The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 12th 2015
I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.
I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.
They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!
Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!
This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
1) 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.””
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.
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.””
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”