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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
ps: Sorry about the quality of articles. Its been another very slow news week.
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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_flag_traffic_laws).
“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 Amazon.com 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 127.0.0.1 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 “127.0.0.1” for Jurassic World. … 127.0.0.1 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.”