The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 31st 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 31st 2015


I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.

I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.

They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni

ps: Sorry about the quality of articles. Its been another very slow news week.

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1) This new 3D XPoint memory could last forever

This may be the most significant technology announcement of the past few years, however, the public information on the technology is a masterpiece of saying nothing (Intel press release: presentation video The figures provided are typically prefaced with “up to”, rending the information meaningless as in “my net worth is up to $100 billion”. Even the questions asked during the presentation where banal, suggesting the questioners were planted or too ignorant of memory technology to ask meaningful questions. Most of the write ups I’ve seen appear to be based on speculation, including some which actually contradicted the information provided. It appears the cost (somewhere between DRAM and FLASH – at least a 20:1 range) means that over the near term this device will only be useable in exotic equipment or that a modified PC architecture and OS will be required to exploit it. The good news is, the product is expected to be on the market in 2016, by which time, no doubt, actual useful information will be available. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for bringing this story to my attention.

“Intel and Micron this week unveiled a new type of memory they plan to mass produce that is purportedly 1,000 times faster than NAND flash and has 1,000 times the endurance. One thousand times the endurance would be about one million erase-write cycles, meaning the new memory would last pretty much forever. By comparison, today’s NAND flash lasts for between 3,000 and 10,000 erase-write cycles. With wear-leveling and error correction software, those cycles can be improved upon, but still don’t get anywhere near 100,000 cycles. The new product, 3D XPoint, is essentially a mass storage-class memory that, while slower, is still cheaper to produce than DRAM and vastly faster than NAND. Most importantly, it’s non-volatile. So when the power goes off, the data remains intact — just as it does with NAND flash.”

2) Review: Windows 10 is the best version yet—once the bugs get fixed

The launch of Windows 10 is another big story for the week. As scheduled the company rolled out free upgrades starting a couple days ago (I was amused to see Staples was charging $25 for the upgrade, presumably for clicking the install icon). The OS seems fast and stable and is a marked improvement over the abomination of Windows 8 and even the somewhat fixed Windows 8.1. The upgrade is not without its issues: my HP notebook will no longer awake from sleep mode, a problem which I expect will be corrected in due course. In addition, there are serious privacy concerns (see item 3) which can be mitigated by not using a Microsoft account and adjusting a profligacy of software settings in your favor.

“I’m more conflicted about Windows 10 than I have been about any previous version of Windows. In some ways, the operating system is extremely ambitious; in others, it represents a great loss of ambition. The new release tries to walk an unsteady path between being Microsoft’s most progressive, forward-looking release and simultaneously appealing to Windows’ most conservative users. And it mostly succeeds, making this the best version of Windows yet—once everything’s working. In its current form, the operating system doesn’t feel quite finished, and I’d wait a few weeks before making the leap.”

3) Windows 10 Is Spying On You: Here’s How To Stop It

As we noted in item 2, one major criticism of Windows 10 is that it spies on you and, presumably, Microsoft sells your information to whoever wants it. You can reduce this spying through not using a Microsoft account, not using their cloud services, and adjusting security setting accordingly. I would suggest avoiding the new Microsoft browser which does not appear to support adblockers or tracker blockers yet.

“Importantly, you can opt out of what seems to be all this stuff (time will tell) either during installation or afterwards, though Microsoft swaddle it in a combination of dissembling “hey, this stuff’ll really help you get the information you want’ fluff and 45 pages of service agreement documents. I’ll refer you here and here for a detailed breakdown of the really worrying stuff, but the long and short of it is the operating system assigns you a unique advertising ID, which is is tied to the email address you’ve associated with Windows and fed data from a great many facets of your computer usage. Including the contents of messages and calendars, apps and networks, some purchases and whatever you upload to Microsoft’s unreliable OneDrive cloud storage. Using the Cortana search assistant makes the harvest even more aggressive, and of course the OS claims it’s all in the name of a better, more accurate online experience for you.”

4) The New Moto X And Moto G Are Incredibly Cheap Yet Powerful Phones

I continue to believe smartphone pricing is under pressure, a trend which will have profound ramifications for the likes of Apple. Eventually it will be hard to convince people to part with $700 when more advanced features can be found in a phone at half the price. Motorola (now Lenovo) appears to be establishing itself as a cost effective alternative. It is interesting to note they will be making the Nexus 6 (i.e. the next Google phone) which allows speculation that will be attractively priced.

“Motorola has just unveiled its new lineup of smartphones, the Moto G, Moto X Style and Moto X Play. While these phones are mostly updated versions of their previous iterations, Motorola is sticking with its key advantages — price, customization and less bloatware. The Moto G is a 5-inch Android phone that costs $180 without any carrier subsidy. The Moto X Style is an updated Nexus 6-style phablet as Motorola is the maker behind the Nexus 6. And the Moto X Play is a cheaper version of the Moto X Style that you won’t find in the U.S.”

5) Amazon Wants Dedicated Airspace for Delivery Drones

There was a fair bit of news in the drone front this week. Amazon seems to be pushing ahead with its daft idea to offer drone delivery services. One can hope that regulators see the hazard of allowing swarms of flying machines overhead, given the serious hazards associated with the failure of drones. Given that the energy from a falling object is associated with altitude, I’d prefer the things not be allowed over 10 feet off the ground wherever there might be people below.

“Amazon proposes (PDF) that airspace from 200-400 feet off the ground be exclusively reserved for delivery drones. The next 100 feet above that would be a no-fly zone, acting as a buffer between the drones and commercial aircraft. Amazon also says the drones allowed to fly in the 200-400 foot airspace need to be equipped with the following capabilities: Advanced GPS system to pinpoint their location in real-time along with any nearby drones; A reliable Internet connection to maintain communications with that real-time GPS data; Online flight planning to predict and communicate their flight path; The ability to collaborate with other drones to avoid collisions; Sensors to avoid other obstacles such as birds, buildings and cables.”

6) Drones and driverless tractors – is this the future of farming?

Of course, not all drone applications are idiotic and frivolous. This article is more about some of the advanced technologies being used in farming than drones, but drones can be useful for farming as well as other valid industrial applications. Needless to say, agricultural equipment is already extremely dangerous and farms are notable for low population density so my concerns about delivery drones do not apply.

“The N Sensor gives an example of the kind of precision technology available to farmers today. It consists of a cab-mounted tool – imagine a surfboard bolted onto the roof of a tractor – that is equipped with sensors at either end. The sensors gaze outwards, analysing the colour of a growing crop. From this data the N Sensor determines its chlorophyll content and, by an extension of logic, the crop’s nitrogen requirement. The N Sensor then relays the data to a spreader, which, in turn, applies the required dose of fertiliser to a specific part of the field. “People would be surprised at how much of this is going on,” Blacker says. A Defra report from 2012 found that 22% of farmers have GPS steering systems, 20% do soil mapping, 16% variable rate application (using technology like the N Sensor) and 11% yield mapping. Although these numbers might seem low, precision techniques are mostly used by farmers with large acreages who have greater resources to invest in the technology and make it cost effective.”

7) Ky. man arrested after shooting down $1,800 drone hovering over sunbathing daughter

One of the numerous potential misuses of drones is violation of privacy. When this story originally surfaced it was about some dumb redneck who shot down a drone. Turns out the drone may have been spying on the guy’s daughter. What is interesting is that there is a good chance that if the drone operator had been on his property and guy had shot him he probably would not have been charged. Heck, I’d probably shoot down a drone over my property just on principle. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for bringing this story to my attention.

“A Kentucky man shot down an $1,800 drone hovering over his sunbathing daughter and was then arrested and charged with first degree criminal mischief and first-degree wanton endangerment. “My daughter comes in and says, ‘Dad, there’s a drone out here flying,’ ” William H. Merideth, 47, told a local Fox News affiliate reported Tuesday. The Bullitt County father shot at the drone, which crashed in a field near his yard Sunday night. The owner of the drone claims he was only trying to take pictures of a friend’s house, the station reported.”

8) The battery revolution that will let us all be power brokers

This is the second Tesla reference I’ve seen which seems to be dialing back expectations of “miraculous battery breakthroughs”. When Tesla announced “Ludicrous Mode” (, Musk stated “On average, we expect to increase pack capacity by roughly 5% per year” and now this fawning and highly speculative article cites a 30% reduction in production cost (5.4% CAGR) over 5 years. Of course, that is production cost, which is a small component of the cost of a full up battery pack so there is little reason to suspect any revolution is afoot.

“Tesla has no plans to stop there. Lithium-ion batteries are so important to the company that it has taken manufacturing into its own hands, building a “Gigafactory” just outside Reno, Nevada. By 2020, the company plans to produce as many lithium-ion batteries annually as the entire world produced in 2013 – enough for a fleet of 500,000 electric cars – and with a 30 per cent reduction in production cost per battery.”

9) London’s new hybrid Routemaster buses have major battery issues

As I have repeatedly commented, lithium ion batteries (actually all rechargeable batteries) get used up with every charge and we can expect the proud owners of Teslas will follow the angry owners of Nissan Leafs in due course. A battery electric bus sounds like a grand idea, provided you forget everything you know about batteries. Unless EVs occasionally driven by the wealthy for a couple hours a day, electric buses are expected to be on the road for a shift. This means the batteries are actually used and, as a consequence of the inherent weakness of current rechargeable battery technology, get used up real quick. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“London’s new Routemaster bus has major battery issues. The bus, thanks to its “green” diesel-electric hybrid powertrain, is meant to be “the most environmentally friendly bus of its type”—according to Transport for London, anyway. Out of the 500 new Routemasters currently on the roads, however, 80 of them are running in diesel-only mode because of failed batteries, pumping out lots of pollution. TfL admitted to the BBC that, in total, 200 of the buses will soon have their batteries replaced. The new Routemaster, which pays homage to the iconic double-decker Routemaster that operated in London from the ’50s all the way through to 2005, was meant to be the next big thing for London’s public transport network. The bus, which is colloquially known as a Borisbus or Borismaster, was introduced because of a campaign pledge during Boris Johnson’s campaign to become Mayor of London. In practice, however, since they were first introduced in 2012, the new bus has been plagued with issues.”

10) GitHub Raises $250M Series B Round To Take Risks

I have two articles showing how absolutely loopy startup valuations have become. For those who are not aware, GitHub is a repository for open source projects. This allows open source developers to provide a consistent download environment as well as whatever other community related functions they might have. GitHub has increased in profile since the debacle of SourceForge, which used to do the same thing until it started becoming a hotbed for malware distribution. The concept itself is not a novel one, nor is the implementation particularly complex. There are no barriers to entry: once GitHub’s corporate overlords decide to monetize their efforts with the same sort of things which doom all similar projects, people will just move on. Of course, the financial backers could care less whether GitHub is viable: the hope is that the IPO gravy train stay around long enough to dump it on an unsuspecting public.

“GitHub, the software development collaboration and version control service based on the popular open source Git tool, today announced that it has raised a $250 million funding round led by Sequoia Capital. Andreessen Horowitz, Thrive Capital and Institutional Venture Partners also participated in this round. The company, which was founded back in 2008, has now taken a total of $350 million in outside funding. While the company isn’t talking about its valuation, the WSJ reports that it’s currently hovering around $2 billion. GitHub’s 2012 Series A round was led by Andreessen Horowitz. At the time, the company’s valuation was said to be around $750 million. As GitHub CEO and co-founder Chris Wanstrath told me shortly after the new round was announced, the company plans to use this new round to accelerate growth and expand its sales and engineering team (as most companies do when they raise). He also stressed, though, that the round isn’t just meant for that. “The round is not just to accelerate, but also to allow us to think bigger and take larger risks,” Wanstrath said.”

11) Caller ID App Truecaller Is Raising $100M At A $1B Valuation

This is the second article showing idiotic valuations startups are attracting. Aps, by their nature are not complex things, and there is little in Truecaller’s operation which seems even remotely challenging to replicate. I know my phone shows me who is calling, and though I get the occasional call from auto-dialers counter measures are fairly simple (ignore any calls with blocked ID, block such numbers if they call more than once). So, long story short, there is minimal value add to this application, no real barriers to entry, and – as we have come to expect – to evident sustainable business model (except, of course, the ubiquitous advertising). The funds and bankers know all that and don’t care: provided the IPO pipeline remains full, they’ll cash out and let pension plans takes the hit. Failing that, Facebook, Google, or some other large company will buy them out – after all, better to give your shareholder’s money to the shareholders of a startup than to them as a dividend. Party like its 1999!

“Communications apps that strike a chord with users across different markets are hot property these days, and it looks like another one of them may soon enter the so-called unicorn club. TechCrunch has learned that Truecaller — a caller ID app that now has 150 million users — is looking to raise around $100 million at a $1 billion valuation. We’re hearing that Truecaller has hired Morgan Stanley to lead the process, and there are term sheets out. The round is likely to have previous and new investors. To date, True Software, maker of Truecaller, has raised around $80 million. Previous investors include Atomico, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Sequoia Capital, Access Partners and Open Ocean.”

12) Chinese researchers make breakthrough in SLA 3D printing, soon be able to 3D print porcelain teeth in minutes

If you have ever had a cap placed on a tooth you know it can entail multiple visits to the dentist. Besides the mechanical work, the dentist has to send out to have the actual cap made, meaning you walk around with a temporary one for a couple weeks. If this machine can be commercialized, the dentist would take an impression (probably a 3D scan) of your existing tooth, prep you, either take an impression or 3D scan of the “stump”, print out the replacement tooth, and install it in a single visit.

“Yesterday, scientists from the Guangzhou Nansha Additive Manufacturing Technology Research Institute have unveiled a new SLA 3D printing technique that can be used to create detailed porcelain (and other ceramic) objects quickly. The research team over at the Nansha Additive Manufacturing Technology Research Institute in Guangzhou spent over a year developing this new 3D printer, and is currently in the debugging stage. While the unveiling is expected to take place in the very near future, it has already been leaked to reporters that the 3D printing speed is several times faster than comparable machines, while this 3D printer is also capable of working with a very large variety of materials, including ceramics, metal filler materials and more. Among its possible applications is a the fantastic medical solution of 3D printed porcelain teeth.”

13) Stop paying for e-books (and start stealing them)

This might be controversial, but I am sympathetic to the message. E-books are significantly cheaper to produce (after all there is no physical book) include severe restrictions on use compared to paper books, and yet prices remain high, sometimes costing more than the paper version of the book. This article focuses on DRM, which is responsible for the restrictions, but the pricing issue alone is reason to pirate. I’ve always thought it was a pity there was no “mea culpa” clearing house where e-book pirates could pay the authors to assuage their conscience. In most cases the pirate is OK with the creator getting paid.

“Walk into almost anybody’s house in America, and you will find a library. Whether it’s an Ikea bookshelf containing textbooks and a few second-hand novels or an entire room of floor-to-ceiling shelves, the presence of books in our homes has come to be a cornerstone of our democracy. Individually, our books record our own personal intellectual heritages and offer a means to share them with each other, as well as to pass them down to future generations. Collectively, our books are a bulwark of a free society. But this bulwark is rapidly being destroyed by digital rights management (DRM) software. It’s clear that the physical book is on its way out, to be replaced by e-books. While some will bemoan the gradual demise of the physical bookself, a far more troubling implication of this transition is that because of DRM we will lose control of and access to our books, individually and collectively. Currently, the vast majority of books available for purchase on the three major e-book stores (Kindle, iBooks, Nook) are encumbered with DRM encryption.”

14) Sri Lanka Becomes First Country to Get Universal Internet With Project Google Loon

This item got considerable attention, with all examples I found having a similarly misleading title. Presumably, having the headline match the contents doesn’t garner as much attention. In fact, Sri Lanka is not the first country to get “Universal Internet”, they are the first country to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Google to allow Google to deploy it scheme to deliver broadband. Whether such a scheme will, in fact, work, remains to be seen. If, as, and when, the system is deployed and happens to work for more than a few days straight, then we’ll see what happens.

“Telecom companies across the world are trying to bridge the Internet gap among the people of all the countries. We recently saw how Google Inc along with ISPs, such as Cox and Century Link, partnered with the White House to provide minimal cost internet service to more than 275,000 low-income households of the United States of America. In the latest development, Google and The Government of Sri Lanka had signed a MoU to launch the PoGoogle Loon project in the island nation to provide high-speed Internet to its citizens throughout the country. With this project, Sri Lanka will become world’s first country to have Internet access across the entire nation with the government support. It seems Sri Lanka is heeding to the advice of US President Mr. Barack Obama who just recently said the Internet is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”

15) Report: Spain’s Google Tax A Disaster For Newspapers, Internet Innovation

The best laid plans of mice, men, and newspapers are oft’ torn asunder. It seemed like a great idea: make companies pay for the privilege of directing traffic to your website. After all, it beats the heck out out of paying companies to direct people to your website, which is, more or less the intent of Internet advertising. And what better way to do that than to pass a law demanding compensation for this affront? Who knew that, rather than paying to refer traffic to Spanish newspapers, search engine companies were simply going to delete them from their search results?

“Call it one of the most egregious examples of unintended consequences. The effort of the Spanish newspaper association and Spanish government to get Google to subsidize Spanish news publishers with a mandatory link tax (under the guise of copyright fees) is a massive disaster — for publishers, for the Spanish internet and for innovation in the country. Here’s the history: the Spanish Newspaper Publishers Association successfully convinced Spanish lawmakers in late 2014 to pass a strict “anti-piracy” law, which mandated compensation for the appearance of newspaper publishers’ content on news aggregation sites as of January 1, 2015. It was effectively directed at Google but applied broadly to all news/content aggregators. In response, Google shuttered Google News in Spain, though it has continued to present Spanish news sites on its main search engine results page (SERP) and in other ways. The Spanish publishers then tried unsuccessfully to get the government to force Google to keep Google News alive in Spain (to collect the tax).”

16) Qualcomm, NCTA continue to battle over FCC regulation of LTE-U, LAA

I recently had discussions with a local wireless Internet operator who was deploying LTE based services in my area. While we tend to associate LTE (4G Wireless) with licensed mobile operators, the spread spectrum technology can be used on any appropriate RF band. LTE radios are produced in vast numbers for the smartphone market so this is a boon to purveyors of rural broadband since all the gear is much cheaper than it otherwise would be. I was not aware there is a move to put LTE into the unlicensed bands currently used by WiFi and other technologies such as wireless phones and baby monitors. Whenever a new use for an unlicensed band arises, conflicts inevitably emerge. While the article addressed the concerned with use of unlicenses spectrum for LTE, it is not clear why unlicensed LTE would be used rather than WiFi, since the throughput of WiFi is already pretty high, and power limits associated with unlicensed spectrum would limit coverage.

“Representatives from Qualcomm and T-Mobile US argued this week that the FCC should not step in to regulate LTE Unlicensed (LTE-U) and related technologies. At a CTIA-organized briefing for reports on Monday, Qualcomm and T-Mobile officials argued that LTE-U can coexist happily with Wi-Fi and that opponents of the technology had not marshalled sound technical reasons for opposing it. Meanwhile, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, speaking for many cable companies that have their own Wi-Fi networks, hit back hard against Qualcomm. In an FCC filing made public on Wednesday, NCTA said that Qualcomm has not engaged in meaningful collaboration with the unlicensed community, and that its proposals thus far on LTE-U/Wi-Fi coexistence are not fair or equitable.”

17) Despite recent claims, the EmDrive remains long on speculation, short on proof

There was a lot of press coverage of the “EmDrive” over the past week. Mainstream media even referred to it as similar to Star Trek’s impulse drive (which it is not: impulse drive is fusion powered ion drive and nothing like this). Long story short, a number of researchers claim they have replicated results of a gizmo which purportedly produces thrust without throwing anything in the opposite direction. According to the basic rules of physics, this is impossible. Of course, physics is occasionally shown wrong, but not usually at a fundamental level. The challenge at this juncture is that the thrust associated with the EmDrive is typically on the order of the measurement error of the apparatus doing the test, the observed effect is most likely an unexpected – but explainable through traditional physics – artifact of the measurement protocol.

“A new report from German researchers has made waves by claiming to validate the performance of the controversial EmDrive, but many articles on the topic have vastly oversold the results. Let’s see if we can find some clarity here. To begin with, the EmDrive is what’s known as a resonant cavity thruster. It relies on a magnetron to produce microwaves and is designed to produce thrust towards the narrow end of the cavity. The problem with the EmDrive (and with all reactionless drives) is that they seem to violate the law of conservation of momentum. That law says that the total linear momentum of a closed system remains constant, regardless of other changes within the system. This is the origin of the phrase “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” When you take the “reaction” out of one end of the system, it’s difficult to explain how an “opposite” reaction actually gets started.”

18) Google Sees Long, Expensive Road Ahead For Quantum Computing

This article looks at some of the issues associated with quantum computing. Strangely, it seems bullish on the D-Wave system but very little information is provided as to why that should be the case. Indeed, as with the Em-Drive (Item 17), one rarely gets breakthroughs when one cannot, in fact, explain why the breakthrough occurred. Furthermore, extrapolations based upon an uncertain model of operation are probably unreliable. All in, the article suggests that even if quantum computing meets its promise the challenge will be in developing classical computers powerful enough to digest the results.

“The joke going around ISC 2015 was that no one really understands what quantum computing is and isn’t, and it was so refreshing to see that in the very first slide of the first presentation, Yoshi Yamamoto, a professor at Stanford University and a fellow at NTT in Japan, showed even he was unsure of the nature of the quantum effects used to do calculations in the D-Wave machine employed by Google in its research in conjunction with NASA Ames.”

19) Brain-controlled prosthesis nearly as good as one-finger typing

This is a bit of an update on direct brain control. Apparently the technology has advanced to the point where speed and precision are sufficient to almost match “single finger typing” as the title suggests. While this, in itself, is quite an accomplishment, one can imagine than within a few years it will exceed two finger typing, and within a decade exceed touch typing. Although I doubt we’ll be replacing our keyboards with brain interfaces in 2025, the technology could provide a substantial improvement to the quality of life of severely disabled people.

“Brain-controlled prostheses currently work with access to a sample of only a few hundred neurons, but need to estimate motor commands that involve millions of neurons. So tiny errors in the sample – neurons that fire too fast or too slow – reduce the precision and speed of thought-controlled keypads. Now an interdisciplinary team led by Stanford electrical engineer Krishna Shenoy has developed a technique to make brain-controlled prostheses more precise. In essence the prostheses analyze the neuron sample and make dozens of corrective adjustments to the estimate of the brain’s electrical pattern – all in the blink of an eye. Shenoy’s team tested a brain-controlled cursor meant to operate a virtual keyboard. The system is intended for people with paralysis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS degrades one’s ability to move. The thought-controlled keypad would allow a person with paralysis or ALS to run an electronic wheelchair and use a computer or tablet. “Brain-controlled prostheses will lead to a substantial improvement in quality of life,” Shenoy said. “The speed and accuracy demonstrated in this prosthesis results from years of basic neuroscience research and from combining these scientific discoveries with the principled design of mathematical control algorithms.””

20) Pair of Bugs Open Honeywell Home Controllers Up to Easy Hacks

This is a minor example of some of the issues associated with Internet of Things (IoT). Security is hard enough that companies like Google and Microsoft have problems with it so you can’t expect a consumer products company, no matter how well intentioned, to do any better. Not only that, but many such products are, in fact, developed by consultants and ODMs (Original Design Manufacturers). It might be a minor point that somebody can fiddle with your thermostat, but I would hazard a similar situation exists with IoT locks and control systems. So, before you rush out and buy a fancy gizmo you can control over an app, always remember it was probably made by somebody who had no interest in, let alone knowledge of, security.

“What this means is that when the system asks a user for a username and password, she can simply ignore the request and access the restricted resources. Rupp, a German researcher who has disclosed vulnerabilities in other devices recently, including wind turbines, said via email that exploiting the vulnerability is exceedingly simple. “It is really [easy] (in my opinion), the attacker with a low skill would be able to exploit this vulnerability remotely,” Rupp said. He added that a quick search of Shodan revealed a few hundred vulnerable Tuxedo Touch devices, but he estimates there are probably many more. “Shodan detects about 500 devices, of which about 450 are located in America. I think it is possible to detect about 1000 devices with a more thorough search,” he said.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 24th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 24th 2015


I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.

I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.

They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni

ps: Sorry about the quality of articles. Its been another very slow news week.

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1) The Smartphone Shields Are Down

The article does mention that markets do not grow forever, which is a refreshing reminder. It further notes the Chinese government called for dialing back the heavy subsidies paid by the likes of China Mobile to propel mobile adoption. It stands to reason that lower subsidies would result in, at least, a reduction in demand for costlier handsets. I can’t help but wonder whether that relationship factored into analyst forecasts for things like iPhone demand though I have no idea whether the subsidies were applicable. Regardless, I continue to believe smartphone prices have nowhere to go but down, which will put pressure on most of the leading vendors.

“Quarter after quarter, Xiaomi could do no wrong. Less than five years after its founding, the Beijing-based company became the No. 4 smartphone maker on earth, its well-built and relatively cheap devices trailing only Samsung Electronics, Apple, and Lenovo in global shipments. In 2014 the company shipped 57.7 million phones around the world, a more than 200 percent increase from the previous year. Xiaomi estimated its 2015 numbers would reach 80 million to 100 million phones. Then sales hit a wall. On July 2, Xiaomi Chief Executive Officer Lei Jun said shipments in the first half of 2015 totaled 34.7 million phones, a growth rate of 33 percent over the first six months of 2014. Plenty of smartphone makers would be delighted with that kind of increase, but it was a shocking slowdown for a company used to posting triple-digit gains, especially because it spent much of 2015 expanding into India. The reason was one familiar to almost every other company selling smartphones: Xiaomi’s home market “is increasingly saturated,” according to Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Matthew Kanterman and John Butler.”

2) Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep on the Highway—With Me in It

This is a tale of two problems: first, it is possible to remotely hack a Jeep and fiddle with the radio. Second, Jeeps (and doubtless many other Fiat/Chrysler vehicles) appear to be so badly designed that somehow the systems which control the radio and climate control also control the brakes. If true, that suggests a degree of pathological stupidity which is bound to cost lives even if the security issue is eventually dealt with. It is about as stupid as using the same network to control a passenger plane’s entertainment system and its flight controls. Only harm can come from this.

“I was driving 70 mph on the edge of downtown St. Louis when the exploit began to take hold. Though I hadn’t touched the dashboard, the vents in the Jeep Cherokee started blasting cold air at the maximum setting, chilling the sweat on my back through the in-seat climate control system. Next the radio switched to the local hip hop station and began blaring Skee-lo at full volume. I spun the control knob left and hit the power button, to no avail. Then the windshield wipers turned on, and wiper fluid blurred the glass.

3) UK government releases rules to get self-driving cars onto public roads

In case you were interested (it is a slow news week) this announcement shows that the prospect of self driving cars has materialized to the point the UK government has established testing protocols for the technology. Some of the rules – like appearing to be actually driving – seem a bit odd, but at least they don’t demand a flagman to precede the vehicle (

“The UK government has outlined a new set of rules for testing driverless cars on public roads. The Code of Practice—as published by the Department for Transport (DfT)—contains extensions to many of the same laws that govern traditional vehicles, including that all self-driving cars must have a human driver inside that can take over if needed, and that those drivers are insured, hold a valid UK driving licence, and obey all of the UK’s normal road laws. Any test vehicles over three years old (which is admittedly highly unlikely at this point) must also hold a valid MOT. From there, things get very specific to driverless cars. For starters, those cars must have undergone extensive testing on private roads before being allowed out into the wild. Drivers will also require “skills over and above those of drivers of conventional vehicles,” including a high level of knowledge about the technology used, as well as extensive training into switching between conventional manual control and an automated mode.”

4) Helping drivers see people, animals and junctions at night

Adaptive headlights have been around for some time. I believe Citroen had them in the 1970s. The idea here is that parts of the beam would be directed to “things of interest” like signs, pedestrians, and dogs. Not cats, oddly enough. Most likely such a system would have to guarantee an appropriate degree of illumination to the whole scene, along with extra light to pick out the important stuff. With LED headlamps this is probably a lot easier to do that you might expect.

“Driving at night, particularly on unlit roads, can be a nerve-wracking experience. We are developing two new lighting technologies that could make things easier. Developed at our Research and Innovation Centre in Aachen, Germany, our Camera-Based Advanced Front Lighting System can widen the beam at junctions and roundabouts. Building upon Adaptive Front Lighting System and Traffic Sign Recognition, the system interprets traffic signs to better illuminate hazards that are not in the direction of travel, and uses GPS information for enhanced lighting when encountering bends and dips on a chosen route. Where GPS information is not available, a video camera detects lane markings and predicts the road’s curvature. When next the driver uses the same road again, the headlights adapt to the course of the road automatically. We expect this technology to be available for customers in the near term.”

5) Robotic surgery linked to 144 deaths in the US

This is a pretty scarey headline, however, the numbers are actually very small compared to the total number of procedures. It may be that these “robotic” systems, which are not autonomous so not really robotic, are being overused but the real question is how many complications would have happened without the robots. In other words, what matters is the performance relative to a control group and not absolute numbers. Another issue might be the learning curve of the manufacturer and the surgeon: if parts “fell off” is this something the manufacturer corrected or is it still a problem?

“The work was carried out by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. Their paper says 144 deaths, 1,391 injuries and 8,061 device malfunctions were recorded out of a total of more than 1.7 million robotic procedures carried out between January 2000 and December 2013. This was based on reports submitted by hospitals, patients, device manufacturers and others to the US Food and Drug Administration, and the study notes that the true number could be higher.”

6) Tiny ‘mechanical wrist’ could allow scar-free surgery

One of the challenges with surgery is the need to gain access to the parts you need to work on. Time was the solution was to unzip somebody’s abdomen in order to get inside, now they tend to do such procedures through small perforations. Brain surgery is even more of a problem because of the skull and the fact that you might have to go through (and damage) a lot of important stuff. The smaller the instruments the better the result – though the greater the skill required.

“You’ve probably heard of keyhole surgery, where complex surgical procedures are carried out through just a tiny incision in a patient’s body. The next step is called ‘needlescopic’ surgery, which leaves wounds so small they can be closed with surgical tape. While the technique has been around since the 1990s, it’s extremely difficult and is only performed by a handful of surgeons around the world in a very limited set of circumstances – mostly revolving around getting rid of diseased tissue. But a group of mechanical engineers has now developed a surgical robot with wrists less than 2mm thick that could revolutionize the practice. It allows the ‘steerable needles’ used by needlescopic surgeons to bend at the tip, giving doctors far greater dexterity with their tools.”

7) How the Argus II Bionic Eye Restored a Man’s Vision

This is an update on bionic eye technology. Apparently this patient is the first to receive this particular implant model. It seems to be successful in that the unit provides some very limited vision and has not (yet) been rejected. It is not clear whether the vision has been “restored” in a functional sense, however, it is easy to imagine that given time the functionality of the device to advance to the point it will. One major issue appears to be the cost of $234,000. An optimist might believe that technological advances will drive down costs very quickly, however, there are peculiar forces at work in the medical electronics space which tend to temper price declines.

“Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) causes 5 percent of blindness throughout the world. It’s a condition that leads to the deterioration of a small area of the retina known as the macula, which is responsible for all of your high-resolution central vision. But a new bionic eye implant has restored the central vision in an 80-year-old British man suffering from the disease, and is giving hope to others who suffer from AMD – the most common cause of vision loss in adults.”

8) 3D bone printing project in China to enter animal testing stage

Bones much grow in place and each one is unique as it is shaped by the life history of the person whose body it is in. Replacing a bone requires a fair bit of customization, often during the surgical procedure. Ideally, a bone could be modeled and produced from CAT scans and a perfect fit when the time comes, which is an important potential medical application for 3D printing. Titanium is bio-compatible but an ideal replacement would be actual bone. It is a way off, but progress is being made.

“While makers often like to talk about the 3D printing manufacturing revolution, no one can deny that 3D printers are actually being used to develop revolutionary medical applications at an amazing pace. While most of these actually involve 3D printed surgical models or titanium implants, a team of scientists in Guangzhou, China, is already taking a biomedical project to the next level. The team from the Southern Medical University, led by university president Huang Wenhua, has been very successful in 3D printing bones from bone powder and are now ready to enter an animal testing stage.”

9) Lufthansa flight has near-miss with drone near Warsaw

Idiots with flying machines seem to be a growing problem. There is a good chance only a minority of drone owners are stupid enough to endanger hundreds of people by flying near an airport, interfering with rescue workers or firefighters, etc., but that is all it takes. Fortunately for fools it turns out that actually catching people can be difficult. What is needed is some sort of beacon (to identify the owner) as well as a universal kill switch to take the machine out of the sky.

“A Lufthansa plane with 108 passengers on board nearly collided with a drone as it approached Warsaw’s main airport on Monday afternoon, the airline said on Tuesday. The drone came within 100 meters (330 feet) of the Embraer plane when the Munich to Warsaw flight was at a height of about 760 meters, the airline and the Polish Air Navigation Services Agency (PANSA) said. Police are investigating, a PANSA spokesman said. The plane landed safely at 1409 GMT, a Lufthansa spokeswoman said. PANSA changed landing directions for other planes until the area was clear. However, police and military helicopters sent to the area did not spot the drone.”

10) Google Has Way to Unclog Drone-Filled Skies Like It Did the Web

I am not sure the cure for idiots with drones (see item 9) is an air traffic control system since all the hardware and software to make a drone is openly available. Nevertheless, air traffic control would be of some value to legitimate users, in particular commercial ones. No amount of software is going to cure the “drone plummeting from the sky” problem which is bound to kill or injure people as usage increases unless “no fly zones” include places where people or vehicles might be.

“Google Inc., the company that brought order to the Internet, has set its sights on doing the same for the flocks of commercial drones expected to someday clog the skies. The search-engine pioneer is joining some of the biggest companies in technology, communications and aviation — including Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Harris Corp. — in trying to create an air-traffic control system to prevent mid-air collisions. … At least 14 companies, including Google, Amazon, Verizon and Harris, have signed agreements with NASA to help devise the first air-traffic system to coordinate small, low-altitude drones, which the agency calls the Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management. More than 100 other companies and universities have also expressed interest in the project, which will be needed before commercial drones can fly long distances to deliver goods, inspect power lines and survey crops.”

11) ISIS planning to use toy helicopters as bombing drones fear security chiefs

Why do journalists always have to go for plastic explosives all the time? There are loads of other explosives which are perfectly effective at blowing things up. Regardless, for something like this you’d want to use a fragmentation grenade. Last week we carried an article which showed a drone carrying a pistol, which weighs about three times as much as an M67 fragmentation grenade. The very same cheap drone we showed inaccurately firing a gun would do a very good job dropping a grenade or three. As we note in item 10, all the software and hardware to build a drone are readily available so you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Its a question of when this happens, not if.

“Counter-terror chiefs fear Islamist fanatics plan to launch deadly bomb attacks on the UK’s streets using unmanned toy drones. Both MI5 and police battling the threat of an IS outrage in Britain believe the network has experimented with planting high explosives on the tiny flying machines. The agile drones could lift enough C4 plastic explosive to kill or maim a person if detonated near someone’s head by remote control or a timer. Sources told the Mirror that police probing IS plots against UK citizens believe terror bosses want to launch a multi-drone attack. This could mean flying the helicopter-style toys by remote control into crowds at an open-air music festival or a football ground.”

12) Geniuses Representing Universal Pictures Ask Google To Delist For Piracy

The joke here is that the folks who are supposed to be combing the Internet for pirated content are essentially flagging their own systems as infringing and sending “take down” notices which essentially read “my computer here is pirating my movie and I demand you take my pirated movie off my computer”. This is most likely because they are using bots to search for pirated content, but it shows the bots are not very well written. Unfortunately, under DMCA rules, even unfounded demands have to be responded to, and a badly written bot can cost the other guy a lot of money.

“We recently wrote about a German film distributor that went on a DMCA takedown blitz and managed to send notices for sites that had nothing to do with infringing files (such as IMDB and, er, Techdirt). In a somewhat related story, we learn that representatives of Universal Pictures have likewise gone DMCA happy over infringing versions of movies like Furious 7 and Jurassic World — even to the point of issuing takedowns not only for the film’s IMDB page (for Furious 7), but for “” for Jurassic World. … is, of course, the IP address a machine uses to refer to itself. It’s also known as “localhost.” In other words, it basically means “home.””

13) ATSC 3.0 Transmission Proposal Gets Field Test

I was an early and fervent proponent of ASTC, of the US HDTV over the air broadcast standard. At the time broadcast was an important industry (it is sickly now) and I recognized that consumers would rapidly embrace HDTVs, creating a pull for HD content. It was fairly obvious demand for HD broadcast equipment would boom. The thing is, broadcast TV is less relevant today and consumers are unlikely to upgrade to UHDTV sets unless their existing TV dies and the price premium is modest. Since most cable or satellite HD content is nowhere near HD quality, there is little reason to believe studios will rush to produce UHDTV content. There might be a small increase in demand for studio equipment, but this is likely to be event drive rather than broadly based.

“The latest field tests of a complete transmission technology for Ultra HD digital-TV broadcasts “are even more encouraging” than previous tests last fall, said backers of the tested Futurecast technology. “All of the results were more encouraging [than fall tests in Madison, Wisc.] because of the terrain and improvements in the system,” said LG spokesman John Taylor. System improvements include improved signal acquisition for mobile TV reception in fast-moving vehicles in downtown, suburban and rural locations up to 50 miles from a transmitter.”

14) Intel’s tweaking Moore’s Law, like Moore’s Law still matters

The general thesis that Moore’s Law slowing down is not as profoundly important as it once would have been probably correct but you wouldn’t know it from the content of the article. For example GPUs also rely on smaller and faster transistors (i.e. Moore’s Law) as do the important bits of a mobile phone, besides storage. For example, power consumption of an LTE receiver, which is significant, will be influenced by increased Digital Signal Processor (DSP) performance delivered by more and faster transistors. I don’t really get the point about “Moore’s architecture” since Moore has really nothing to do with computer architectures in a general sense. The emerging alternatives of Neural Networks, Quantum Computing, and Stochastic Computing either don’t work yet, are modeled on traditional computers (and thereby subject to Moore’s Law), and/or have limited application.

“Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said Wednesday that the exponential advances in semiconductor manufacturing that enable faster and cheaper computing and storage every two years are now going to come closer to a rate of every two and half years. If Intel’s CEO had said it couldn’t keep cramming more transistors on a chip a decade and a half ago or even a decade ago, it would have shocked the tech world. But today, adjusting the formula for what is known as Moore’s Law—named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore—Krzanich was making a significant announcement for Intel shareholders and customers, but a less important one for the tech industry overall. That’s because Moore’s Law is less relevant.”

15) Why give away your work for free?

This is a sort of series of interviews with authors regarding how they have shifted their business model to include giving away electronic copies of their work. Just as musicians have begun to earn more money from touring rather than record sales, many authors have mitigated losses to piracy by simply giving away e-book versions of their work. This is a great promotional move which tends to build a following and a significant number of that following support the authors by buying the same book they get for free. Other authors have observed their older stuff tends to sell very few copies and may not even be available in stores so they release that for free, hoping people will gladly buy the new stuff.

““When my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, was published by Tor Books in January 2003, I also put the entire electronic text of the novel on the Internet under a Creative Commons License that encouraged my readers to copy it far and wide. Within a day, there were 30,000 downloads from my site (and those downloaders were in turn free to make more copies).” “Most people who download the book don’t end up buying it, but they wouldn’’t have bought it in any event, so I haven’’t lost any sales, I’’ve just won an audience. A tiny minority of downloaders treat the free e-book as a substitute for the printed book–those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the e-book as an enticement to buy the printed book. They’re gained sales.”

16) Mobile Ad Fraud Cost Marketers Nearly $1B Annually, Study Finds

I have a theory that a significant amount of Internet advising is fraudulent or at least wasted. Of course, I’ve used ad blockers for so long I am not even sure what ads look like anymore. Regardless it is hard to feel pity for the advertisers as being defrauded: it is the mobile phone users who are the real victims as their bandwidth is being used up. It is remarkable Google doesn’t have some sort of AI testing the apps it distributes to see if they are malware.

“Unlike botnets that are also responsible for large volumes of online ad fraud, the mobile device hijackers are enabled, albeit unintentionally, by users who approve permissions they believe they need to run the apps they’ve just downloaded. Instead, those permissions allow hijacker apps to begin loading hidden ads without the users’ knowledge, often as soon as their devices are booted up, rather than just when they launch apps. In addition to costing millions to legitimate mobile advertisers whose ads are being delivered “invisibly” and never seen or clicked by human users, mobile device hijacking also creates trouble for individual users. By running unseen in the background on mobile devices, these apps consume large amounts of battery power and data Relevant Products/Services bandwidth.”

17) Your Smartwatch Could Be A Major Security Risk

I would not have expected smart watches to be a security risk, but, as a new device, it is probably not something the manufacturers have spent much time on. Presumably, since the smartwatch requires broad permissions from the phone, once you gain access you have access to the whole thing. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“Smartwatch owners have been warned to be on their guard after a new survey found that many of the most popular wearable devices carry major security flaws. A study by HP Security found that smartwatches, thanks to their increasing connectivity to the Internet of Things, are packed with potential ways for cybercriminals to access and hijack devices. Overall, 100 percent of the ten devices tested by Fortify, HP Security’s application provider, were found to contain “significant vulnerabilities”.”

18) A Competitor Has Asked the FCC to Block SpaceX’s Satellite Internet Test

It is true that Intelsat would be in big trouble in the unlikely event any broadband constellation actually gets launched but the concern here is that even a test of SpaceX’s (or any other) satellite Internet system could interfere with existing communications satellites. After all, the operation of relatively ancient systems such as Intelsat are well understood and any additional system could cause them to stop working or become intermittent. Apparently, SpaceX’ application is mostly secret, which is unusual. The collision risk seems like a red herring since geostationary satellites orbit at almost 36,000 km, about 10x higher than a constellation would. I strongly believe broadband constellations are an inherently flawed business model with virtually no chance of commercial success.

“SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, plan to launch 4,000 small satellites over the next several years in a bid to provide wireless internet to every spot on Earth. The company opened up an office in the Seattle area earlier this summer specifically to design and build the satellites. The satellite array will reportedly be able to provide speeds that rival fiber optic networks—if successful, the company could become one of the most powerful telecommunications companies in the world. That’s a big “if.” Earlier this month, Intelsat, which already operates broadband-providing satellites from geostationary orbit (which is higher than SpaceX plans to fly its satellites), asked the FCC to deny SpaceX’s application to test two types of internet-providing satellite.”

19) This Company Aims To Launch Rockets With Beams Of Power

This idea has been thought of before, and it does make some sense. Chemical rockets burn fuel and an oxidant and produce thrust by directing the resulting explosive in the opposite direction of travel. The nature of the reaction places inherent limits on thrust. On the other hand, using electric power to fling something in the opposite direction can result in very high thrusts since there is no chemical explosion. Of course, like most other novel approaches challenges remain, most significantly whether the system can scale up enough to provide escape velocity. Similar approaches can be used to accelerate gases to very high speeds, providing constant, albeit modest, thrust, which can be used to accelerate spacecraft to very high speeds once they are in space.

“Colorado space startup Escape Dynamics announced today that they’ve successfully tested a prototype of their spaceship engine and are ready to move on to their next phase in development. By itself, that doesn’t sound like huge news – companies all over the world are testing prototype engines for rockets. Except Escape Dynamics didn’t fire its engine by setting alight fuel in a controlled explosion, like a traditional rocket. Instead, their engine fired using power beamed at it from a microwave antenna across the room. In an industry where “game changer” is thrown around with aplomb, this could be the real thing. Rockets powered by beams of power from the ground, enabling them to be more efficient and carry greater payloads.”

20) Carbon Engineering Technology to Extract CO2 From the Air and Turn It to Fuel

This is too funny not to share. I am pretty sure it is not meant to be funny but it is, provided you understand basic chemistry and/or thermodynamics. Long story short, CO2 is a trace gas and extracting a trace gas from the atmosphere is going to be very, very, energy intensive. Set aside for a moment the absurdity of making CO2 into fuel – itself such a staggering waste of energy it deifies belief anybody would even suggest it – there is one very easy easy way to extract CO2 from the atmosphere, and that is called “growing plants”. The video makes mention of this and dismisses the idea, apparently in factor of a mechanically complex energy wasting system. As is typical with such bizarre schemes, they suggest powering it from nuclear, wind, or solar, thus being “carbon neutral. This could only make sense if fossil fuels are no longer used for electric production since it would be more effective to simply use that electricity to displace electric production from natural gas, or, for example, to heat homes or run boilers.

“The CE website notes that capturing CO2 directly from the air allows emissions originating from any source to be managed with standardized scalable industrial facilities. CE’s full-scale design, could absorb the emissions created by 300,000 typical cars. Air capture can serve as a complement to climate strategies that reduce emissions at their source. It can remove far more CO2 per acre of land footprint than trees and plants and produce a stream of pure CO2 as its principal output for use in industrial applications or storage. “Direct air capture gives us another option – to be used alongside others like wind power and energy efficiency – to help make deep cuts in our CO2 emissions and avoid dangerous climate change,” said Holmes.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 17th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 17th 2015


I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.

I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.

They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni

ps: Sorry about the quality of articles. Its been another very slow news week.

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1) Google Self-Driving Car Involved in First Injury Accident

In California all collisions involving self-driving car are required to be reported and as a result every such collision is reported. This was is particularly interesting because it involved minor injuries. Collisions with self-driving cars are typically the fault of a human driver, not the autonomous system. Google remarks that such collisions might be due to distracted driving, which may be the case, although the distraction may be the fact the driver is noticing a self-driving car, or due to the nature of the cars’ driving behavior, which is very safe but somewhat unusual (see item 2, in particular the supplemental video).

“Google Inc. revealed Thursday that one of its self-driving car prototypes was involved in an injury accident for the first time. In the collision, a Lexus SUV that the tech giant outfitted with sensors and cameras was rear-ended in Google’s home city of Mountain View, where more than 20 prototypes have been self-maneuvering through traffic. The three Google employees on board complained of minor whiplash, were checked out at a hospital and cleared to go back to work following the July 1 collision, Google said. The driver of the other car also complained of neck and back pain.”

2) Human Drivers Are Totally Going To Take Advantage Of Self-Driving Cars

This article suggests that Google’s self-driving cars are quite visible and that their cautious driving is prone to being exploited by other drivers. This is not unexpected – there are louts aplenty on the roads who are more than willing to cut off other drivers, tailgate, zigzag through traffic, etc.. Of course, in the not so distant future many cars will be equipped with systems (like auto-brake) which will limit such behavior. This video shows that some of the Google car’s behavior is much more cautious than a human driver would be (for example, waiting for a rail crossing to be clear of other cars before proceeding). Since people make some assumptions as to the behavior of other drivers, this may be partly to explain for the number of human drivers who have hit Google cars.

“In a world of impatient, risk-taking humans, being a good driver has its downsides. Have you ever driven on a freeway and kept the proper distance between you and the car in front of you? What happens? The car behind you passes you and gives you a deadly look. In Mountain View, California, drivers are getting accustomed to Google’s self-driving cars annoying them in much the same way. But humans know that the “robot” drivers will never cut them off, or try to get revenge if the humans try something dangerous. And so the humans are taking advantage. “Google cars drive like your grandma,” writes a reader of Wearobo. “They’re never the first off the line at a stop light, they don’t accelerate quickly, they don’t speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc).” This is great, not only for other drivers, but for pedestrians and cyclists too. Self-driving cars work hard to keep everyone safe, not just their occupants. They wait until the last pedestrian has crossed the street before moving off. They back off if you pull in too hard after overtaking. In short, they’re easy marks that other drivers can exploit.”

3) Here’s how much a self-driving car could save you on car insurance

We have mentioned in the past that the auto-insurance industry might be disrupted by autonomous vehicles or even such safety features as auto-braking. This article attempts to quantify the effect on consumer insurance rates, however, I cannot comment on the methodology. It strikes me that the significant reduction in collisions is only part of the story, since since even systems such as auto-braking are likely to significantly reduce the severity of collisions which actually take place. This would have a corresponding reduction on vehicle damage, and more importantly, injury, especially since even existing safety systems do a good job or protecting occupants at lower speeds. The remark that there would still be coverage for vandalism is valid however below a certain level of risk the insurance could simply be rolled into a homeowners comprehensive insurance policy. Furthermore, vandals may be hesitant to attack a vehicle festooned with cameras.

“Self-driving cars could save the average driver about $1,000 a year on car insurance, according to estimates from auto insurance start-up, MetroMile. Self-driving cars have a near perfect driving record. So far, when self-driving cars do get into accidents, it’s because humans were responsible. Since Google began to release details about self-driving car accidents, reports from the Wall Street Journal, the RAND Corporation, and KPMG have all predicted a dramatic shrinking in the auto insurance industry. To find a concrete dollar figure that’s relevant to the average driver, I asked the actuaries at MetroMile to examine Google’s accident reports and construct their own pricing model for self-driving cars. … The insurance model is based on a 20-year-old single female in the San Francisco area, driving 12,000 miles a year. Most of the cost savings from self-driving cars come from the expected near elimination of accidental collisions (we used a 90 percent reduction figure).”

4) Electric vehicle batteries are getting cheaper much faster than we expected

The is an absolutely dreadful article which doesn’t even support the conclusions. Far from it. Setting aside for a moment the questionable relevance of the costs of stationary batteries (whose price directly correlates to capacity, which is unmentioned), the authors: “… admitted that their data was imperfect due to secrecy surrounding business deals. But public statements made by electric vehicle makers were used to confirm some of the numbers that the researchers found.” In other words, when facts aren’t around, rely on the comments of stock promoters and other with skin in the game. This should not be a difficult question to answer: if battery manufacturers had, actually, significantly reduced the costs of their batteries they should be able to provide the sales figures to show it. After all, commodity Lithium Ion batteries of the type used in EVs are sold in the millions and you can actually look up their prices, or failing that, get quotes from manufacturers. The manufacturers may not give you the same price they give Tesla or Nissan (which may involve selling batteries at a steep loss) but the price you’d get would reflect real world commercial terms.

“It’s no secret that Li-ion battery packs have been getting cheaper, and it’s unsurprising that Tesla, would experience some economies of scale to allow that kind of price point (whether or not the price is subsidized by the company). And the price is only likely to come down, as the company is in the process of building a massive “gigafactory” outside of Reno, Nevada, with Panasonic to produce Li-ion batteries. Beyond Tesla, however, a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change gathered data to confirm that the cost of Li-ion battery packs for electric vehicles are falling for everyone. If trends continue, the paper suggests, electric vehicle battery packs and their stationary brethren could compete more effectively against gas cars and backup generators not too far into the future.”

5) $7,000 Credit Offered By Nissan For Nissan LEAF Lease Buyout

One issue with EV is that they can be expected to have zero residual value when the short lived battery back needs replacement since, unlike a car engine, which is in any event much cheaper than a battery pack, replacement is the only option for a worn out pack. I am frankly shocked at the minimal resale value of Nissan Leafs since, even models a few years old, since one would expect a few more years of useful life out of them. The resale value of a 2013 Leaf after 21,000 miles is around $9,000 (, less than a third the original price of $28,800 ($19,900 after copious subsidies). In contrast a 2013 Nissan Sentra cost $18,000 new, and the resale value of one after 37,400 miles is $11,800.

“Since this credit is available directly from Nissan, LEAF leaseholders can just dial up the Nissan Motor Acceptance Corporation (Nissan’s finance arm) to get the credit, should their lease be almost up. While each lease is different, this buyout could take 50% or more off the cost of taking home your LEAF, instead of turning it back into the dealership. Many used LEAFs with less than 36,000 miles on them are selling for between $10,000 and $12,000, so the credit should bring the buyout price at or below that same level.”

6) Electric Vehicles Drive to Back Up the Grid

Ah, the US Department of Defense – your best source for all things economically rational and green. Why, a few years ago, in a stroke of genius, they decided to insulate the air conditioned tents they had deployed in Afghanistan. Who knew insulating an air conditioned tent would reduce CO2 emissions? To be fair to the once credible Scientific American, they do allow a tiny glimmer of skepticism “There are also questions as to how cycling energy back to the grid affects the battery …”. Actually, there is no question at all: rechargeable batteries get used up and if you use your fancy, highly subsidized, EV to store grid electricity you will use up your battery at a rate proportion to that use. That is pretty much how rechargeable batteries work. So it is a really stupid idea.

“For the Department of Defense, which manages more than 200,000 nontactical vehicles, switching to electric vehicles could provide serious fuel cost savings. But this pilot project is about more than just—decarbonizing the transportation sector. This fleet is not just sucking electricity out of the grid, the electric cars can provide power back into it through something called “vehicle to grid” technology, or V2G. When plugged in, the electric vehicles (EVs) at LA AFB produce more than 700 kilowatts of electricity, or enough to power about 140 American households during a hot summer day. At this scale, the LA AFB pilot is the largest demonstration of V2G in the world.”

7) Intel delays next-gen chips as Moore’s law begins to crack

This appeared as a bolt from the blue, though the pace of Moore’s Law was due for deceleration. While we occasionally see news items about molecular transistors, the fact is that things get wonky as they get smaller and there is bound to be a practical lower limit to transistor size. If nothing else, the tiny scales tend to require lower voltages which create other problems. The does not mean “Moore’s Law is dead” as some headlines suggest unless you strictly adhere to the 2 year rule. More likely, the tempo will slow to three years, then four, etc.. Regardless, this is the least of the semiconductor industry’s concerns as substantially all large markets for semiconductors are mature and little would change with a somewhat faster CPU. One might hope that things like robots and self-driving vehicles will eventually provide a further uptick in demand.

“Intel says its next-gen “Cannonlake” chips will be delayed by six months, marking the second time in a row it hasn’t released a CPU on a two-year “Moore’s law” cycle. Last year’s 14-nanometer Broadwell chips were similarly delayed, and even Haswell and Ivy Bridge were behind schedule. Intel said that the setback for the new 10-nanometer chips was caused by the increasing complexity in building transistors that small. Addressing the elephant in the room, CEO Brian Krzanich said that “the last two technology transitions have signaled that our cadence today is closer to 2.5 years than two.””

8) PC, Mobile Slump Hits Chips

Flat PC sales shouldn’t be news, however, they might get a short term bump as Windows 10 is released. We have predicted mobile sales slowing as there is very little innovation in the space (leading to longer upgrade cycles) and the market is relatively mature. Unlike the potential lift in PC demand we see no reason whatsoever to be optimistic about smartphone demand. Rather we expect significant pricing pressure in the space.

“Semiconductor sales are in a two-year slump due to weak demand for PCs and smartphones, according to a new forecast. The Internet of Things and China are generating excitement, but are not expected even in the medium term to provide a significant boost. Chips sales will be rise a mere 2.2% this year and be nearly flat at 1.3% growth next year, market watcher Gartner said at the opening of the annual Semicon West event here. Chip growth will return to a more typical 4-5% from 2017-2019, Gartner predict based on modest pickup in mainly traditional markets.”

9) Why Are IDC And Gartner’s PC Market Stats Different, And Does It Even Matter?

Frankly the mystery to me has always been why people pay good money for Gartner, IDC, or other industry forecasts. Setting aside for a moment the utter uselessness of unit sales as a metric for PC sales (unless one is exclusively interested in Microsoft), neither firm has shown any measurable skill are predicting the marker they purportedly closely follow. The PC market slowdown was predictable five years ago, if not earlier.

“Then they list 3 factors contributing to the PC market’s decline, but they’re in a different order from each other, and Windows 10 isn’t even #1. If they’re listed in order of importance, then I like that the order is different. It means that Gartner and IDC both see the same things and are reacting to them differently. Same inputs, different outputs.”

10) Apple, Samsung in talks with telecom groups to launch e-Sim card

Apple introduced an embedded, reprogrammable, SIM card in some products and some markets, and it is a good idea (there – I said it). Normal user installable SIMs require a sort of carrier and slot and it means somebody has to install it – a feat beyond the capacity of some consumers. SIM carriers, or any moving parts, are the a major source of reliability issues and the need to keep track of SIMs, install them correctly, etc., can be a pain. The problem with Apple’s approach was that it was non-standard and required mobile carrier acceptance, which was not always forthcoming. Establishing an e-SIM standard would do away with a mechanical SIM card, and, being a standard, more or less guarantee mobile carrier acceptance.

“Apple and Samsung are in advanced talks to join the rest of the telecoms industry to launch electronic Sim cards, in a move could fundamentally change how consumers sign up to mobile operators. The GSMA, the industry association which represents mobile operators worldwide, is close to announcing an agreement to produce a standardised embedded Sim for consumer devices that would include the smartphone makers.”

11) The Ennui of the Fitbit

Last week I mentioned there was evidence Apple Watch sales had plummeted. As my friend Duncan Stewart pointed out that doesn’t mean it is a financial disaster for Apple due to follow on sales The Apple Watch is following the trajectory of other wearables, including Fitbit, which I have at least noticed people wearing. This article looks a bit deeper at the fitness tracker side of the business.

“One research firm, Endeavour Partners, estimates that roughly a third of trackers get abandoned after six months. A recent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association was even more dire in its assessment: More than half of the people who buy fitness trackers, its authors claimed, ultimately stop using them. And a third of them do their stopping within six months of the devices’ purchase. Rock Health, an investment fund, bears that out: It claims that the regulatory filings for Fitbit, in particular—which boasts 76 percent of the U.S. market share by revenue, and recently went public—suggest that, as of the first quarter of 2015, only half of the tracker’s nearly 20 million registered users remained active in their use of their devices.”

12) How SnowShoe are using MakerBot 3D Printers to mass manufacture products.

This sounds like a success story for 3D printers, but I am not entirely sure it is. I am not convinced SnowShoe is a viable idea and I have my doubts as to why an inherently expensive “stamp” would somehow be a more desirable option than a QR Code. What is interesting is that this company decided to use 3D extrusion printers to make their stamps and discovered a latent difference in the function of iPhones and Android devices. This difference was, itself, due to the poor quality of material used in manufacture. In some ways this shows the challenge of going from idea to product: once you start making stuff in volume you find out things like this.

“Despite testing on all touchscreen devices initially, and being very satisfied with the results, customers started reporting catastrophic failures on Android devices. Following a series of dead-end assessments SnowShoe discovered that it was the consistency in the filament causing the problem. The conductive ABS is barely conductive enough to register on Android devices and seeing as the resistance of magnitude can vary by three orders in a single spool it explains why some Stamps from the same batch would work and others wouldn’t. “It is very frustrating to be so tantalisingly close to mass manufacture,” noted Moberg. “Our company would be moving forward at an incredible pace if we could find an ABS filament that was both hard enough to print consistently at .2mm layer height and conductive enough (<10,000 ohms resistance per linear foot) to function successfully.””

13) Macon-Bibb considering drones for emergency management

I suspect we will see more examples of this kind of thing, namely the use of drones by emergency services. Note that these are not your typical little toy drone but rather really big ones, likely with long range. This means they will have to be FAA certified and flown by licensed pilots. Of course, emergency services likely already employs helicopter pilots so that should not be a major problem. If this works out it may be far more cost effective than sending out a helicopter unless one is really needed.

“On Tuesday, Macon-Bibb County officials are expected to discuss whether to employ drones for emergency management across the county. It’s part of a proposed deal with companies Olaeris and Haeco to better respond to emergencies and disasters. The memorandum agreement, proposed by Mayor Robert Reichert, would cost the county $5.7 million over five years once the drone fleet is fully operational. Reichert says they’re looking at a fleet of about 15 to 17 aircraft, which operate out of individual hangars. Those hangars would be strategically placed across the county, Reichert said, possibly in conjunction with fire stations.”

14) ‘Flying gun’ drone video raises a red flag

I’m surprised this hadn’t been done before: after all, a gun is just another payload and you would only need a simple solenoid to work the trigger. Firing a gun is one thing, hitting something is another thing altogether: unless carefully designed a typical drone would not be stable enough to effect proper targeting. Of course, if you can film a crowd you could just as easily machine gun one, provided you have a drone big enough to carry the machine gun and ammunition (about 10 pounds). Mark my words, it’ll happen.

“A video depicting a drone flying and firing a weapon multiple times has raised alarm over the negative ways in which recreational unmanned aerial vehicles could be employed in the future. The video was posted on YouTube July 10 by a user called Hogwit, who has previously uploaded or shared videos illustrating drones in action. It comes with the terse description: “Homemade multirotor with a semiautomatic handgun mounted on it.””

15) Wi-Fi Aware – Discover the world nearby

Wi-Fi Aware is a sort of peer to peer networking standard which seems similar to Bluetooth. The articles I have read focus on applications I do not understand such as playing games and sharing photographs with a crowd of people, however, I suspect this may have application in Internet of Things (IoT), especially when setting systems up. Oddly enough the video embedded in the web page does not work so you can find it here

“Wi Fi CERTIFIED Wi-Fi Aware™ is a new Wi-Fi Alliance certification program that extends Wi-Fi’s capabilities with a real-time and energy-efficient discovery mechanism that provides an immediate on-ramp to rich here-and-now experiences. Wi-Fi Aware’s ability to continuously discover other devices and services within Wi-Fi range before making a connection brings proximity-based service discovery to Wi-Fi CERTIFIED devices. Wi-Fi Aware will make it easy to find information and services available in an area that match preferences set by the user – and is optimized to work well even in crowded environments. Wi-Fi Aware will be a key enabler of a personalized social, local, and mobile experience, enabling users to find video gaming opponents, share media content, and access localized information all before establishing a connection.”

16) National Post View: The cord cutters’ revolt

This is another article on “cord cutting”, or consumers dropping cable. Canada has a remarkably compliant regulatory environment which has lead to the dreadful state of our telecommunications infrastructure. Despite the CRTCs best efforts (and a third world class Internet infrastructure, and careful crafted protectionist legislation), companies like NetFlix occasionally manage to establish a beach head in the country. Since Canadian cable companies are, for the most part, also the broadband providers, and are largely unfettered and unregulated (through protected against competition), you can rest assured they will somehow muddle through.

“In March, Canada’s broadcast regulator, the CRTC, made a number of bold moves — for the year 1999. Cable companies, it ruled, would soon have to offer subscribers a “skinny basic” package capped at $25 per month. But hold onto your fax machines — there’s more! As of December 2016, consumers will also be allowed to select channels on a “pick-and-pay” basis, meaning they will no longer be forced to pay for dozens of channels they rarely, if ever, watch. Success! Time to celebrate with the latest Janet Jackson CD and a cool glass of Surge soda. For many Canadians, this announcement came about 15 years too late: many have already “cut the cord,” fed up with archaic bundling rules that not only saddled them with loads of unwatched — and unwatchable — channels, but overcharged them for the privilege. With the exception of live sports, most everything on cable can be found online in one form or another, often for much less than the $40 the cable companies charge even for basic packages.”

17) Newspaper advertising revenue will likely continue its decade-long free fall to below 1950 levels

This shows with shocking clarity the disruption of the newspaper business by the Internet. It is not as abrupt as elimination of the film industry as a result of digital photography, but then again, newspapers were not as concentrated as the film business was. The newspaper industry has attempted to fight back by drastically lowering quality, raising prices, and offering online access to their content. However, online ad revenue remains a very small part of their revenues and I see little reason they should be optimistic in concluding it will have a significant impact going forwards. I like the part about stopping to release data. That will hardly help those concerned.

“Assuming that the industry trends established over the last three years continue, I’m estimating that total print newspaper advertising revenue will decline this year to just under $17 billion, which would be a $2.2 billion drop in revenues from last year, following declines of $2.2 billion in 2012, $2.9 billion in 2011 and and $2.6 billion in 2010, with all dollar amounts expressed in constant inflation-adjusted 2013 dollars (see chart above). At an estimated $17 billion, the amount of spending on newspaper print advertising this year will be more than $3 billion below the $20 billion spent in 1960, more than 50 years ago. When we add in the $3.5 billion in estimated spending this year for online advertising, the total advertising revenue this year should be around $20.5 billion, which would be just slightly higher than the $20 billion total spent back in 1950.”

18) NSA releases Linux-based open source infosec tool

I had a good chuckle when I read this. Time was the NSA was consulted as experts on security. That was before the Snowden revelations proved that NSA participation in security standards was devised to provide the NSA with back doors and other bypasses. As a consequence, any proposed standard which is even suspected as having NSA involvement is now assumed to be compromised, and not just by the NSA (fun fact: Russia and China have smart people as well, and they almost certainly employ spies who work for the NSA). The fact the NSA has released this tool means either they are oblivious to reality or they assume there are enough rubes around who would given them a second chance. I suspect most open source advocates would rather download software from a Nigerian prince.

“The US National Security Agency has offered up one of its cyber security tools for government departments and the private sector to use freely to help beef up their security and counter threats. The systems integrity management platform – SIMP – was released to the code repository GitHub over the weekend. SIMP helps to keep networked systems compliant with security standards, the NSA said, and should form part of a layered, “defence-in-depth” approach to information security. NSA said it released the tool to avoid duplication after US government departments and other groups tried to replicate the product in order to meet compliance requirements set by US Defence and intelligence bodies.”,nsa-releases-linux-based-open-source-infosec-tool.aspx

19) Even If You Uninstall Google Photos, It Will Keep Uploading Your Pics

I figured I would include this item in case any readers were using Google Photos and thought they weren’t sharing all their pictures with whomever Google wanted to (see item 18, above). Of course, you don’t have to be paranoid to worry about sharing photos you don’t want to share but which happen to sit on somebody’s servers as a number of starlets discovered a few months ago. It is surprising an enterprising lawyer hasn’t brought suit over the issue.

“David Arnott of Upstart Business Journal discovered last week that his photographs were still being synced to Google’s servers after he uninstalled the Google Photos app from his Android smartphone. The problem does not appear to exist on iPhones. “There they were, hundreds of photos I’d taken of my wife, my daughter, and me, grouped together by Google’s facial-recognition technology in the company’s Photos app, all snapped over the course of a little more than a month,” Arnott wrote. “The problem was, I’d deleted all of those pictures.” Solving the problem is pretty easy: You can reinstall the app and disable the “back up and sync” option, then clear out any photos that it uploaded without you realizing. To do that, click the “hamburger” menu button on the upper left, then select “Settings” and tap “Back up & sync,””

20) Crowdsourcing blues: Reddit’s hate problem

This might be a bit of “inside baseball” but there has been pandemonium over at Reddit the past few months. Reddit is a content aggregator where users submit links or even stories. Many media outlets search Reddit incessantly and you’ll often find articles essentially lifted from its pages. Reddit owned by the same media conglomerate which owns Conde Naste. It is also often a veritable cesspool of hate, bullying, etc., all previously tolerated under the guise of “freedom of speech” which seems to have a different meaning in the US as compared to much of the rest of the world. Reddit’s corporate overlords appear to have decided that being linked to racist or misogynistic “sub-Reddits” might not be the best long term plan and “cracked down” on some of the disagreeable content. Many of the site’s moderators, who are unpaid and rather bizarrely volunteer their services to a media conglomerate were outraged and staged a sort of strike. In the grand scheme of things none of this (not even Reddit) matters, but it shows the challenges of managing a business which relies on crowdsourced content, especially when so much of your workforce is unpaid.

“Reddit’s fundamental problem is its reliance on unpaid labour, a difficulty shared with other community-run sites like Wikipedia. But for Reddit, this is complicated by its for-profit status. Reddit has roughly 70 paid staff, who handle the site’s infrastructure. An estimated 20,000 volunteer moderators help manage over 9,000 active boards, which play host to 164m unique users a month, by the firm’s most recent count. The subreddits are created around topics of intense interest, whether for good or ill. Reddit has long relied on users’ ability to “upvote” and “downvote” given posts to help police the site, but the wisdom of crowds does not always keep objectionable content buried. Moderators have generally helped to keep the site functioning. A plan to distribute $5m in shares to these “redditors” at its October valuation has yet to be firmed up.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 10th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 10th 2015


I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.

I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.

They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni

ps: sorry I’m late. Its a very slow nes week.

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1) University Rolls Out Adblock Plus, Saves 40 Percent Network Bandwidth

I am always amazed to see the amount of noise and clutter on websites when I use a computer which does not have ad blocking software. As a rural Canadian I pay through the nose for Internet service and since I have never bought anything due to Internet advertising I have no problem shutting it down. This study suggests the effect is not trivial: 25 – 40% of the bandwidth you pay for may be stolen by advertisers. I have moved on from Adblock to uBlock, which has no white list and seems to work better. Ironically, the Techweek Europe website popped up a message asking me to disable ad blocking on their site.

“A Canadian university claims to have saved between 25 and 40 percent of its network bandwidth by deploying Adblock Plus across its internal network. The study tested the ability of the Adblock Plus browser extension in reducing IP traffic when installed in a large enterprise network environment, and found that huge amounts of bandwidth was saved by blocking web-based advertisements and video trailers. “While the present popularity of Adblock Plus represents a certain vindication of its ad-blocking model, there is a lack of technical studies on its effectiveness,” said Malcolm Toms, Manager of Network Operations in the faculty of arts and social sciences at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “The purpose of this study was to fill this knowledge gap and evaluate the effectiveness of Adblock Plus in an enterprise environment, and document any reduction in network traffic.””

2) Apple Watch sales plunge 90%

This report caused a flurry of excitement when it came out. Not surprisingly, Apple fan boy websites dismissed the story as it contradicts their reality bubble. I have no idea whether the methodology is correct, however, the findings are credible. “Smartwatches” in general tend to wear thin pretty quickly as they have little utility and there tends to be a large aftermarket in slightly used devices. There does, however, seem to be some interest in FitBit type activity trackers.

“Sales of the new Apple Watch have plunged by 90% since the opening week, according to a new market-research report. Apple has been selling fewer than 20,000 watches a day in the U.S. since the initial surge in April, and on some days fewer than 10,000, according to data from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Slice Intelligence. That is a sharp decline from the week of the April 10 launch, when Apple sold about 1.5 million watches, or an average of about 200,000 a day, Slice estimates.”

3) Where Electric Vehicles Actually Cause More Pollution Than Gas Cars

This is the first article I have seen which looks at the full impact of operating EVs on pollution (not the manufacture, but the operation). Not surprisingly, a lot depends on how the electricity is being produced. Long story short, this analysis seems to show the US federal subsidy of $7,500 cannot be justified anywhere in the US and, in fact, EVs should be taxed extra in many areas. Note that the $7,500 subsidy is just a component of the lavish subsidies for EVs. One serious failing of the study is that it assumes both vehicles will last 150,000 miles. While this is readily achievable with a gasoline powered vehicle, 150,000 miles from an EV is borderline delusional since the battery pack would need replacement long before then, resulting in the EV being scrapped.

“A view from the tailpipe gives EVs a clear edge: no emissions, no pollution, no problem. Shift the view to that of a smokestack, though, and we get a much different picture. The EV that caused no environmental damage on the road during the day still needs to be charged at night. This requires a great deal of electricity generated by a power plant somewhere, and if that power plant runs on coal, it’s not hard to imagine it spewing more emissions from a smokestack than a comparable gas car coughed up from a tailpipe. So the truth of the matter hinges on perspective—and, it turns out, geography. That’s the sobering lesson from an incredibly sophisticated new working study by a group of economists. Using a fine-grained, county-level measure of U.S. vehicle emissions traced to tailpipes and electricity grids, the researchers mapped where gas cars and EVs cause more respective pollution. In some places electrics do so much relative harm that instead of being subsidized, as is currently the case, they should actually be taxed.”

4) Linux Creator Linus Torvalds Laughs at the AI Apocalypse

A few months back there was a lot of discussion regarding the “threat” of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Actual AI experts tried to explain that very few expected to see sentient machines with needs and wants (in particular the need and want to survive). AI, from the expert’s perspective is not the same thing as a sentient machine, rather it is a system which learns. You might want a self-driving car which learns, but you would have less use for a sentient car than a farmer would have for a sentient ox so it is hard to believe anybody would make a sentient machine, assuming they knew how. Torvalds is a pretty smart guy and worth listening to. His Sartre quoting dishwasher reminded me of Talky Toaster from Red Dwarf ( Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“We’ll get AI, and it will almost certainly be through something very much like recurrent neural networks. And the thing is, since that kind of AI will need training, it won’t be ‘reliable’ in the traditional computer sense. It’s not the old rule-based prolog days, when people thought they’d *understand* what the actual decisions were in an AI. And that all makes it very interesting, of course, but it also makes it hard to productise. Which will very much limit where you’ll actually find those neural networks, and what kinds of network sizes and inputs and outputs they’ll have. So I’d expect just more of (and much fancier) rather targeted AI, rather than anything human-like at all. Language recognition, pattern recognition, things like that. I just don’t see the situation where you suddenly have some existential crisis because your dishwasher is starting to discuss Sartre with you.”

5) IBM Watson CTO: Quantum computing could advance artificial intelligence by orders of magnitude

I wish the IBM executive had gone into detail here. Since there are no working quantum computers, and all known natural intelligent systems are, in fact, neural networks (which are not quantum computers), and all artificial AI systems are based on traditional computing hardware which has nothing in common with quantum computers, its really hard to make that connection.

“Combining the vast processing power of quantum computers with cognitive computing systems like IBM’s Watson will lead to huge advances in artificial intelligence, according to a C-level executive at the US software giant. Speaking to IBTimes UK at the recent Hello Tomorrow conference in Paris, IBM Watson’s chief technology officer Rob High said there was a “very natural synergy” between cognitive computing and quantum computing, revealing he hoped to one day see Watson run on a quantum system.”

6) Growing number of Canadians cutting traditional television, CBC research shows

This is part of a global trend and it is remarkable it is even happening in a place with such a poor Internet infrastructure. What is happening is that the traditional broadcast infrastructure, where there are discrete “channels” and time slots for programming, which made sense in the context of radio and TV broadcast, is no longer relevant. A one-to-many system only really works when there is no alternative or when important live events, such as sports, are taking place. Broadband offers the opportunity for fully customized delivery of what you want and when you want it, as well as (eventually) tailored delivery of multimedia content. Eventually this will result in fewer “hit shows”, which typically represent lowest common denominator content, and a much broader chose of content for consumers.

“A growing number of Canadians are ditching their traditional television subscriptions, according to a new CBC research report. The May 2015 report said more than half of Canadians currently without cable television have “cut the cord,” meaning they had a television subscription and canceled it. “With the prevalence of TV content on the internet and Netflix, Canadians are seeing less need to have a TV subscription,” the report said. Sixteen per cent of Canadians don’t pay for a traditional TV service, up from 12 per cent three years ago, the report said.’

7) Rebooting the Automobile

This is a relatively long article which discusses some of the trends in automotive electronics and establishing a more intimate connection with the smartphone of your choice. It is not clear to me this will catch on: while there is some merit to intelligent tethering, the number of permutations of devices, operating systems, etc., would likely cause all kinds of expensive consumer service issues for the auto vendors. It seems more likely they would simply add an integrated platform (most likely Android, since it is open) which would take care of all the difficult stuff and leave communications to your smartphone, possibly through a wireless link.

“Where would you like to go?” Siri asked. It was a sunny, slightly dreamy morning in the heart of Silicon Valley, and I was sitting in the passenger seat of what seemed like a perfectly ordinary new car. … The vehicle was, in fact, a Hyundai Sonata. The Apple-like interface was coming from an iPhone connected by a cable. Most carmakers have agreed to support software from Apple called CarPlay, as well as a competing product from Google, called Android Auto, in part to address a troubling trend: according to research from the National Safety Council, a nonprofit group, more than 25 percent of road accidents are a result of a driver’s fiddling with a phone. Hyundai’s car, which goes on sale this summer, will be one of the first to support CarPlay, and the carmaker had made the Sonata available so I could see how the software works.”

8) Autonomous Taxis Would Deliver Significant Environmental and Economic Benefits

Item 3 looked at the environmental impact of EVs while this looks at the environmental impact of autonomous vehicles (AVs), which may or may not be EVs. Long story short, most cars are bigger than they need to be because people buy on the basis of what they might need (mom, dad, 2 kids, dog) rather than what they use most of the time. Autonomous taxis would, in principal, be ‘right sized’ and thereby more energy efficient. I’d be cautious about their comments regarding EVs, besides the questionable environmental benefit as outlined in item 3, The battery in an EV is a consumable and part of it is lost with every charge. The more miles, the faster the battery is used up. There is no economy of scale with an EV.

“Imagine a fleet of driverless taxis roaming your city, ready to pick you up and take you to your destination at a moment’s notice. While this may seem fantastical, it may be only a matter of time before it becomes reality. And according to a new study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), such a system would both be cost-effective and greatly reduce per-mile emissions of greenhouse gases. The analysis found that the per-mile greenhouse gas emissions of an electric vehicle deployed as a self-driving, or autonomous, taxi in 2030 would be 63 to 82 percent lower than a projected 2030 hybrid vehicle driven as a privately owned car and 90 percent lower than a 2014 gasoline-powered private vehicle. Almost half of the savings is attributable to “right-sizing,” where the size of the taxi deployed is tailored to each trip’s occupancy needs.”

9) Uber will buy all the self-driving cars that Tesla can build in 2020

I am a big fan of HBO’s Silicon Valley, which I figure is a must watch for anybody in the technology business. Uber may be highly valued, but it is a prodigious destroyer of capital and that alone brings into question the viability of the business. Furthermore, not content with blowing through money like there is no tomorrow, the company has embarked on a number of strange acquisitions such as mapping businesses. As much as I like the service I sometimes wonder if they are a self-parody. The idea that they might buy 500,000 self-driving Teslas in 2020 is too bizarre for words: at an unachievable cost of $20,000 each that is $10B – lot of money for a money losing car service. Not only that but the odds of Tesla having such a thing by 2020 are close to nil: remember Telsa’s October 2014 promise of self driving cars by 2015 Even Tesla fanatics who paid for the feature are beginning to notice

“If Tesla can produce half a million cars by 2020, then Uber CEO Travis Kalanick will buy them all for his service, according to venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson. Jurvetson, a Tesla board member and partner in the VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, was speaking at the recent Top 10 Tech Trends dinner, put on by the Churchill Club, when he relayed a conversation he’d had with Kalanick about his hopes for “robocars” and the future. “Travis recently told me that in 2020, if Telsa’s are autonomous, he’d want to buy all of them. He said all 500,000 of estimated 2020 production, I’d want them all,” Jurvetson said. “But he couldn’t get a return call from Elon.””

10) Autonomous vehicles will have tremendous impacts on government revenue

I continue to believe AVs will have a profound impact on a number of industries including the auto-insurance business, which will be devastated, and trucking. This is the first study I’ve see which looks at the impact on government revenues. It seems the overall societal impact will be positive, however, one challenge with governments is that their costs for services are likely to stay around longer than the need for those services. So, even if fewer highway patrols will be needed, there is a good chance they’ll be there even if DUIs, speeding, etc, are no longer a problem.

“Two decades from now, there are likely to be a number of Americans who travel using autonomous vehicles (AVs). In an article on Slate we assert that this emergent vehicle technology will inhibit the public sector’s ability to generate revenue. In our recently published report Local Government 2035 we explain how AVs will reduce cash flows to governments when speeding tickets, DUI’s, and towing fees are ostensibly eliminated by driverless systems. This was only one side of the coin; AVs will also increase safety and mitigate inefficiencies in transportation systems, thereby saving government and taxpayers big bucks.”

11) Toyota radio ad shuts down iPhones because drivers won’t

I figure people who up with idea like this should face summary execution. Just think of it: some creative director thought it was a good idea to disable your phone for you, for safety’s sake. It might be you are a passenger, or perhaps using the phone for navigation, but some halfwit figured he’d shut it off for you. Now, some people are going to immediately fiddle with the phone to set it back, maybe disable Siri, and hopefully change radio stations, all the while driving while distracted. Other people aren’t going to notice their phone disabled itself until somebody asks them why they never return calls. Come to think of it summary execution is too good for them.

“The ad exploits the fact that saying “Hey, Siri” while your iPhone is plugged in will activate Apple’s digital assistant. The commercial proceeds to turn the digital helper against you by ordering it to put your phone into Airplane Mode, which not only keeps you from using it but also deactivates Siri so that you can’t override the lockout with your own voice. This is a really clever idea, but it’s easy to imagine how some drivers may not see the humor or practicality. It’s possible they’ll just pick up their phones to return them to normal manually, which is exactly the sort of thing that this campaign is trying to prevent.”

12) UK to develop Quantum ‘universal’ satellite

Novel satellite designs are somewhat topical but this headline threw me for a loop. Fortunately, the Quantum in Quantum satellite is just a name and has nothing to do with how it operates. The idea is to make a software reconfigurable satellite, which is probably a good approach. Instead of making custom electronics and antenna, these use a common platform and therefore should benefit from economies of scale during manufacture. It is unlikely this will make it easy to change the mission after launch, however the “parking space” is going to determine a lot of what can be done regardless of programmability. Nevertheless, and ability to tweak coverage patterns once aloft could allow flexibility as usage patterns change.

“The development of a completely novel type of telecommunications satellite has been approved. To be called Quantum and built in the UK, the 3.5-tonne spacecraft will break new ground by being totally reconfigurable in orbit. Normally, the major mission parameters on satellites – such as their ground coverage pattern and their operating frequencies – are fixed before launch. Quantum is a European Space Agency telecoms project.”

13) 101 US Cities Have Pledged to Build Their Own Gigabit Networks

US telecommunications policy is almost as much a mess as Canada’s is, but at least the FCC has been making some effort to improve it. Whether those changes will survive the next administration remains to be seen. One part of the mess is due to the fact that numerous states passed laws which essentially prohibited alternatives to entrenched players, regardless of how uncompetitive they were. Although some local governments had also restricted things like provision of cable services, others have recognized the importance of a modern broadband infrastructure to the health of their communities. The FCC eventually overruled state laws restricting cities from offering their own broadband services and now there is a rush to modernize broadband in many cities. Of course, it remains to be seen how many such projects will actually go ahead.

“The US has a big and rather complicated internet speed problem. Its broadband infrastructure is woefully behind in speed and price compared to a broad swath of other countries, and much of this has to do with its tenacious commitment to maintaining the status quo: that is, giving big telecommunications companies a lot of our money without being able to demand a fair amount in return. But here’s a change: 101 cities are have agreed to band together to bring their residents gigabit-speed internet connections, even if they have to build it themselves. They’re part of the Next Century Cities coalition, which promises to help cities make sense of how to tackle the mess of making all this possible. The coalition took shape last October with an inaugural 32 members after the FCC decided that cities can build their own broadband networks despite some states’ efforts to ban or restrict municipal internet services.”

14) New BBC Micro:bit Is Free for Preteens in the UK

I am a big believer in teaching people about electronics but I admit I would be a little confused if I were a UK resident and saw my tax money or TV fees going towards such a project. There are lots of reasons this won’t achieve the desired result: all kids will get the units for free but only a small portion will have the interest, environment, or tools, needed to make it work so they’ll be discarded or sold. Furthermore, there are a number of inexpensive open platforms richly supported by maker communities which would offer the same functionality, probably at a lower cost, while BBC will somehow have to foster and maintain a development package, software libraries, etc., all of which take time. The article at least looks at this effort with a degree of skepticism.

“Earlier today the BBC announced the final design of its Micro:bit. Intended to allow children to get creative with technology, the Micro:bit is one of the cornerstones of the BBC’s “Make it Digital” campaign, the corporation’s most ambitious educational initiative for 35 years. A lot of us cut our teeth on BASIC programming back in the late 70’s and early 80’s — we owned a Tandy TRS-80, an Apple II, or a BBC Micro — and spent hours in front of glowing phosphor screens hacking away, writing our own version of Space Invaders. The BBC Micro was a familiar sight in British schools, and it has left a lasting legacy which still looms over how computing is taught here in the UK.”

15) Taste the new green. Philips delivers tailored light growth recipes to produce, fresh food locally, indoors

I had this idea a number of years ago: since plants only absorb a small amount of the spectrum and since LEDs have a highly customizable spectrum, you could design LEDs which only emit the light the plants need, rather than wasting power producing the wavelengths they don’t need. This would make for far greater energy efficiency in artificially lit greenhouses. I rather doubt this would make food production in greenhouses cost effective compared to natural rearing, but it would save a lot of money “starting” plants, which is often done indoors prior to the growing season. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“Royal Philips, the global leader in lighting, has opened its state-of-the-art GrowWise Center at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Research being conducted by Philips will provide tailor-made LED light growth recipes making it possible for producers to increase their yields and grow tasty and healthy food indoors, all year round. The new 234m² facility, one of the world’s largest, will concentrate its research to optimize growth recipes for leafy vegetables, strawberries and herbs. Other areas of research will find ways to grow more carbohydrate-rich crops, like wheat and potatoes indoors.”

16) Inside an MRI, a Non-Metallic Robot Performs Prostate Surgery

The idea here is to use continuous imaging to guide the needle or knife during surgery. MRIs provide a high quality three dimensional image without exposing the patient or medical staff to dangerous ionizing radiation. The tricky bit is the fact MRI do this using massive magnetic fields so the choice of materials for the instrument is very important as any magnetic metal would become a projectile near the MRI. Calling this a robot is a bit of an overstatement as it is more of a positioning frame than an interactive system. Nevertheless it is probably a sign of things to come.

“One of the holy grails of robotic surgery is the ability to perform minimally invasive procedures guided by real-time scans from a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, machine. The problem is the space inside MRI scanners is tight for a person, let alone a person and a robot. What’s more, these machines use very strong magnetic fields, so metal is not a good thing to place inside of them, a restriction that is certainly a problem for robots. Now researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are developing a MRI-compatible robotic surgery tool that can overcome those limitations. Their system isn’t made of metal, but instead has plastic parts and ceramic piezoelectric motors that allow it to work safely inside an MRI.”

17) 3D printing for Aerospace: “Additive manufacturing will change the game forever”

Most, but not all, of the hype and hysteria associated with 3D printing has died down and high profile stocks like Stratasys are well off (75%) their recent highs. This does not mean that 3D printing is no longer a thing and I continue to believe it will be an important technology in the future, though much less in the home than in industrial and medical applications. This article looks at some real world examples of applications in the aerospace sector. It is worth noting that aerospace is a low volume, high value manufacturing sector and thereby is probably uniquely positioned for 3D printing applications.

“The aerospace industry has provided some major headline grabbing developments over the last few years and that’s been even more evident in just the last few months. Talk to anyone about 3D printing and chances are they’ve heard one of the more famous examples like the one about the plane that’s being flown with 1,000 3D printed parts or the one with the huge 3D printed turbine. The radical fact about aerospace is we’re not just talking about prototypes but real functional parts that are being used in aircraft, some of which have been on commercial vehicles for the last year without the need for a huge parade and ceremony to back them up. Airbus was the name behind the recent sexy “1,000 3D printed parts on board an aircraft” story that saw Stratasys FDM 3D Production Systems used in place of traditionally manufactured metal parts.”

18) Top Security Experts Say Government Limits On Encryption Present Risks

I had to look around to find an article covering this research which did not include No S*** in the title (since some subscriber’s spam filters block the vernacular). Long story short, a system with a back door cannot be a secure system. Its a bit like telling people they have to tell the government where they hid the spare key, just in case the police show up – if the crooks know you are hiding a spare key, they’ll find it. Unfortunately, lawmakers are more influenced by the police and their security services than they are by researchers or by common sense and you can rest assured that “legal” security products will be required to have a back door and only criminals and terrorists who will use systems without back doors, will be secure.

“A group of top cybersecurity experts reported today that giving law enforcement special access to encrypted data for investigations would pose “major security risks.” The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab report included input from cryptography expert Bruce Schneier and researchers from MIT, Stanford University, Columbia University, Cambridge University, Johns Hopkins University, Microsoft Research, SRI International and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Since October, U.S. law enforcement officials have called for a special door that would allow government agencies to access encrypted data that could help them in investigations. The report tells us that a backdoor for the government and law enforcement also provides an opening that could be exploited by hackers. The experts argue such special access points “pose far more grave security risks, imperil innovation on which the world’s economies depend, and raise more thorny policy issues than we could have imagined when the Internet was in its infancy.””

19) The Internet of NO Things – Demos Helsinki founder Roope Mokka’s speech at Almedalen Week

This is a rather interesting speech / essay by a futurist. I can see what he is getting at: we don’t think of calculators as technology, just things. However, it is easy to get carried away with idea that bits are replacing atoms: this is only true in the cloistered, white collar world of urban academics and futurists. Also, one has to be cautious when ascribing value creation to the likes of Uber or any other high tech flavor of the week. The market is rarely efficient and often wrong.

“The global average of looking at your phone is six minutes. It means that we disrupt ourselves every sixth minute. And off we go, there’s a red dot in Facebook, someone commented on something, then email, then Snapchat, then a bit of Instagram, then check Twitter. A bit of Facebook again and finally close it all off with a look on Reddit. And start again in six minutes. Life as a gerbil. Back again in six minutes. This is obviously crazy. But not as crazy as it may sound to claim that soon we’ll never look at our phones again. Let me explain how this happens and why it’s only logical that it will happen. The reasons behind the internet of NO things are simple. The strongest long-term trend in technology has been the drop in its size and price, along with the convergence of different technologies into one. Things have got smaller and smaller and cheaper and cheaper. And technology now includes more and more functionalities.”

20) High prices are sparking a wireless black market in Canada

Canada’s telecommunications policies have been disastrous for consumers and businesses, though in some parts of the country less disastrous than others. As a consequence there is wide variability in the cost of services, even from the same provider. Oddly enough, given carrier whining about Canada being an expensive place to run services due to low population density, sparsely populated areas like Manitoba actually have lower rates than more densely populated areas due to competitive pressures (i.e. actual competition rather than collusion). This has opened up arbitrage opportunities. I am keen to see whether T-Mobile’s “Mobile without borders” ( plan opens up further arbitrage.

“You know wireless pricing in Canada is messed up when there’s a black market emerging to provide people with better deals. Take a fellow who identifies as “Tony,” for example. Tony is selling monthly plans with Koodo on Kijiji for $48. His fee for setting up the plan, which features unlimited nationwide calling and 5 gigabytes of data, is $100. He ships customers a SIM card for their phone, and off they go. For the majority of Canadians, 5 GB of data and unlimited calling for $48 a month is an absolute steal. In most parts of the country, such a plan costs at least $90. Anyone taking Tony up on his offer will see his fee pay off in just two months of service. Tony is cagey about answering questions texted to him, probably because he knows that what he’s doing isn’t exactly above board. What he’s doing, according to a source familiar with the situation, is setting up Koodo plans in Manitoba – where $48 does indeed get unlimited calling and 5 GB data – and then exporting them to the rest of the country.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 3rd 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 3rd 2015


I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.

I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.

They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni

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1) Cancer reproducibility effort faces backlash

Strange things have happened to science over the past few decades. “Publish or perish” has resulted in a massive increase in peer reviewed studies, many of which have been shown to be deeply flawed or even fraudulent, often many years after publication. Journals regularly publish paper with import things (like the data and/or methods) retained as proprietary, or only available by permission. It is very difficult to have negative results published, as a consequence, little effort goes into actually checking whether previously published studies were reproducible. Over the long term, of course, reality always wins. The problem is that other scientists often base their work and analysis off unsubstantiated and in many cases non-repeatable work. Given the funding applied to cancer research, and the stakes involved, actually verifying whether “important findings” are actually true should be a priority. Sadly, as this article shows, “leaders” in the field explicitly do not want their result research questioned. That is a deeply perverse interpretation of the scientific method.

“Either way, the project seems a waste of time, Young says. “I am a huge fan of reproducibility. But this mechanism is not the way to test it.” That is a typical reaction from investigators whose work is being scrutinized by the cancer reproducibility project, an ambitious, open-science effort to test whether key findings in Science, Nature, Cell, and other top journals can be reproduced by independent labs. Almost every scientist targeted by the project who spoke with Science agrees that studies in cancer biology, as in many other fields, too often turn out to be irreproducible, for reasons such as problematic reagents and the fickleness of biological systems. But few feel comfortable with this particular effort, which plans to announce its findings in coming months. Their reactions range from annoyance to anxiety to outrage. “It’s an admirable, ambitious effort. I like the concept,” says cancer geneticist Todd Golub of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, who has a paper on the group’s list. But he is “concerned about a single group using scientists without deep expertise to reproduce decades of complicated, nuanced experiments.””

2) Tech giant plans for robots, defends labor record

Foxconn has been discussing increasing automation for some time now. Of course, a significant amount of electronic assembly is currently automated: it would be almost impossible to hand assemble a smartphone circuit board without advanced robotics systems. Replacing people with capital has been a trend since the industrial revolution and it isn’t going to change any time soon. Of course, some of this might be bluster in order to keep workers in line.

“Chairman Terry Gou said Foxconn Technology Group will be able to replace 30% of its workers on the production lines with robots in five years’ time. Gou said he wants to cut the number of staff in the repetitive, monotonous work of putting together mobile gadgets including Apple’s iPhones, and he plans to shift that 30% of workers to sales and software design positions. “I am not replacing jobs with robots,” Gou said during the annual shareholders meeting on June 25. “I am having workers do work that require thinking.” Gou’s statement came as the tech giant has been developing robotics technology for automated production, an area the executive has identified to be the company’s core businesses in the future.”

3) Robot brickie: Perth engineer invents world’s first robotic bricklayer

A robotic bricklaying machine has long been a dream for me. Bricklaying requires a lot of skill, the work proceeds quite slowly, and it is very easy to screw up. This machine appears to place structural bricks of the type common in house construction outside of North America, and that is probably a simpler task albeit one which is still rather labour intensive. Unfortunately, like many things call inventions nowadays, it is unclear whether the machine actually works. I have not been able to find a video of it in operation, just this animation

““We’re at a technological nexus where a few different technologies have got to the level where it’s now possible to do it, and that’s what we’ve done.” “Hadrian” the robot — named after the famous Roman defensive wall of antiquity — will be commercialised first in WA, then nationally and then globally. Laying 1000 bricks per hour, it can work day and night, with the potential to erect 150 homes a year. It works by creating a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) laying program of a house or structure, then calculates the location of every brick and creates a program that is used to cut and lay the bricks in sequence from a single, fixed location. A 28m articulated telescopic boom goes to work and mortar or adhesive is delivered under pressure to the robotic laying head and applied to the brick which is then laid in the correct sequence as per the program. The robot de-hacks, measures, scans for quality and cuts to length the bricks and routs for electrical and other services.”

4) Detectives Investigating Drone Crash at Pride Parade

I remain pretty skeptical about the widespread use of drones for things like parcel delivery, however, there are clearly valid uses for the things. This incident was due to a drone operated by an amateur but that is not the point: getting struck in the head can kill or seriously injure somebody, and flying machines are going to occasionally drop from the sky. You can imagine the damage if the drone had been large enough to carry cargo, and was carrying cargo when it fell.

“A 25-year-old woman was knocked unconscious Sunday after she was struck by a small drone aircraft while attending the Pride parade in downtown Seattle. The woman was in the crowd at the parade near 4th Avenue and Madison when the 18″-by-18″ drone reportedly crashed into a building and fell into the crowd, striking the woman in the head. The woman’s boyfriend caught her as she fell to the ground. An off-duty firefighter helped treat the woman and called for police. At the scene, one the victim’s friends handed over the damaged drone—which retails for about $1200 and weighs about 2 pounds—and provided photographs of a man, who may have been piloting the aircraft.”

5) Maine crews use drone to rescue 2 boys from raging river

This is an example of a legitimate application of a drone, and this one was the personal property of one of the rescuers. Lifeguards are testing drones to deliver life jackets to swimmers in distress ( and the systems are being used to survey disaster areas. The difference between these and frivolous applications like delivering parcels or taking pictures at a parade is that there is a clear risk reward benefit and the people using the machines know what they are doing. It is hard to imagine an autonomous delivery drone would be able to avoid putting people at risk unless it is delivering to an empty lot.

“Officials in Maine have used a drone to deliver a lifejacket to a boy stranded on a rock in the middle of a raging river. Two boys needed rescuing Tuesday afternoon after their tube overturned in the Little Androscoggin River. Only one was wearing a lifejacket. Auburn Fire Chief Frank Roma told CBS affiliate WGME that before attempting a rescue, crews wanted to get a lifejacket to the boy without one. Roma said they used a drone to get a line to the boys so they could pull the lifejacket to them. “We wanted to make sure we got a life jacket on that second child so that if they did fall in the water we could catch them downstream,” Roma told WGME.”

6) California Adds Income-Based Caps for Clean Vehicle Rebates on EVs and Plug-In Hybrids

As we have noted in the past, EV subsidies provide minimal bang for the buck environmentally and there is considerable evidence the system is gamed. California is a peculiar place where environmental policies appear based on “truthiness” rather than sound science, so I doubt much will change. The implementation of an income based cap on a small portion of EV subsidies may be indicative of a trend, but it is doubtful this move alone would impact the industry. After all, the average income of a Tesla owner is just under $300K ( so a minor reduction in subsidy would not impact a purchase decision. Of course, if political actually starts being applied to the use of taxpayer money to pay for rich peoples’ cars to no significant environmental benefit, that would be the end of the industry.

“The second change is the complete elimination of the incentive for those with incomes over $250,000 for EVs and PHEVs. If you think high-income earners weren’t applying for incentives, stats compiled by the Center for Sustainable Energy say otherwise. Survey data from the second quarter of 2015 indicates over 26% of recipients had an income over $200,000. That’s nearly equal to the 27% of those earning less than $99,000. Interestingly, nearly three quarters of rebates so far this year went to those with incomes over $99,000.”

7) Heads-up displays in cars can hinder driver safety

There was a fair bit of excitement over Google Glass a couple years ago. I remain unconvinced that people can handle a constant stream of visual information as our brains did not evolve within the context of multiple concurrent activities. Even our eyes have acute vision in a very narrow field of view. Fighter pilots seem to manage, so perhaps a properly designed display can be managed, given enough training. Although I have never been in a car with a Heads-up Display (HUD) I would have figured the ability to keep your eyes on the road would be a major advantage. Apparently not.

“Heads-up displays (HUDs) in cars were once a rare thing. More and more, new cars now come with HUDs as standard, and you can even buy aftermarket HUDs. HUDs project useful information like the car’s current speed and navigation directions into the driver’s field of view, saving them from having to look down at an instrument panel or display, the idea being to reduce distractions and keep a driver’s eyes on the road. But a study from the University of Toronto led by Ian Spence suggests that HUDs might actually have the opposite effect and can even be a threat to safety. According to the study, published last month in PLoS ONE, the question of how our brains deal with dividing our visual attention between spatially commingled information isn’t currently well understood. Rather, most studies have looked at how divided attention works when performing a single task that requires us to get visual information from two distinct spatial locations (i.e., looking down at an infotainment display and then at the road). The researchers wanted to get a better idea of how commingled division of visual attention works in practice, using a simulation of an augmented reality HUD to do so.”

8) Not interested! Jaguar Land Rover will never make a self-driving car

I have to admit it is hard to imagine there will be much of a market for driverless Ferraris or Lamborghinis, but I don’t place Jaguars or Land Rovers in the same category. According to earlier articles, including at least one still on their website, ( the company has been working on a host of self-driving features and their cars. Land Rovers in particular, seem loaded with systems designed to decouple the skill of driver when off road though it is hard to imagine the Land Rovers I have seen ever driving the places I regularly take my pickup truck, which has no such systems. Regardless, in the future some degree of autonomous system, such as auto-braking, is bound to be a required safety feature.

“Google self-driving cars are already on the streets of Mountain View, California as part of tests to understand how the tech works in midst of manual vehicles. Nissan and Renault said they plan to introduce vehicles that can navigate without driver intervention in nearly all situations. Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Volkswagen etc all have their own take on automated driving. So we can safely say almost all the big names in the automotive industry are all for it except Jaguar Land Rover. The British automaker has vowed that it will never build a driverless car because the company doesn’t consider its customers cargoes.”

9) Why Semi-Autonomous Vehicles are Still Relevant

This is pretty much an advertisement for ZF TRW’s current control systems but it does make a couple of good points. Semi-autonomous vehicles don’t require anywhere near the amount of electronics, and software as fully autonomous vehicles and yet they can accomplish much of the same objective. By decoupling the system at low speeds, as cruise controls do, you remove many of the most difficult tasks which need to be mastered for full autonomy. I figure these sorts of vehicles will be serve as a stepping stone to full AVs. Don’t bother with the video: it is just the guy narrating the article with a couple of pictures thrown in for good measure.

“In an age of Google self-driving cars, what’s the big the deal about semi-autonomous driving? Well, the ZF TRW system uses sensor and actuator technology already present in millions of cars on the road today – costing a fraction of the price of fully automated systems. ACC systems are currently used with radar and laser measurement systems and the self-park feature currently offered in popular models uses steering actuators as an offshoot of electric power-steering technology. The 25mph minimum speed limit requires drivers to take over the wheel completely at city intersections and with point-to-point navigation – two of the most difficult technical problems faced by today’s automated driving systems. The minimum speed limit also means drivers still need to get out of driveways, navigate through neighbourhoods and move on to secondary roads or freeways themselves. However, as the driver has minimal input into the vehicle’s movements for much of the ride, it will be easier to become distracted when the car is ready to relinquish control.”

10) Tesla to open seven new service centers in Japan by end of 2015

Another example of “Muskematics”. Akhita Japan gets about 3 kWh/day of sunshine on average (see At about 15% efficiency (which is high), and 2 axis tracking, they would need about 142 square meters of solar cells per charge (assuming they charge an 80 kWh battery at 20% remaining). My local filling station fills about 20 cars per hour (I live in the country) all day. Let’s say Tesla is only a bit successful and they do 20 per day. That’s just under 3,000 square meters of real estate, 60% of a football field, which I assume is very cheap in Japan.

“Musk also said that Tesla, which began selling the Model S electric car in Japan last year, will build more “supercharger” stations across the country. The company currently has six charging stations: three in Tokyo and one each in Yokohama, Osaka and Kobe. Musk emphasized that the charging stations will operate independently of Japan’s electric grid, which has seen prices rise as nuclear power plants in the country remain offline following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. “Our proposal is to use solar panels to power charging stations, and then there’s no impact on the grid,” the CEO said. “That way, the cost of electricity is much less and the electricity is coming from pure sunlight, which is therefore very clean.””

11) Google’s New Project Is So Insanely Advanced It Will Blow You Away

Ignore the clickbait title: it seems everybody wants to be the next Business Insider. This article, and the interesting video, are about Google’s Project Soli, which uses an ultra low power, short range, radar system as a user interface. By using radar they capture 3D information associated with your movements, which you have to admit it pretty amazing. Despite the video, it is not clear how useful such a thing is – like voice recognition, misinterpretation can render a user interface impractical. Nevertheless, the fact a radar system can be put in such a small volume is pretty remarkable.

“If Google has its way, our future will be nothing less than a sci-fi movie. After creeping us out with a robotic cheetah and the Google ‘Glass’, Google is all set to bring forth something really amazing. Google’s Project Soli has invented a new interaction sensor using radar technology that can capture motions of your fingers at up to 10,000 frames per second. And that is something that has never ever been done before. Simply put, this technology is so bafflingly accurate that you could operate any device (fitted with this) without having to even touch it.”

12) One of the Most Important Tools in Science Now Fits Inside Your Phone

Here is another example of interesting design, however, it is not clear to me how useful the device will be. For the record, I doubt self-diagnosing skin cancer will be a killer app.

“By using tiny amounts of strange, light-sensitive inks, Bao and his colleague Moungi Bawendi—a chemist at MIT—have designed a working spectrometer that’s small enough to fit on your smartphone. Because of the tool’s simple design and its need for only an incredibly small amount of the inks, Bao says, his spectrometer only requires a few dollars worth of materials to make. They report the research today in the journal Nature.”

13) ‘Cloud tax’ upsets Chicago tech community: ‘Life just got 9 percent harder’

The headlines around this brilliant stroke focus on its impact on consumers by taxing Netflix and other streaming services, but lawyers have determined that it actually includes all kinds of cloud based services, including SaaS (software as a service). Many business applications have moved to SaaS so this would increase costs of Chicagoan businesses and create an accounting nightmare for service providers. Since it is doubtful cloud service providers would implement the necessary accounting changes to serve such a small market, and since, in many cases, they have no idea where a customer is located, it is hard to believe this will produce much in the way of income for the city. It is bound to cause tech companies to reconsider locating there, however.

“Chicago’s new 9 percent tax on streaming and cloud services appears to have the local technology community agitated and, more than anything, confused. Reports on Wednesday of the “cloud tax” took many Chicagoans by surprise, leaving providers and consumers of streaming and cloud services scrambling to understand the implications. Technology companies, among the heaviest users of cloud services, are likely to be taxed for the services they use as well as those they provide. The cloud tax extends ordinances governing two types of taxes — the city amusement tax and the city personal property lease transaction tax. The taxes cover many products streamed to businesses and residents. They also cover use of various online databases that could especially affect businesses.”

14) BBC to lay off 1,000 people as Britons cut the cord and TV licences decline

Cord cutting generally refers to disconnecting from cable or satellite services, which is clearly not the case here. What seems to be going on is that people are simply not buying TVs, choosing to stream content to various forms of computers instead. This is part of a global trend, in particular amount the youth, and it will result in significant challenges for traditional broadcast business models down the road. This need not continue to be a problem for the BBC. Provided they have political support, they’ll just ask for a tax to be placed on broadband services to make up the gap.

“The British Broadcasting Corporation will cut more than 1,000 jobs to cover a 150-million-pound ($294 million Cdn) gap in licence fee income next financial year as millions of viewers turn off their televisions and watch programmes on tablets and mobile phones. … The BBC’s Head of News, James Harding, last month predicted that by 2025, most people in the United Kingdom would probably get their television programmes over the Internet. “The Internet has ripped a hole in the business model of many great news organisations,” said Harding.Just 69 per cent of viewing by British adults is now through live TV and among 16- to 24-year-olds only 50 per cent of viewing was done through live TV, the country’s telecoms regulator said.”

15) Apple’s Beats 1 launch adds momentum to radio’s big digital shift

I guess something hasn’t been invented until Apple copies it, but the article does raise number of good points. As I predicted long ago (1997) the Internet jeopardizes traditional broadcast models (see article 14). Interest in broadcast radio among the youth (a core demographic for advertisers) is on a long slide to oblivion, and in many markets the response has been to lower quality even further. It is worth noting that people still listen to AM radio, or so I am told, so it will take a very long time before FM dies completely. It will happen, however.

“Radio was the original social network. It was the first format that allowed people in different areas to listen to music at the same time, in real time, and react. Driving this were DJs — men and women who obsessively sought out new music and new artists so they could deliver new music experiences. And consumers loved it. They were a part of something bigger than just themselves, and it gave birth to the modern day music business. But the costs of operating a radio network — based on either traditional FM stations or satellites — are very high. The consolidation that ended the era of local radio led to mega-corporate airwaves that controlled what music you could hear as a few companies came in and bought up almost every station in the country. That’s how we got to the cluster model operated today. With this, radio programming shifted from tastemaker DJs to radio consultants and MBAs driven by ratings and revenues.”

16) What’s Blocking The $11 Trillion Internet Of Things Opportunity

Despite the hype, the article covers a number of important issues associated with slowing the adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Open standards are extremely important, as without them the technology will never take off. Of course, companies are promoting their own standards because control of standards lead to the development of tremendous wealth in the tech industry. Another factor with in not addressed in the article is the fact most IoT systems use a cloud based infrastructure which ceases to function once the IoT vendor bankrupts or loses interest in the product. This may not be an important consideration today, but it will be after enough consumers and businesses are left with mission critical non-function IoT gadgets. Don’t believe the hype – $4 to $11 trillion is likely overstated by a factor of 1,000.

“The Internet of Things (IoT) is a goldmine waiting to happen, says a new report from management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.. However, according to its findings, we may be waiting a long time. The tech industry seems to have reached full lather over this trend, with companies big and small rushing in to connect all manner of gadgets, home appliances, even cars and other technologies, to the each other and the Internet. The reason is obvious: McKinsey points to $4 trillion to $11 trillion of positive economic impact each year by 2025. But its report also highlights roadblocks that stubbornly refuse to go away. Increasingly, the world is going to need to turn to open source to get the standards “unstuck.””

17) New Device Provides Secure and Anonymous Wi-Fi With an Incredible 2.5-mile Range

This article shows the power of the maker movement. You might recall some time ago the FBI arrested the operator of the Silk Road (illegal) drug market by tracking him down in a library and grabbing his computer before he could disable it. This open source device will allow miscreants to be physically distant from their Internet connection, making such an arrest very difficult. Of course, nobody has a lot of sympathy for drug dealers, but the same technology could be used by people organizing against a repressive regime.

“While a range of technologies (such as ToR) can provide some level of anonymity, a fundamental flaw still exists: a direct relationship between IP address and physical location. If your true IP is ever uncovered, it’s game over – a significant threat when your adversary owns the infrastructure. To resolve this issue, I present ProxyHam, a hardware device which utilizes both WiFi and the 900Mhz band to act as a hardware proxy, routing local traffic through a far-off wireless network – and significantly increasing the difficulty in identifying the true source of the traffic. In addition to a demonstration of the device itself, full hardware schematics and code will be made freely available.”

18) SpaceX Rocket Failure Threatens Support for Commercial Spaceflight

The spectacular failure of the SpaceX rocket last week was fascinating, but not so much because of the explosive, which was very impressive, but the need many commentators had to explain it away – after all Elon Musk is the greatest human who ever lived (I have actually seen him compared to Einstein), so you have to cut the guy some slack. The same websites which reacted gleefully at the destruction of a Russian spacecraft were sombre and cautious with respect to the loss of the SpaceX one. This article looks at the bigger picture, namely the loss of three ISS supply ships in relatively short order. At this time it appears the launch of a Russian spacecraft today went off without a hitch, so at least the astronauts won’t have to abandon the space station.

“The accident also casts a shadow on NASA’s plans to use commercial spacecraft to carry astronauts to the space station starting in 2017, to avoid continuing to rely on Russia. The same Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule that failed over the weekend are the basis of the vehicle that SpaceX plans to use to fulfill its $2.6-billion contract under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Space industry veteran Boeing has a separate $4.2-billion deal to transport astronauts, but despite its history, the company had been seen as lagging behind front-runner SpaceX in the Commercial Crew race. “Now the bloom goes a little bit off the SpaceX rose,” Handberg says.”

19) Airplane Coatings Help Recoup Fuel Efficiency Lost To Bug Splatter

A while back I read something about super hydrophobic coatings being applied to aircraft as a permanent solution to icing. Rather than waiting while your aircraft is hosed down with antifreeze, a coating would prevent any ice from forming ( I don’t know what happened to that, but scientists have moved on to another problem: bug guts. Its hard to believe bug guts have a 5% impact on fuel economy, but, hey, who is going to argue with somebody who studies bug guts at NASA? I figure they should team up with these guys so the bug guts will slide right off.

“NASA scientists are now developing coatings that help aircraft shed or repel bug guts during flight. After screening nearly 200 different coating formulations, the NASA researchers recently flight-tested a handful of promising candidates on a Boeing ecoDemonstrator 757 aircraft in Shreveport, La. The team explored different combinations of polymer chemistry and surface structure and reports that it has created a coating that could reduce the amount of insect insides stuck to the wings by up to 40%. With further optimization, such coatings could allow planes to use 5% less fuel, Siochi says. Although that may not sound like much, it adds up. “That could be millions of dollars in fuel savings,” Siochi explains. The bump in fuel efficiency would also curb the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by planes, she says.”

20) Google apologises for Photos app’s racist blunder

A few weeks ago my son sent me a link to a Google Photo classification which had classified our cats as dogs. I did not immediately conclude the app was racist (speciesist?), even though Google EXPLICITLY declares itself a dog company ( and tries to exclude cats from its offices. No – saner minds prevailed and I realized the algorithm needed some work. Indeed, if Google Photo had correctly classified Donald Trump as orangutan ( nobody would have said a word. Its not racist: it just software.

“Its product automatically tags uploaded pictures using its own artificial intelligence software. The error was brought to its attention by a New York-based software developer who was one of the people pictured in the photos involved. Google was later criticised on social media because of the label’s racist connotations. “This is 100% not OK,” acknowledged Google executive Yonatan Zunger after being contacted by Jacky Alcine via Twitter. “[It was] high on my list of bugs you ‘never’ want to see happen.” Mr Zunger said Google had already taken steps to avoid others experiencing a similar mistake.”