. Yes, it is true that once AA battery’s voltage drops below about 1.35 volts there is a lot more power left in it (see http://www.powerstream.com/AA-tests.htm), depending on a variety of factors. This device, which is a simple (and probably inefficient) step-up voltage converter, called a “joule thief,” keeps that voltage up until the battery is well and truly drained. However, this characteristic of batteries is well known and, in fact, many devices are more than happy to keep functioning until the per cell voltage is as low as it will go. No only that, but if there was a net advantage, device makers would simply incorporate a step-up voltage converter for the few pennies it costs. Nevertheless, like many “energy miracles” it’ll probably sell like hotcakes.

“A completely new alkaline battery is rated to generate 1.5 volts, but once its output drops below 1.35 or even 1.4 volts, it effectively becomes useless to many devices. The battery’s chemical cocktail is still loaded with juice, but the circuitry in many gadgets (especially more sophisticated ones, like Bluetooth keyboards and bathroom scales) considers the battery dead. This is where Batteriser comes in. It’s essentially a voltage booster that sucks every last drop of useable energy from ostensibly spent batteries. So, instead of using just 20 percent of all the power hidden inside of your Duracells and Energizers, Batteriser makes effective use of the remaining 80 percent.”

http://www.pcworld.com/article/2928997/batteriser-is-a-250-gadget-that-extends-disposable-battery-life-by-800-percent.html

9) Bell Media president says using VPNs to skirt copyright rules is stealing

I really don’t know what planet the Bell Media president thinks she’s on, though it is probably the same one where Bell Media management dictates news coverage of regulatory issues as did her predecessor. She did provide the entire Internet with a good laugh at her expense. I have never heard of anybody feeling bad or being criticized for using a VPN to bypass fundamentally stupid rules. In many cases, the alternative is piracy. On the other hand, plenty of people despise Bell and its thus far successful program of crafting government regulations to restrict or eliminate anything which even vaguely looks like competition in its markets. I suspect that without the mountains of laws which exist to protect it Bell would implode as fast as its customers could find options.

“Watching U.S. Netflix in Canada by using location-hiding services such as VPNs is stealing and needs to be more frowned upon, the new president of Bell Media says. At a keynote speech at the Telecom Summit in Toronto on Wednesday, Mary Ann Turcke said Canadians who skirt copyright laws by finding ways of accessing digital content hurt Canadian culture and jobs and need to stop. “It has to become socially unacceptable to admit to another human being that you are VPNing into U.S. Netflix,” she said, “like throwing garbage out your car window — you just don’t do it.””

http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/bell-media-president-says-using-vpns-to-skirt-copyright-rules-is-stealing-1.3099972

10) How mobile internet killed off cyber cafés in Nigeria

Cyber cafes are one way a population can cope with an abysmal telecommunications infrastructure. It is unrealistic to assume wired service will be deployed any time soon in poor countries since it doesn’t even exist in many rich countries, albeit for reasons of inept policy rather than cost. One obvious solution is wireless Internet, and this is what this story is about. Unfortunately it does not provide much in the way of detail, however, it is interesting to note the prices: a sim card for $0.25 and Internet access for $0.16/day. I doubt those are for 4G speeds, however, it does make you wonder.

“Today, almost a decade after their heyday, most cyber cafés have either closed shop or converted to other business interests. Only a negligible few—now shrunken—have weathered the storm. They lost relevance due to bad management, inefficient internet service providers, unreliable power supply, and, perhaps most important of all, mobile internet. In most developed countries cyber cafes were a blip in history as most people soon had relatively satisfactory internet connections in the privacy of their homes. In many Nigerian cities these were much more important as it opened the rest of the world to us in a way that even satellite television was unable to do. But mobile phones—and eventually mobile internet on feature phones–changed that very quickly and killed off most cyber cafés that once dotted many Nigerian cities.”

http://qz.com/412745/how-mobile-internet-killed-off-cyber-cafes-in-nigeria/

11) Microsoft WiFi will offer ‘hassle-free Internet’ to Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Windows Phone users

Microsoft appears to be making an effort to transform itself from clueless laggard to, at very least, topical (though I admit rumors of negotiations to buy Salesforce.com undermine that trajectory). It seems Windows 10 is also due for timely release (see item 20). If done correctly, this leaked initiative could push Microsoft back into the big leagues as they are one of a few companies with the resources to pull this off and WiFi is a hot commodity. We’ll have to see what strings are attached before deciding.

“Microsoft is working on a new service called Microsoft WiFi, details of which leaked today at microsoftwifi.com. While the website has since been pulled, it described the service as offering “hassle-free Internet access around the world” so users can be “productive on the go.” Microsoft WiFi was first spotted by Twitter user h0x0d, the same guy who recently discovered Microsoft Earn. We reached out to Microsoft for more information. “We can confirm that we are working on a new service, called Microsoft WiFi, that will bring hassle-free Wi-Fi to millions,” a Microsoft spokesperson told VentureBeat. “We look forward to sharing additional detail when available.” As most of Microsoft’s initiatives nowadays, the Microsoft WiFi app will be a cross-platform affair. Before it was pulled, we saw Microsoft WiFi app downloads links for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Windows Phone.”

http://venturebeat.com/2015/06/02/microsoft-wifi-will-offer-hassle-free-internet-to-windows-mac-android-ios-and-windows-phone-users/

12) A Bay Area Startup Spins Lab-Grown Silk

A while back there was a fair bit of interest in transgenic goats whose milk produced spider silk proteins. These researchers have taken things a fair bit further by creating yeast which do the same thing. Yeast can easily be grown in vast quantities and do not require milking so this approach probably has greater potential to make more silk for less money. Of course, like any revolutionary advance, getting to market might be a lot more difficult than it appears.

“Spiders are territorial and cannibalistic—try to farm them, and they end up eating each other. But scientists have long believed that if spiders would only cooperate, fabric made from their silk would be well-suited for use in military and medical equipment, like wound sutures or artificial tendons, as well as in high-performance athletic clothing and other garments. Bolt Threads has ditched the live spiders but held on to this goal. The company has developed a synthetic alternative to spider silk by engineering proteins identical to the natural threads stretched across the nooks in your basement. It’s raised $40 million from Silicon Valley venture capital firms Foundation Capital, Formation 8, and Founders Fund to commercialize its technology and turn those proteins into fabric. “Over the past few decades, as clothing companies squeezed on price, they’ve taken the innovation out of apparel,” says Dan Widmaier, a graduate of the UCSF Ph.D. program in chemical biology and Bolt’s chief executive officer.”

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-03/a-bay-area-startup-spins-lab-grown-silk

13) Graphene Coating Could Save Millions in Power Plant Energy Costs

Apparently, a hydrophobic coating on condenser pipe results in drops being formed, rather than a thin coating of water which acts as an insulator and inhibits heat exchange. Plastics could fit the bill but the ones which are not themselves insulators do not last very long in this environment. Graphene is an excellent conductor of heat, hydrophobic, and, apparently durable. Unlike many applications for graphene, this does not require production of the bulk material, which is staggeringly expensive. Copper can be coated with graphene through chemical vapor deposition, a common industrial process so the researchers believe the stuff could be in use within a year. Furthermore, the thickness can be adjusted if durability does turn out to be an issue. A couple percent improvement in efficiency in a power plant is a big deal economically.

“In research published in the journal Nano Letters, the MIT team addressed one of the basic elements of steam-generated electricity: heat transfer in water condensation. In a steam-powered power plant, water is heated up to create steam that turns a turbine. The turning of the turbine produces electricity. In this process, the steam is condensed back into water and the whole process begins again. The MIT team looked at these condensers and found that by layering their surfaces with graphene they can improve the rate of heat transfer by a factor of four. The researchers believe that this graphene surface could improve condenser heat transfer so that an overall power plant efficiency could be improved by as much as 2 to 3 percent based on figures from the Electric Power Research Institute.”

http://spectrum.ieee.org/nanoclast/energy/fossil-fuels/graphene-coating-could-save-millions-in-power-plant-energy-costs

14) Mystery company blazes a trail in fusion energy

We recently carried an item about how a small amount of lithium ions had a dramatic effect on the duration plasma could be maintained in fusion experiments. This company seems to be taking a novel approach to the issue of containment, however, I don’t know how significant this advance is. While the article refers to a 10x improvement and implies a further 20x to 1 second is required for fusion breakeven, it appears that other researchers have already produced a 30 second plasma pulse (http://arstechnica.com/science/2013/11/fusion-reactor-achieves-tenfold-increase-in-plasma-confinement-time/). Of course, an expert would know whether a 1 second contained FRC would be better than a 30 second plasma pulse. I don’t.

“In papers published last month in Physics of Plasmas and Nature Communications, the Tri Alpha team reveals how fast ions, edge biasing, and other improvements have enabled them to produce FRCs lasting 5 milliseconds, a more than 10-fold improvement in lifetime, and reduced heat loss. “They’re employing all known techniques on a big, good-quality plasma,” Wurden says. “It shows what you can do with several hundred million dollars.” Tri Alpha is supported by “a very diverse group of investors,” Binderbauer says, including venture capital companies, billionaire individuals, and the government-owned Russian Nanotechnology Corp. To achieve fusion gain—more energy out than heating pumped in—researchers will have to make FRCs last for at least a second. Although that feat seems a long way off, Santarius says Tri Alpha has shown a way forward. “If they scale up size, energy confinement should go up,” he says. Tri Alpha researchers are already working with an upgraded device, which has differently oriented ion beams and more beam power.”

http://news.sciencemag.org/physics/2015/06/mystery-company-blazes-trail-fusion-energy

15) Microsoft Gives Details About Its Controversial Disk Encryption

This is not really a Microsoft story as much as a story about encryption. The author, oddly, recommended Microsoft BitLocker and was called upon to justify that decision. He tries but ultimately fails because he does not grasp that trust, in particular in a US tech company, cannot be a factor in choosing an encryption scheme. The Snowden revelations showed conclusively that major US technology companies are enthusiastic supporters of the national security state (as are, no doubt, Chinese and Russian of their respective governments). If you want something “sort of” encrypted, meaning you want it to be difficult for the average person to crack, closed source products are probably good enough. If you want serious encryption, for example, to keep proprietary business information secret, you need something which is open sourced and is constantly being scrutinized for strength and “back doors”.

“Recently, I wrote a guide explaining how to encrypt your laptop’s hard drive and why you should do so. For the benefit of Windows users, I gave instructions for turning on BitLocker, Microsoft’s disk encryption technology. This advice generated an immediate backlash in the comments section underneath the post, where readers correctly pointed out that BitLocker has been criticized by security experts for a number of real and potential shortcomings. For example, BitLocker’s source code is not available for inspection, which makes it particularly vulnerable to “backdoors,” security holes intentionally placed to provide access to the government or others. In addition, BitLocker’s host operating system, Microsoft Windows, provides an algorithm for generating random numbers, including encryption keys, that is known to have been backdoored by government spies, and which the company’s own engineers flagged as potentially compromised nearly eight years ago. BitLocker also lost a key component for hardening its encryption, known as the “Elephant diffuser,” in the latest major version of Windows. And Microsoft has reportedly worked hand-in-glove with the government to provide early access to bugs in Windows and to customer data in its Skype and Outlook.com products.”

https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/06/04/microsoft-disk-encryption/

16) I Made an Untraceable AR-15 ‘Ghost Gun’ in My Office—And It Was Easy

I included this article because it mentions the “Ghost Gunner”, a $1,500 open source general purpose NC milling machine (https://ghostgunner.net/). The article makes for an interesting read as well, but not so much because of the gun angle: bizarrely, legally, the “gun” part of an AR-15 assault rifle is the lower receiver, which the article shows is pretty easy to make, not the barrel, which is very difficult to make. Paranoid gun nuts in the US have therefore made the “Ghost Gunner” NC milling machine to enable people to make “ghost” (unrecorded) guns in case the government should decide to confiscate their AR-15s. Needless to say, they could simply ask the local machine shop (heck I have a milling machine) or buy the arms from a private individual on a cash basis (which is, legally, off the books), but I kinda like the NC milling machine angle.

“I did this mostly alone. I have virtually no technical understanding of firearms and a Cro-Magnon man’s mastery of power tools. Still, I made a fully metal, functional, and accurate AR-15. To be specific, I made the rifle’s lower receiver; that’s the body of the gun, the only part that US law defines and regulates as a “firearm.” All I needed for my entirely legal DIY gunsmithing project was about six hours, a 12-year-old’s understanding of computer software, an $80 chunk of aluminum, and a nearly featureless black 1-cubic-foot desktop milling machine called the Ghost Gunner. The Ghost Gunner is a $1,500 computer-numerical-controlled (CNC) mill sold by Defense Distributed, the gun access advocacy group that gained notoriety in 2012 and 2013 when it began creating 3-D-printed gun parts and the Liberator, the world’s first fully 3-D-printed pistol.”

http://www.wired.com/2015/06/i-made-an-untraceable-ar-15-ghost-gun/

17) NASA wants to cut travel time to Mars “in half” with new propulsion tech

A big challenge with space travel is getting there – space is really, really, big, and, while rockets, which are essentially bombs open at one end, are great for getting off the planet, they only work for a few minutes and then run out of fuel. Electric power (nuclear or solar) would allow for gentle but continuous acceleration, resulting in pretty astounding speeds over a matter of days. As the article shows, getting there quicker has numerous benefits and that even goes for unmanned craft as well. You can click through to some of the numerous non-chemical engines if you are interested.

“The main problem with getting humans to Mars is that, with our current liquid-fuelled rocket engines, it takes a very long time to get there; about eight months or so. If we can cut the journey in half, we significantly reduce the amount of food and water needed—which in turn cuts down the weight of the spacecraft, which in turn reduces the amount of fuel needed, which in turn feeds a very positive feedback loop. Less time in outer space means astronauts will be bombarded by less radiation too. Finding a propulsion technology that’s better than liquid fuel, though, has proven difficult. NASA has been looking at a variety of different technologies for decades. An In-Space Propulsion roadmap (PDF) from 2010 lists no less than 41 different propulsion methods. One of the most promising propulsion techniques, at least in the short term, is solar-electric propulsion—gathering solar energy with photovoltaic cells, which then powers some kind of electric engine like a Hall effect ion thruster.”

http://arstechnica.com/science/2015/06/nasa-wants-to-cut-travel-time-to-mars-in-half-with-new-propulsion-tech/

18) Diabetes Has a New Enemy: Robo-Pancreas

Insulin injections sure beat dying, however, the need to monitor and inject has its issues. Children, the elderly, and others may not be able to keep to the rigors of looking after themselves, and, in any event, this is a discrete, rather than continuous, solution: what goes on between tests and injections is important. A self-contained system which continuously monitors blood glucose and administers only the appropriate dose of insulin would result in better outcomes and this is what the article is about. At this time, artificial pancreases are devices worn outside the body but it is not hard to imagine an implantable device with an insulin reservoir which only require occasional refills.

“Now, after half a century of work, a solution at last is in the offing: the artificial pancreas. It links data from an implanted blood-sugar sensor to a computer, which then controls how a pump worn on the hip dribbles insulin under the skin through a pipette. In its fully realized form, the machine would take the patient out of the decision-making loop, which is why it is often called a closed-loop system. “It is a classic problem in control technology, which is the methodology used in process control,” says Ahmad Haidar, an electrical engineer working on the problem at the Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montréal (IRCM). Such technology is used, for instance, to guide a spacecraft or to govern the processing of crude oil in a refinery. Haidar’s group is one of a number of academic and corporate teams vying to create a closed-loop system for an artificial pancreas.”

http://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/bionics/diabetes-has-a-new-enemy-robopancreas

19) IoT Gets Sane Forecast at Event

Insane industry forecasts are the ones other industry forecasters put out, though, even if all forecasters agree there is little chance the number is the right one. Trimming expectations from 50 to 1.9 billion devices may seem extreme but even 1.9 billion is a 500% increase over 5 years, a 140% CAGR, so it is not exactly a pessimistic forecast. For the record I do expect a very large number of IoT devices to ship, though I have no opinion on whether the right number is 500 million or 4 billion by 2020. What is important to understand is that these are going to be very cheap devices and they will use very little data, so the direct impact on semiconductor demand and network infrastructure will be negligible.

“Forget the 50 billion devices on the Internet by 2020 as preached by networking giant Cisco Systems. That over-quoted fantasy projection includes all PCs, smartphones, tablets and probably a few iKitchen sinks. At his first event dedicated to the Internet of Things, Linley Gwennap will roll out his own forecast. The veteran market watcher estimates 1.9 billion new IoT devices will ship in 2020, up from about 200 million annual shipping today, mainly in the industrial space.”

http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1326761&

20) Upgrade to Windows 10 for free

And, finally, Microsoft more or less officially announced the launch date for Windows 10 as July 29, 2015. What is interesting is that they have confirmed a free upgrade from Windows 7 or 8, probably so they can temper the support burden associated with Windows 7 and, essentially, erase the disastrous Windows 8 from history. From what I have read, Windows 10 has the good bits of Windows 8 without confining you to the idiotic user interface of that abomination, and reviews seem to suggest it is a pretty good OS. Given the impact Windows 8 had on PC sales, this might provide a bump for both Microsoft and Intel. I’ll let you know in August.

http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/windows-10-upgrade?ocid=win10_auxapp_LearnMore_win10