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.

Click to Subscribe

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.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s