The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 28th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 28th 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

Click to Subscribe

1) The Flash Storage Revolution Is Here

A 16TB mass storage device is likely to come with an astronomical price tag and a modest market. Nevertheless, there may be significant interest in the enterprise market where electricity costs and square footage are significant drivers of cost of ownership. I believe Samsung is mostly making a point: SSDs are much faster, much more energy efficient, and offer greater storage density than Hard Disk Drives. Flash technology is undergoing a revolution as the technology shifts to 3D die, and I predict the end of the consumer HDD market in 1 to 2 years.

“You’ve likely heard about Samsung’s 16TB hard drive, by far the world’s largest. That is an eye-popping number, a large enough leap forward that it’s difficult to fully process. And the most exciting thing about that 16TB hard drive? It’s just a hint of what’s coming next. The pace of flash storage development has been slow and steady for decades. Finally, though, we’re starting to see breakthroughs of the last few years result in actual products, starting with one mammoth SSD.”

2) Malware menaces poison ads as Google, Yahoo! look away

The online ad industry is being set up for a major disruption which could significantly impact their margins. Internet ads are essentially unvetted, which is why you see so many fraudulent ones. Since vetting costs money, everything is pretty much caveat emptor, which also explains disruptive and distracting ads. Malware developers have taken this a step further, applying the targeting provided by the search engine providers to target their malware to specific classes of victims. Disruptive and malware advertising provides a strong basis for ad-blocking, which is a rising threat to the like of Google and Yahoo. The only effective counter measure will be for them to actually vet their customers and, as I said, that is going to cost money.

“That ad contains some malcode that redirects visitors who receive it to a malicious landing page that executes various exploits tailored to the user’s system. It establishes a beachhead through which payloads like bank trojans, bots, and ransomware are pushed. The ad machine also offers easy access for criminals, who, thanks to the fast-moving nature of the advertising machine, appear indistinguishable from legitimate customers. In this marketplace, attackers reside in the lawless bottom tier where traffic, or inventory, is sold and re-sold off to buyers wanting to post their ads. Moreover, the malvertising can be targeted to specific victims using the same features that legitimate advertisers use to hit users interested in the kinds of products they sell. This means criminals can target government IT shops looking for extended Windows support, or defence contractors seeking state tenders.”

3) Estimate: Human Brain 30 Times Faster than Best Supercomputers

This rather silly report caused pandemonium among the disciples of Ray Kurzweil, the current guru of “transhumanism” or the merger of human and machine, in particular at the brain level. Unfortunately, the metric employed has no particular relevance to the question of intelligence and it is a bit like saying my cat has 30 times as many blue as a chicken. Unless and until the function of the brain is understood, and we are very far away from that, comparing “computing performance” of the brain with any machine is an utterly meaningless exercise.

“The AI Impacts project is the brainchild of two PhD students from the University of California, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University. They have developed a preliminary methodology for comparing supercomputers to brains: traversed edges per second (TEPS), which measures how quickly a computer can move information around within its own system. A typical TEPS benchmark requires computers to simulate a graph and search through it. That’s not possible with the brain, so instead, the researchers compared the computer’s performance to a rough estimate of how frequently the brain’s neurons fire off electrical signals.”

4) Built-in Connectivity among Least Used Technologies, Creating Lost Value

This is, in some ways, reassuring. I believe that the important technologies associated with a car should essentially be invisible to the driver, rather than a distraction. So, auto-braking should work when it has to and keep out of the way otherwise. The strange thing is, many of these unused options are actually quite expensive, meaning people decided to spend money for something they don’t use. That is not a situation which is likely to persist. One issue of note would be car buyers should be aware of is that it is not unusual for electronics manufacturers to discontinue support for their gadgets within a few years of release. This means software updates stop and the utility of the device degrades accordingly.

“Automakers are investing billions of dollars to put technologies in their cars and light trucks that are not being used by many of the owners of those vehicles, according to the J.D. Power 2015 Driver Interactive Vehicle Experience (DrIVE) Report.SM The 2015 DrIVE Report measures driver experiences with in-vehicle technology features during the first 90 days of ownership. The report finds that at least 20 percent of new-vehicle owners have never used 16 of the 33 technology features measured. The five features owners most commonly report that they “never use” are in-vehicle concierge (43%); mobile routers (38%); automatic parking systems (35%); head-up display (33%); and built-in apps (32%). There are 14 technology features that 20 percent or more of owners do not want in their next vehicle, including Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto, in-vehicle concierge services and in-vehicle voice texting. Among Gen Y[1], the number of features unwanted by at least 20 percent of owners increases to 23, specifically technologies related to entertainment and connectivity systems.”

5) Why the U.S. Has Fallen Behind in Internet Speed and Affordability

This article outlines the root causes of the abysmal state of broadband infrastructure in the US. As with the Canadian situation, it exemplifies incompetent policy decisions (doubtless underpinned by lobbying and corruption). Despite the clear importance of telecommunications to a competitive economy, politicians appear utterly oblivious to the situation. This is not entirely surprising: given they know which side of the bread the butter is on, and lack measurable understanding of technology, it is a bit like asking a short order cook to opine on the activities at CERN. It will probably take another 20 years of lost ground until the Internet generation begin running for office before things start to turn the corner.

“Downloading a high-definition movie takes about seven seconds in Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Bucharest and Paris, and people pay as little as $30 a month for that connection. In Los Angeles, New York and Washington, downloading the same movie takes 1.4 minutes for people with the fastest Internet available, and they pay $300 a month for the privilege, according to The Cost of Connectivity, a report published Thursday by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. The report compares Internet access in big American cities with access in Europe and Asia. Some surprising smaller American cities — Chattanooga, Tenn.; Kansas City (in both Kansas and Missouri); Lafayette, La.; and Bristol, Va. — tied for speed with the biggest cities abroad. In each, the high-speed Internet provider is not one of the big cable or phone companies that provide Internet to most of the United States, but a city-run network or start-up service.”

6) Netflix Is Dumping Anti-Virus, Presages Death Of An Industry

It is hard to make the case that somehow Netflix is a trendsetters in the broader tech industry. The same information leads to the same conclusions in many companies at more or less the same time and decisions can be made on the basis of things like budget cycles and expiring licenses rather than the fact another company added or dropped a software package. Regardless, the data are quite interesting: anti-virus catches some malware, it doesn’t catch much, so why bother?

“Because Netflix, a well-known innovator in the tech sphere, is the first major web firm to openly dump its anti-virus, FORBES has learned. And where Netflix goes, others often follow; just look at the massive uptick of public cloud usage in recent years, following the company’s major investment in Amazon Web Services. Let’s take a second to look at the decline of the anti-virus industry. Anti-virus has been the first line of defence for many firms over the last quarter of a century. Generally speaking, AV relies on malware signatures and behavioural analysis to uncover threats to people’s PCs and smartphones. But in the last 10 years, research has indicated AV is rarely successful in detecting smart malware. In 2014, Lastline Labs discovered only 51 per cent of AV scanners were able to detect new malware samples.”

7) With Great IoT Comes Great Insecurity

The Internet of Things has had a remarkably long hype cycle. Hype to the contrary, I don’t see Nest thermostats flying off the shelves. Nevertheless, I do expect a high degree of penetration of IoT though that will only happen once a number of key problems are sorted out. One major problem with IoT is security: the problem is not that somebody will mess with your fridge but that somebody will use that weaknesses to gain access to everything on your network. Security is hard and most IoT companies are not in the business of Internet security, meaning this is exactly the sort of thing they can save money on.

“Chris Roberts and the team at One World Labs were able to use a stove running Android to gain access to a user’s entire home (Nest, Garage door, NAS, etc.). From there they were able to take control of his car, his laptop, and finally the computers running the major system at his work –which happened to be a power station. The lab team of four or five people in under a couple of months was able to physically and logically own this one guy and the company he worked for. Imagine what can be done when someone writes a self-replicating worm for IoTs. Something that comes in through email or on a laptop and replicates throughout the house and then waits for guests to come over and replicates to their devices. Cars that belong to friends, family, or even service agents (gas, cable, plumbers etc.) as they pull up to the house, the wearables they have while they’re in your house, and your neighbors who are within range.”

8) Almost None of the Women in the Ashley Madison Database Ever Used the Site

One company which apparently decided that security was not the business they are in is Ashley Madison, whose adultery website was hacked, exposing the names, email addresses, etc., of their clientele. This journalist deserves kudos for doing an analysis of that data dump and discovering that, at least from the available information, very few of the purported women on the site were actual users rather than fake profiles or bots.

“What I discovered was that the world of Ashley Madison was a far more dystopian place than anyone had realized. This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men cheating on their wives. It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database. Instead, it’s like a science fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly-designed robots. Those millions of Ashley Madison men were paying to hook up with women who appeared to have created profiles and then simply disappeared. Were they cobbled together by bots and bored admins, or just user debris? Whatever the answer, the more I examined those 5.5 million female profiles, the more obvious it became that none of them had ever talked to men on the site, or even used the site at all after creating a profile. Actually, scratch that. As I’ll explain below, there’s a good chance that about 12,000 of the profiles out of millions belonged to actual, real women who were active users of Ashley Madison.”

9) You can roll up this screen like a yoga mat

The fact a screen is flexible offers the prospect of mass production in the same way printers print newspaper, which mean they could be manufactured extremely cheaply. Unfortunately, as is typical with most tech reporting, cost is not mentioned. E-Ink displays have significant limitations: they have a slow response time meaning you can’t show video, and they are monochrome so no colour. Flexible E-Ink displays have been demonstrated in the past but never came to market. This product seems cool. It is a pity they are going after the likely doomed wearables market.

(warning: auto play video, though the video is worth watching)

10) Virgin Galactic boldly goes into small satellites, telling future astronauts ‘you have to wait’

I did not see the point of the original Virgin Galactic business plan: why risk pilots’ lives so you could give rich celebrities a brief joy ride so they could pretend they are astronauts? (I have little concern for the safety of the celebrities themselves). After the recent disaster, appetite among the rich and clueless has diminished somewhat, necessitating a strategic pivot. It is interesting to note there is a handful of companies, including SpaceX who hope to greatly reduce the cost of launch services. It is not clear to me that demand will be elastic and that the demand for such launch services will increase enough to offset the lower price of launch. In other words, cheap launch services may end up being as profitable as expensive launch services but off a much lower revenue base.

“This programme is called LauncherOne, a two-stage rocket that is fired at an altitude of 50,000 feet from White Knight Two – the same cargo plane that will be used to shuttle space tourists into near-space. For less than $10m, you can launch a single satellite or combination of satellites with varying payloads into orbit. This service compares to Pegasus, Virgin Galactic’s rival in the satellite launch market. “Nasa is the only real customer for Pegasus,” claims Whitesides. “It typically buys a Pegasus once every two years at a price of around $50m for a payload in the order of magnitude of 250kg. We offer the same payload at a fifth of the cost.” Other start-ups entering the industry make similar claims. New Zealand-based Rocket Lab’s flagship engine, Electron, is designed to send payloads of 100kg into space for just $4.9m, while Texan outfit Firefly Space Systems claims that it will offer “the lowest launch cost in its class”.”

11) Quantum computer firm D-Wave claims massive performance boost

Quantum computing has some potential for certain applications, few of which are likely to be mainstream. Biomedical applications (notably protein folding) has some significant potential, however, the market for such machines is likely to be more in line with that for supercomputers, which isn’t very much. While university researchers toil away in relative obscurity, D-Wave makes a lot of noise and has actually sold a few systems. There is good reason to be sceptical as to the utility of their machines, however. I’ll become a believer when a single problem is solved using any quantum computer in a manner dramatically better than an off the shelf high performance traditional machine.

“An important wrinkle is that finding the absolute best solution is much more difficult than finding a pretty good one, so D-Wave gave its machine 20 microseconds calculation time before reading out the answer. The regular computers then had to find a solution of equivalent quality, however long that took. This makes it less of a fair fight, says Matthias Troyer of ETH Zurich in Switzerland, who has worked on software designed to enable regular computers to compete with D-Wave. A true comparison should measure the time taken to reach the best answer, he argues. “My initial impression is that they looked to design a benchmark on which their machine has the best chance of succeeding,” he says. It’s a bit like a race between a marathon runner and a sprinter, in which the sprinter goes first and sets the end point when she gets tired. The marathon runner will struggle to replicate her short-range performance, but would win overall if the race were longer. “Whether the race they set up is useful for anything is not clear,” says Troyer.”

12) Windows 10 is now installed on 75 million PCs after just four weeks

My experience with Windows 10 has been positive and even my lingering “notebook won’t go to sleep” problem has been fixed by rolling back a driver and disabling updates. On the other hand, some users, including a good friend of mine, are reporting the upgrade itself was a disaster, leading to lost data and incompatible applications. The conclusion is that it is a damned fine operating system if the upgrade works, but a huge problem when it doesn’t. From a business perspective, I figure Windows 10 will drive an uptick in new PC sales since the problems associated with the OS do not generally affect new machines.

“Microsoft released Windows 10 four weeks ago today, and now the company is providing a fresh update on its upgrade figures. 14 million machines had been upgraded to Windows 10 within 24 hours of the operating system release last month, and that figure has now risen to more than 75 million in just four weeks. Microsoft has been rolling out Windows 10 in waves, as a free upgrade for Windows 8 and Windows 7 users. While it’s difficult to compare exact figures between Windows 10 and Windows 8, Microsoft “sold” 40 million licenses of Windows 8 a month after its debut. It took Microsoft six months to get to 100 million licenses of Windows 8, and it’s clear the free aspect of Windows 10 is obviously driving higher adoption rates.”

13) Scientists develop mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton that uses LEDs to help paraplegics walk

Brain computer interfaces are advancing steadily, and these have many important potential applications, in particular in the medical field controlling artificial limbs. I am not entirely sure what this done, but the impression I have is that the flashing of the LEDs provides a sort of timing signal which allows the interface to separate out the brain signal from the electrical noise generated by the motors and actuators in the exoskeleton. This should allow for much quicker training, and probably finer control.

“In June 2014, Juliano Pinto, a 29-year-old paraplegic man, became the first person ever to use a mind-controlled exoskeleton to kick off the World Cup. It took only a second to kick the football on the pitch in Brazil, watched by millions around the world, but the process to enable the teenager to control the exoskeleton suit required seven months of intensive training in front of a computer, as well as 12 years of research from Dr Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University and Dr Gordon Cheng of TU Munich before that. But now researchers from Korea and Germany have found a different way to achieve the same result. Their exoskeleton suit system requires the user to wear an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap and then stare at a device facing them that has five LED lights embedded into it.”

14) “MultiFab” 3-D prints a record 10 materials at once, no assembly required

Multi-material 3D printing probably much more useful, if for no other reason than the machine can produce different types of objects rather than limiting production to the material a particular machine was designed around. I think it is premature to claim “no assembly required” since bonding strength and so on are bound to be issues. The use of machine vision for is interesting, however, comparing this prototype to a full up industrial machine is probably unfair, especially since the MIT system is reportedly glacially slow.

“3-D printing is great, assuming you’re printing one material for one purpose, and that you’re fine with a few do-overs. But the technology is still far behind in reliably producing a variety of useful objects, with no assembly required, at a moderate cost. In recent years, companies have been working to tackle some of these challenges with “multi-material” 3-D printers that can fabricate many different functional items. Such printers, however, have traditionally been limited to three materials at a time, can cost as much as $250,000 each, and still require a fair amount of human intervention. But this week, researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) say that they’ve found a way to make a better, cheaper, more user-friendly printer. In a paper accepted at the SIGGRAPH computer-graphics conference, a CSAIL team presented a 3-D printer that can print an unprecedented 10 different materials at once by using 3-D-scanning techniques that save time, energy, and money.”

15) End of the solar panel boom as subsidies slashed: Ministers announce surprise move to reduce government spending on panels by 90 per cent

Time was governments designed energy policy on the basis of its benefit to the country rather than because it sounded like a good idea. Massive subsidies to solar and win have been a boon for the large corporations which sell the gear but otherwise disastrous. Setting aside the cost, I’d like to see a bottom up analysis of the relative environmental benefits of, say, spending the money insulating homes or paying people to switch from oil to natural gas compared to the purported benefit of solar. It is a matter of time before voters in every country begin to wonder whether the money is well spent. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“Ministers moved to slash massive subsidies for solar panels yesterday, amid signs the Government’s enthusiasm for green energy is waning. In a surprise move, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd announced a consultation aimed at cutting the subsidies by almost 90 per cent. If implemented, such a step would remove virtually all incentive for home owners to install the panels and could mean the end of Britain’s solar power boom. In recent weeks, ministers have tightened planning restrictions and reduced subsidies for wind farms. They also closed the £540million Green Deal, which gave out loans for domestic energy efficiency improvements.”

16) Want to Make a Diamond in Just 10 Weeks? Use a Microwave

We covered the emerging technology of gem quality artificial diamonds a number of years ago. I figure the whole diamond market is a scam: the stones are not scarce and young couples would do better spending the money on appliances than an engagement ring. Nevertheless, it appears you can now produce a sizable gem quality rock and sell it for half the price of a natural one. Since the only inputs to the process are capital, electricity, and carbon, pricing will only head down.

“The companies that dominate the market for natural gems, including Russia’s Alrosa and De Beers, a unit of London-based Anglo American, don’t see the upstarts as much of a threat, because “it’s such a small fraction” of the market, says Neil Koppel, the CEO of Renaissance Diamonds. His company, in Boca Raton, Fla., is supplying Helzberg stores in 10 U.S. cities. Last year only about 360,000 carats of man-made diamonds were produced, compared with 146 million carats of natural gems mined in 2013, estimates researcher Frost & Sullivan. The supply of lab-grown stones will probably jump to 2 million carats in 2018 and 20 million by 2026. … The manufactured variety accounts for about 5 percent of stones sold at the Gem Lab, a Rochester, New York jewelry store. A 1-carat synthetic diamond fetches about $6,000 there, compared with $10,000 for a similarly sized natural stone, according to Vice President Paul Cassarino. Singapore’s IIA Technologies, the biggest producer of lab-grown diamonds, is asking $23,000 for a 3.04-carat diamond it synthesized; a mined gem of similar size and quality would cost about $40,000.”

17) Could Alien Life Spread ‘Like a Virus’ to the Stars?

This article is a worthwhile read, even though most of it is speculation. Panspermia might be a process by which life spread throughout the cosmos but it doesn’t say how life originally started. Besides, life emerged on Earth not long after the planet cooled enough to sustain it, so it may be the sort of thing which just happens, given the right conditions. This doesn’t mean panspermia is an incorrect theory: when we discover life on Mars, Europa, or wherever, if it is biochemically similar to that on Earth the theory would definitely gain traction.

“As astronomical techniques become more advanced, a team of astrophysicists think they will be able to not only detect the signatures of alien life in exoplanetary atmospheres, but also track its relentless spread throughout the galaxy. The research, headed by Henry Lin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), assumes that this feat may be possible in a generation or so and that the hypothesis of panspermia may act as the delivery system for alien biology to hop from one star system to another. Panspermia is a process where life is somehow transplanted from planet to planet. This may happen should a planet, rich with life, be hit by a massive asteroid impact; pieces of that planet’s crust will be propelled into space and any life contained within those samples may be transplanted to another world. If these hardy lifeforms make the trip, then perhaps they can gain a foothold and seed life in this new environment.”

18) Mexico hands out free TVs to the poor in massive giveaway

This seems like an odd approach to the shift to digital TV but, setting aside the obvious potential underlying motivation was corruption, free TVs could stimulate consumer demand and has other benefits. The shift to digital typically drives a capital spending boom by broadcasters as they upgrade their studios, however, that is not always the case since you can simply take existing low quality content and broadcast it in the digital format.

“Cradling a flat-screen television set in her arms, Tomasa López beamed at her good fortune: She’d just taken part in the world’s biggest distribution of free digital televisions. López, a domestic servant, was among thousands of people who’ve thronged a cavernous tent in the populous working-class Iztapalapa district, one of hundreds of venues across Mexico where the poor are receiving some of the 10 million digital television sets the government is giving away at no charge. It’s a program costing the Mexican treasury $1.6 billion in a push to convert the nation from analog television signals to a digital format. The United States made the switch in 2009. “I am happy,” López said. “We’ve always wanted a digital television. We’ll see more channels. The kids will see cartoons.””

19) Why You Probably Don’t Care About a Fuel Cell iPhone That Can Run for a Week

We read about fuel cell chargers ever now and then, and this provides somewhat of a reality check. The major problem is one of cost (they tend to be expensive) and the use of a proprietary fuel cartridge. Vendors love the idea because they get an annuity from use, however, that also means the unit is only useable where the cartridges are available and few vendors will stock cartridges for a system nobody owns. Its a classic chick and egg problem, complicated by both chicken and egg being made of gold. Regardless, I think a liquid fuel would be a better solution, especially if you don’t need special cartridges.

“A smartphone powered by a fuel cell that can run for an entire week without recharging sounds absolutely amazing. The Telegraph is reporting that a British fuel cell company called Intelligent Energy has managed to stuff a fuel cell inside of an iPhone 6, allowing the phone to run for an entire week on a single charge. Sort of. As with anything that sounds absolutely amazing, it’s not that simple, and the truth is likely not something that’s worth getting excited about at all.”

20) Scientists replicated 100 recent psychology experiments. More than half of them failed.

The scales are beginning to fall from the eyes of scientists as they realize the overwhelming majority of published research in not reproducible. There are plenty of excuses for this this but it is more likely a direct consequence of the “publish or perish” dictum, which stresses quantity over quality. Unfortunately, this means most peer-reviewed research is essentially noise which actually confounds scientific progress. Of course this is particularly the case in psych research, which is known for its subjective interpretation of results, poor experimental design, and small sample size. (The worst I’ve ever seen is education research). Perhaps the time has come to flag research as “speculative” until it has been properly replicated. Thanks to my son Alfred for this item.

“”The results are more or less consistent with what we’ve seen in other fields,” said Ivan Oransky, one of the founders of the blog Retraction Watch, which tracks scientific retractions. Still, he applauded the effort: “Because the authors worked with the original researchers and repeated the experiments, the paper is an example of the gold standard of replication.” But Stanford’s John Ioannidis, who famously penned a paper arguing that most published research findings are wrong, explained that exactly because it’s the gold standard, the results might be a little too generous; in reality, the replication failure rate might be even higher. “I say this because the 100 assessed studies were all published in the best journals, so one would expect the quality of the research and the false rates to be higher if studies from all journals were assessed,” he said.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 21st 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 21st 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

Click to Subscribe

1) Here’s How Brazil Is Giving Every Citizen Free Mobile Data

This is an interesting example of companies thinking “out of the box”. Setting aside the decline in growth in demand for smartphones which is most likely in the case of Brazil due to sever income disparities. The relative lack of Internet access among the very poor means these potential customers can’t access government services or banking on line. Of course, they could be simply written off, however, by providing some level of online access banks and government can reach them. Needless to say some education, especially for older people, might be needed.

“Once considered the next great growth engine for the smartphone industry, Brazil is on the decline. With its economy shrinking and unemployment on the rise, many Brazilians are making do with dumb phones. They find the cost of an Internet-connected device prohibitive, particularly when they factor in mobile data fees. One possible solution borrows from a technical breakthrough made by AT&T half a century ago. The Brazilian government is working with local companies and Qualcomm, the world’s largest mobile phone chipmaker, on a modern version of toll-free calling. A new 1-800 system for mobile data allows Brazilians to access their bank accounts for free on smartphones without incurring data costs. The government of São Paulo plans to extend free data services to some official websites by the end of the year.”

2) The realities of a $50 smartphone

Penetration of mobile services is quite high in the developing world, however, these tend not to be smartphones and most of the services are text based. The challenge is to produce a true web-capable smartphone which might fit the budget of a relatively poor person in these regions. This article breaks down how that might be possible. The article itself and the comment regarding “killing off phone subsidies” demonstrate an important trend is underway: while we may not see a $50 smartphone in North America (though we might) component pricing has dropped considerably, supporting my thesis that pricing will come down across the space.

“As mobile networks kill off phone subsidies, users might now begin to appreciate just how much their new smartphone really costs. It’s an even bigger problem in the developing world, where relatively few have the cash to buy even a mid-range phone like the Moto G. Google attempted to remedy the problem with Android One, but the first generation of “affordable” devices were far too expensive. That’s why the company is pledging to get the cost of a smartphone down to just $50 — a price that, right now, seems impossible to achieve. If Google can do it, however, it’ll be able to connect countless people in countries like India, the Philippines and Turkey. Fifty dollars isn’t a lot of money to put together a device, so what sort of phone can you get for the money?”

3) Ad Blockers and the Nuisance at the Heart of the Modern Web

This is a bit of a rework of the article we carried last week regarding the rise of ad-blocking, however, this is from the perspective of a person in the media business. I don’t believe advertising is as important to the delivery of content as the author seems to believe as there are plenty of interesting blogs and commentary written for reasons other than financial gain. I do tend to reference the NY Times more often than personal blogs but that is probably as much due to the fact they aggregate stories and present them in a nice, edited package than because of the quality of the content. Regardless, it appears this journalist seems to acknowledge there is a problem. Many in the advertising industry believe the solution is to defeat ad-blockers, which is a war they probably cannot win.

“Advertising sustains pretty much all the content you enjoy on the web, not least this very newspaper and its handsome, charming technology columnist; as I’ve argued before, many of the world’s most useful technologies may never have come about without online advertising. But at the same time, ads and the vast, hidden, data-sucking machinery that they depend on to track and profile you are routinely the most terrible thing about the Internet. Now, more and more web users are escaping the daily bombardment of online advertising by installing an ad blocker. This simple, free software lets you roam the web without encountering any ads that shunt themselves between you and the content you want to read or watch. With an ad blocker, your web browser will generally run faster, you’ll waste less bandwidth downloading ads, and you’ll suffer fewer annoyances when navigating the Internet. You’ll wonder why everyone else in the world doesn’t turn to the dark side.”

4) Intel’s crazy-fast 3D XPoint Optane memory heads for DDR slots (but with a catch)

3D XPoint is Intel and Micron’s proprietary technology and unless they decide to license it nobody else will make it so I am not sure the historical comparison with RDRAM is an apt one. If Intel extends the DDR4 specification to make it work with 3D XPoint memory it doesn’t necessarily degrade the utility of DDR4 but it allows their chipset to exploit their memory technology. Since nobody else can make 3D XPoint at this time the issue is therefore moot. The only question might be whether Intel with decide to license the memory interface to AMD so those platforms can use the new Intel/Micron technology.

“It was clear from the beginning that Intel and Micron’s new 3D XPoint memory—which promises “1,000 times” the performance of today’s SSDs—would require a faster pathway into the PC. After all, SATA, SATA Express, and even PCIe lack the sheer bandwidth to support the levels at which 3D XPoint can perform. But this week Intel officially revealed its plans for 3D XPoint memory support: It will slip into a DDR4 slot, and it’s a decision that won’t make vendors happy. The story behind the story: When Intel and Micron introduced its jointly built memory, everything seemed rosy. But now that details of how it will be implemented are starting to trickle out, the devil’s hand is becoming apparent. … “They’re extending the (DDR4) interface,” Jim McGregor, an analyst with Tirias Research, told PCWorld in an interview. “It’s going to be electrically and pin compatible, but the way they talk will be different.” With the only source of the new type of memory coming from a fab jointly owned by Micron and Intel, no one’s going to be happy, McGregor said. ”If you don’t have multi-vendor support, the OEMs are going to backlash,” he said.”

5) Technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, says 140 years of data

Economists have a lot of difficulty pointing to a positive impact from technology. I suspect there are two problems here: one is that the way they measure probably doesn’t capture the impact, the second is that what they are measuring probably doesn’t consider technology influences. It seems quite clear that GDP has grown over the past century, and much of that growth has been accompanied by technology. For example, electric lighting, telephones, automobiles, airplanes, radio, TV (and all the accompanying consumer products) were all bleeding edge technologies at the time. Similarly, people might look the PC or smartphone and question whether there has been a new economic benefit while at the same time one of the largest companies in history makes smartphones. The conclusion is clear even if the metrics are not.

“In the 1800s it was the Luddites smashing weaving machines. These days retail staff worry about automatic checkouts. Sooner or later taxi drivers will be fretting over self-driving cars. The battle between man and machines goes back centuries. Are they taking our jobs? Or are they merely easing our workload? A study by economists at the consultancy Deloitte seeks to shed new light on the relationship between jobs and the rise of technology by trawling through census data for England and Wales going back to 1871. Their conclusion is unremittingly cheerful: rather than destroying jobs, technology has been a “great job-creating machine”. Findings by Deloitte such as a fourfold rise in bar staff since the 1950s or a surge in the number of hairdressers this century suggest to the authors that technology has increased spending power, therefore creating new demand and new jobs.”

6) IBM scientists develop brain inspired chip

This is probably not that big a deal from a near term perspective, however, this device and its offspring may be important over the long term. Neural networks are modelled on the brain and they “compute” in a manner completely different from traditional binary computers. They tend to be very good at quickly arriving at a solution, even though the solution might not be optimal or even correct. For example, they are very good at pattern recognition and, as we know, even we make mistakes spotting patterns. This won’t likely ever find its way into a PC or smartphone but it might be an important technology for robotics applications such as self driving cars.

“Scientists have developed a brain inspired computer chip which mimics the neurons inside your brain. The chip consumes just 70 milliwatts of power and can perform 46 billion synaptic operations per second. Since 2008, scientists from IBM have been working with DARPA’s Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) programme. They have developed the chip, or processor called TrueNorth, which is claimed to be efficient, scalable, and flexible non-von Neumann architecture using contemporary silicon technology. TrueNorth has 5.4-billion-transistors with 4096 neurosynaptic cores interconnected via an intrachip network that integrates 1 million programmable spiking neurons and 256 million configurable synapses. It can be tiled in two dimensions through an interchip communication interface and can be scaled up to a cortexlike sheet of arbitrary size.”

7) Nearly half of listeners who try Apple Music have stopped using

There is some question as to whether or not the data is correct, however, it does seem that a significant portion of Apple Music have abandoned the service or decided not to pay for it once their free-trial is up. I would not count the service out just yet: Apple has a lot of marketing horsepower and it also has complete control over what works and does not work on its platform so it could tilt the playing field in its favor and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

“Apple Music may have more buzz than booming success. Nearly half the people who have tried the 6-week-old streaming service are not currently using it, a survey out Tuesday reveals. Apple, which earlier this month boasted that 11 million people have signed up for the three-month free trial period, may be bummed to find out that 48 percent of those who have tried it weren’t blown away and didn’t stay tuned in, according to the survey by MusicWatch.”

8) Graphene beyond the hype

This is another survey article on graphene. The article correctly points out that the material is very new so discounting the hype might be premature. Some products might be using graphene as a marketing term, much like “all-natural” or “environmental” is thrown about by marketers. The potential disruptive applications of graphene are many and the raw material, carbon, is very cheap, so I remain confident the challenge of volume production will eventually be solved.

“The wonder material. It’s just one atom thick but 200 times stronger than steel; extremely conductive but see-through and flexible. Graphene has shot to fame since its discovery in 2004 by UK-based researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, for which the University of Manchester pair were awarded the 2010 Nobel prize in physics. We’ve heard the facts. We’ve read about how graphene could push the boundaries of today’s technology in almost unlimited ways. We’ve even pictured an elephant balanced on a pencil. But looking past the headlines, it’s clear that a lot of the most exciting areas of graphene science are still in the early stages. It will be years, decades perhaps, before we see the first graphene-enhanced smartphones, aeroplanes or bulletproof vests. But beyond these pie-in-the-sky promises, the underlying research is gathering pace. ‘If anything, the progress of graphene has been quicker than other comparable materials,’ says Andrea Ferrari, director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre at the University of Cambridge, UK. He points out that for the first few years after graphene’s discovery in 2004, most research was restricted to academia, and was fundamental physics. ‘It was only around 2009/2010 that applied university departments and companies really started taking notice of this material – we are just four years in.’”

9) Graphene, Meet Mainstream

Hey – it’s another slow news week so while this is not much different from the preceding article, it tends to look more at the progress made in the production of graphene rather than actual applications. I am not too concerned with semiconductor applications for graphene since all semiconductor materials are used in low amounts and the value add is potentially quite high. Regardless, a graphene semiconductor would have to “play nice” with other materials used in the manufacture of semiconductors and that is often a lot harder to accomplish.

“Physicists first produced graphene—a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms— from humble graphite in 2004. It was the sort of accidental discovery that scientific legends are built on: Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov stuck plain old Scotch tape onto chunks of graphite, a substance found in pencil lead, and peeled it off. Voila, graphene. And for Geim and Noveselov, a Nobel prize. The technique was so simple that it was soon adapted for high school classrooms, but it never scaled well. In fact, graphene has been maddeningly difficult to manufacture in mass quantities, holding back an entire class of revolutionarily fast, flexible, and tiny electronic devices based on the material.”

10) Here’s what we know about the Ashley Madison hack

I admit that some of my interest in the hack and now disclosure of the Ashley Madison user database is Schadenfreude, however there are important lessons here. For those who aren’t aware, this is (probably soon to be was) a paid website dedicated to linking up married people who wanted to have affairs. The business model was such that, I suspect, many of the participants were more likely chatting with bots or others with no copulatory potential. Nevertheless, the site was hacked and the user data has now been posted online. A surprising number of those contacted claimed they were “just doing research” which is a noble cause though I’d suggest claiming identify theft is far more credible. It just shows that incompetent security can cost you more than your credit card number: it can also end up costing half of your assets. Since there are some 30 million subscribers who have been exposed, one might imagine divorce lawyers will have a field day.

“Last month, a hacking group going by the name “Impact Team” claimed that it had hacked Ashley Madison, the infidelity dating site, and published some business records online as proof. Those records quickly vanished, but Impact Team said it had a lot more, and threatened to release information about Ashley Madison’s 37 million members unless the site was taken down, along with its brother site Established Men. Now, a month later, it looks like Impact Team has made good on its claim. Today, a “Time’s Up” message appeared on a website only accessible via the Tor browser. The site included a link to a torrent for lots and lots of files that appear to include customer information for Ashley Madison users, particularly records of credit card payments that include people’s names, hometowns, and the last 4 digits of their credit cards. (Too bad Ashley Madison doesn’t take Bitcoin.) Security researchers who have started reviewing the leak say it contains credit card payments dating back seven years.”

11) First almost fully-formed human brain grown in lab, researchers claim

This is a fascinating development, though the report really needs to be verified independently. The team has created what is essentially a fetal brain from skin cells. The ramifications are a little scary (i.e. what if they allow it to develop and it begins to think), however, there are clear implications for drug research since it may soon be possible to grow human brains and use them for experiments.

“An almost fully-formed human brain has been grown in a lab for the first time, claim scientists from Ohio State University. The team behind the feat hope the brain could transform our understanding of neurological disease. Though not conscious the miniature brain, which resembles that of a five-week-old foetus, could potentially be useful for scientists who want to study the progression of developmental diseases. It could also be used to test drugs for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, since the regions they affect are in place during an early stage of brain development. The brain, which is about the size of a pencil eraser, is engineered from adult human skin cells and is the most complete human brain model yet developed, claimed Rene Anand of Ohio State University, Columbus, who presented the work today at the Military Health System Research Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.”

12) Windows 10 Chewing Through Broadband Usage Caps

This is probably not a big deal if you have proper high speed internet, however, lots of people in lots of places have limited broadband through a mobile network, or they are simply being gouged by their ISPs. Windows 10 has an automated update feature with is difficult or impossible to shut off. As a result, updates can gobble up your bandwidth cap whether you want them or not (since most updates are not that important, costly broadband would have most people do less frequent updates). I actually lost $45 of mobile usage due to Windows 8.1 doing a major update while I out hunting. Microsoft has resisted allowing users to disable or defer updates for some reason and these sorts of problems may get them to change that position.

“While users on more “generous” American caps of 150 to 300 GB might not run into problems with Windows 10 and its forced updates, the Sydney Morning Herald notes that some worldwide consumer groups are alarmed by how quickly the auto-updates gobble up broadband usage allotments. In areas where transit and bandwidth costs are at a premium and caps are lower, the installation and updating of Windows 10 can come with a very expensive price tag: Bluesky, the monopoly telco in the Cook Islands, charges $NZ49 ($43) a month for 3.5GB of data on its broadband service, plus 4 cents per megabyte thereafter. The service is mainly delivered by satellite through a partnership with 03b Networks. By comparison, Telstra, Australia’s largest telco, charges $35 a month for a 4GB data cap 4G mobile broadband plan, and an excess data charge of only 1 cent per megabyte. Telstra’s basic plan on a faster fixed-line broadband service is $75 per month, but includes 100GB of data.”

13) Don’t Expect Too Much from This Robot, Buddy

The term robot has different meanings to different people – for example the “robotic submarine” described in item 14 could just as easily be described as “remote controlled” and remote controlled things has been around for some time. I think it is reasonable to refer to robots as things with a fair bit of autonomy rather than being under constant remote control. A Roomba could be justifiably described as a robot vacuum cleaner, even if it doesn’t walk and talk. Human interaction and utility (for example, getting a machine to learn how to do something useful such as vacuuming without being designed as a vacuum cleaner) is a much tougher nut to crack. Most “domestic robots” are bound to be little more than novelties for the foreseeable future.

“The little white robot is cute enough, attracting a crowd of curious admirers and craning its neck around from the floor as people try to talk to it. But it hardly seems very useful. Buddy could perform a few tricks, like introducing itself, describing the local weather, and doing a little dance. But it kept mishearing commands, and it was entirely unable to strike up a meaningful conversation. As the executives repeatedly shouted “dance, Buddy,” the robot’s face just rotated through a series of odd expressions, and it kept repeating the sad, confused phrase “I’m tired to talk.” After asking Buddy a few questions, I felt a little tired to talk, too. Perhaps the robot was just exhausted by the whole experience. It was just prototype after all. And maybe the finished version will be far more polished, and maybe developers will quickly build some impressive new apps.”

14) This Robot Submarine Inspects the Worst Pools Ever

As I note in item 13, there should be some controversy in calling this machine a robot. It is more correctly described as a remote controlled underwater vehicle, and while those have been around for some time this one is designed for use in nuclear reactors rather than oceanic discovery. The use of robots or remotely controlled systems in nuclear reactors is a very good idea given the exposure risks. I thought the use of a platinum radiation shield a bit odd: after all, even if it is twice as good as lead, you can buy a lot of lead for not very much money and the thing floats anyhow.

“GE Hitachi’s robot submarine, Stinger, is designed to swim around reactor pools for up to three weeks during maintenance or refueling periods. It’s about the size of a human, and is remotely operated by one, but the places it goes to clean an inspect, no human could survive. Stinger carries cameras and also a hydrolaser, which in addition to sounding awesome (although it’s really just a high pressure water nozzle), can be used to clean welds as it inspects them, which is a Very Good and Important thing. The robot is clad in a “tungsten frock,” designed to reduce the amount of radiation that it is exposed to. Tungsten is more dense than lead (it’s just about as dense as gold), and was probably chosen because a frock made of platinum, while more effective, would make Singer both lovely looking and entirely unaffordable.”

15) Is it the beginning of the end for online comments?

Reading online comments can be good fun unless you are easily offended. It is remarkable to read how an article about air travel can lead to a comment which is a screed against Obamacare, or a blanket condemnation of Stephen Harper. On the one hand, comments can often result in corrections to the article, on the other hand many can be hate filled invective. This means that publications can spend time and money managing comments, let a free-for-all ensue, or shut the process down. Not surprisingly, free-for-all and shutting down comments are the favored choices, with shutting down having the additional merit of not letting the article be criticized. The most amusing approach I saw was in a publication of a large religious organization which only allowed paid comments, ensuring both a stream of revenue and mostly favorable comments.

“The debate about comment sections on news sites is often as divisive as the comments themselves. Recently outlets such as The Verge and The Daily Dot have closed their comments sections because they’ve become too hard to manage. And they’re far from alone. Moderating comments is a full-time job (or several full-time jobs) at many news organisations. Officiating comments on a BBC News story requires knowledge of more than a dozen different disqualifying categories. Alongside shouting, swearing and incivility, comment sections can also attract racism and sexism. BBC Trending recently found evidence of the latter when looking at live streaming app Periscope. That’s the downside. But it’s also worth remembering that many news organisations – including the BBC – have used comments sections to make real connections with audiences, find stories, and turn what was once a one-way street into a multi-headed conversation.”

16) Paying for Solar Power

I am very sceptical about solar power because it is so difficult to unscramble the effects of subsidies and other forms of government mandated assistance from the cost of the systems and the resultant power. Most of the coverage is either oblivious to the impact these have and/or simultaneously overstates the benefits (for example, it is common to state the peak solar capacity rather than the average, and those are two very different figures). This article looks at some of the ins and out, but it does not really come to a firm conclusion. My argument is that feed in tariffs, or the price individuals sell electricity to the grid, are typically much higher than the wholesale rates paid to large generators. It is fairly obvious that if solar were to become a significant component of power generation, businesses and consumers would see their power bills go up by a multiple of 5x or more.

“Even if all goes well, the gigafactory could be facing a dramatically different solar-power market. At the end of 2016, the federal tax credit for solar power is due to drop from 30 percent to 10 percent for businesses and to disappear altogether for consumers who buy their own solar panels. By making residential solar power less affordable, the change could be devastating to the industry. And it will come just as the Buffalo factory is ramping up its manufacturing capacity. Fears about what will happen when the tax breaks decrease are fueled by an unfortunate reality: in most locations and under most conditions, unsubsidized solar power is still far too expensive to compete with other sources of electricity. And rooftop solar is especially expensive. Subsidies and other government incentives are the reason the solar market is booming. If technologies were chosen purely on the basis of what it costs to produce power, “there isn’t a market for residential solar,” says Severin Borenstein, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on electricity economics. Without government incentives for clean energy like solar, he says, “natural gas wipes everything else away.””

17) Major publisher retracts 64 scientific papers in fake peer review outbreak

“Publish or perish” has been a boon to publishers of scientific papers who get all their content for free (or often charge to publish). Some companies have then consolidated the industry and bought up “impactful” journals, given them pricing power over hapless universities and libraries, many of who can no longer afford to subscribe. Not surprisingly, the impetus to publish and the profitability of the publishers has led to a rather embarrassing decline in quality. There is no particular reason journals should cost money, besides a modest cost for editing, and even the value of “impactful” is questionable since the fact a frequently cited article appeared in an impactful journal doesn’t mean it is correct or has even been vetted for quality. The system is broken and it’s impact on science is negative.

““Some agencies are selling services, ranging from authorship of pre-written manuscripts to providing fabricated contact details for peer reviewers during the submission process and then supplying reviews from these fabricated addresses,” it said. “Some of these peer reviewer accounts have the names of seemingly real researchers but with email addresses that differ from those from their institutions or associated with their previous publications, others appear to be completely fictitious.” Many academic journals contract with third-party reviewing services that help track down experts to read submissions, and it’s not too hard for unscrupulous reviewers to exploit loopholes in the system. In 2014, SAGE Publishers retracted 60 articles from the Journal of Vibration and Control after uncovering a “peer review ring” in which researchers reviewed their own and each other’s papers under aliases.”

18) Car immobiliser easy to crack, say researchers

I have to assume assume, or hope, that the fact this research was blocked by the courts for two years means the manufacturers have used that time to fix their shoddy technology. Suffice it to say that I doubt they have. Long story short you can use prior codes to predict what will work in the future. The good news is most car thieves are not exactly master criminals so my 2010 Toyota Matrix is probably safe.

“Eavesdropping on the exchange of data between the car key and crypto system a couple of times gave the trio useful hints about which secret key was being used to scramble the data. This helped them find which cryptographic key was being used in about 30 minutes. Some car makers were using very weak secret keys that could be found in just a few minutes using a laptop. In a paper describing their work, the three researchers said it was “trivial” to accomplish the attack on the immobiliser system. The research was completed three years ago but legal action by Volkswagen and French defence group Thales initially prevented publication. The restrictions on publication have now been lifted after the paper was edited.”

19) How blazing Internet speeds helped Chattanooga shed its smokestack past

Correlation is not causation, and the article does give a nod to the fact other things were going on while Chattanooga was resurrecting itself. That said, it stands to reason that technology companies would migrate from places where Internet infrastructure is 10 years out of date (say all of Canada and much of the US) and move to places where it is cutting edge. As other cities move towards a modern infrastructure this competitive advantage will disappear but that does not mean the companies will move back.

“Chattanooga’s transformation has been decades in the making, but the construction of one of the largest and fastest Internet networks in the Western Hemisphere will be key to helping the city write the next chapter for the 21st century. The city represents the vanguard of communities pushing for better Internet service and serves as a model for the benefits that can stem from broader online access. The Gig, as the locals call its network, has attracted billions of dollars in new investment and a flock of entrepreneurs to the city, who may come to the city for the promise of superfast broadband, but stay for the easy, affordable lifestyle, abundant outdoor activities and hip culture. Chattanooga may seem like an unlikely place for a tech hub, but a long history of progressive thinking has put the midsize southeastern city — two hours north of Atlanta — in an enviable position. In 2010, Chattanooga turned on its so-called gigabit service, an industry term for a network able to connect to the Internet at 1 gigabit per second, or 50 to 100 times faster than your average US Internet connection, through a faster fiber-optic line. That was two years before Google broke ground on its first gigabit market in Kansas City.”

20) Is the New Aluminum the Death of Automotive Steel?

I was sceptical of the “aluminium” Ford F-150 announcement and I still would not buy one. That is just not because of my prior universally negative experiences with Ford products, but because any new technology takes some time to work the bugs out of. High end cars such as Audi has been made from aluminium for some time but these are not made in as high volume so it remains to be seen if things like galvanic corrosion due to steel touching aluminium becomes a problem with lower end models. This article suggests there is a sort of arms race between aluminium and steel manufacturers which will result in improvements to weight and durability. The big losers are composites, but only one volume production car, the Corvette, is made from those anyway.

“It’s now possible to spend $1 billion to launch a new vehicle platform, and much of that price tag is in tooling. The simulation software gives designers the ability to specify new materials with confidence. Just as importantly, the cost reductions associated with simplified assemblies should push aluminum construction down from larger, high-margin vehicles into the mainstream. This could put even more pressure on the steel community to down gauge even further with advanced high-strength alloys. The major loser in this battle may in fact be carbon fiber composites. Composites are currently the ultimate in high strength and low weight, but even with automated layup and prepreg sheet and strip, it’s expensive. With mass producible all-aluminum structures, the weight advantage of carbon fiber is lower when compared to steel structures. It’s likely that for all but specialty luxury vehicle applications, composite construction will be delayed for years and may never go mainstream.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 14th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 14th 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) Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA) Says Robots Are Holding Up Its 2015 Sales Growth

What a bizarre story. A company which is purportedly capacity constrained decided to reprogram the same robots it uses for its capacity constrained vehicle in order to make a new model, rather than starting a new assembly line for its new model. Since the new model will require different jigs and fixtures (which the nature of building a new model car) they will have to build up a complete separate assembly line, with its own robots, regardless. Are we to believe that only after they build 50 validation models only then will they start construction of the new line?

“Blame it on the robots. The sales-forecast downgrade that caused Tesla’s stock to nosedive Thursday isn’t an indication that fewer drivers want to own the company’s sexy electric vehicles. It’s just that Tesla needs more time to teach its robotic factory workers new tasks associated with producing the Model X sport utility vehicle”

2) The cost of ad blocking

I have been using ad-blocking since the day I first heard of it. I prefer uBlock (, however most do a good job. Some websites only work with a Microsoft browsers (which do not support ad-blocking and I am always astounded by the number of ads when I use a Microsoft browser and how annoying and distracting they are. Not only that, but many adds are clearly fraudulent or even likely set to download malware. Websites lament “loss of revenue” to ad-blockers but they don’t seem to do much to clean up their own act. All things considered, I expect this trend to continue.

“The Findings: Globally, the number of people using ad blocking software grew by 41% year over year;16% of the US online population blocked ads during Q2 2015; Ad block usage in the United States grew 48% during the past year, increasing to 45 million monthly active users (MAUs) during Q2 2015; Ad block usage in Europe grew by 35% during the past year, increasing to 77 million monthly active users during Q2 2015; The estimated loss of global revenue due to blocked advertising during 2015 was $21.8B; With the ability to block ads becoming an option on the new iOS 9, mobile is starting to get into the ad blocking game. Currently Firefox and Chrome lead the mobile space with 93% share of mobile ad blocking.”

(link to PDF)

3) The Obscure Neuroscience Problem That’s Plaguing VR

Products such as Oculus Rift (bizarrely bought by Facebook at an appropriately stupid valuation) have restarted interest in VR glasses. VR Glasses are simply an optical assembly with two displays which simulate an immersive 3D display. They have been around for some time, although improvements in the cost and quality of small, lightweight displays means they may be cheap enough to become a consumer product despite the fact the barriers to entry and very low so pretty much any electronics company can make one. One peculiar side effect of VR glasses is described herein: your brain uses two systems to judge distance: focal distance and the angle of your eyeballs. VR glasses use the latter to simulate 3D but your eyes focus on the displays which are usually going to be at a different distance from what the angle of your eyes suggest. This conflicting information causes problems after a while.

“Despite virtual reality’s recent renaissance, the technology still has some obvious problems. One, you look like a dumbass using it. Two, the stomach-churning mismatch between what you see and what you feel contributes to “virtual reality sickness.” But there’s another, less obvious flaw that could add to that off-kilter sensation: an eye-focusing problem called vergence-accommodation conflict. It’s only less obvious because, well, you rarely experience it outside of virtual reality”

4) China becomes world’s largest robots market for second consecutive year

China is one of the largest economies in the world with a large manufacturing sector which has been built upon broadly available cheap labour (meaning more people and less capital), as that economy matures and capital spending increases, then demand for robots to fill up factories which were previously not that automated. Since there is a big hole to fill this suggests a robust demand for industrial robots for the next several years.

“China became the world’s largest consumer market of robots for the second consecutive year, according to statistics released by China Robot Industry Alliance (CRIA) lately. The sales of robots in China increased by 54.6 percent in 2014 to around 57,000 units, accounting for 25 percent of global total. Data shows that nearly 17,000 units were made in China with a value approaching 3 billion yuan (about 474 million U.S. dollars),or an increase of 60 percent from 2013. CRIA predicted that the total number of robots used in China’s manufacturing industry in 2015 will keep growing rapidly.”

5) Foxconn to invest $5B to set up first of up to 12 factories in India

This ties in to item 4: one side effect of economic growth, as well as China’s “one child policy” is a reduction in the labour pool, at least at the low end of the market. There are plenty of places in the world where domestic demand is significant, or at least potentially so, and factory labour remains cheap. Electronics manufacturing is no different from the manufacture of cheap clothing: it goes where labour costs are lows and moves on when costs go up. It sounds brutal, but the net effect over time is a positive one as future generations of workers end up getting paid more and having better jobs as the economic improves.

“The maker of a variety of products for various companies, including the iPhone, already employs over a million workers in China, where it has factories across the country. But the company has faced labor shortages in China, as many workers are simply looking for the highest wages possible, and are happy to leave for better jobs. Gou has even said that he expects fewer young Chinese workers to enter his factories in the future. To expand its manufacturing base, Foxconn is developing robots, and looking at setting up factories in India and Indonesia.”

6) Industrial robots have boosted productivity and growth, but their effect on jobs remains an open question

This makes for an interesting read, however, I am somewhat sceptical of the metrics by which economists measure the impact of automation on productivity. Furthermore, one has to be cautious when using terms like “robot” and “capital”. While an industrial robot may look different from, say, a computer controlled milling machine they are both capital equipment, both replace human labour (or enhance productivity) and yet they are somehow considered different things. Assuming it could be done, it would take days for a human to assemble a smartphone without modern “pick and place” equipment (specialized robots), and the quality of the resulting product would be very low in comparison. Similarly, it takes a day for a human to cut an acre of hay, vs minutes with a haybine (a hay cutting robot). Separating the contribution of something that looks like an industrial robot from other forms of automation is meaningless

“When we use our index to capture differences in the increased use of robots, we again find that robots increased productivity, and we detect no significant effect on hours worked. As an important check on the validity of this exercise, we find no significant relationship between replaceability and productivity growth in the period before the adoption of robots. We conservatively calculate that on average, the increased use of robots contributed about 0.37 percentage points to annual GDP growth, which accounts for more than one tenth of total GDP growth over this period. The contribution to labour productivity growth was about 0.36 percentage points, accounting for one sixth of productivity growth. This makes robots’ contribution to the aggregate economy roughly on a par with previous important technologies, such as the railroads in the nineteenth century and the US highways in the twentieth century. The effects are also comparable to the recent contributions of information and communication technologies. But it is worth noting that robots make up just over 2 per cent of capital, which is less than previous technological drivers of growth.”

7) Among the States, Self-Driving Cars Have Ignited a Gold Rush

The auto industry have become masters of exploiting government help and playing one government off against the next to maximize profit. States and countries are positioning themselves to become “centres of excellence” with respect to self-driving cars, a position which will no doubt cost them in terms of subsidies and tax holidays in the future. Unlike manufacturing, which involves relatively high costs of moving a factory (though you can easily decide to put a new one almost anywhere) R&D is comparatively mobile and diffuse. It seems unlikely that any particular location will become a hub for this type of technology.

“Whether it is fuel savings, safer commutes or freed-up time behind the wheel, drivers have many reasons to embrace self-driving cars. But another group is just as eager to see these vehicles on the road: politicians. Lawmakers from California, Texas and Virginia are wooing the autonomous car industry, along with the jobs and tax revenue that come with it. They are financing research centers, building fake suburbs for testing the cars, and, perhaps most important, going light on regulation, all in an effort to attract a rapidly growing industry. The prize: A piece of the estimated $20 billion automakers and other companies will spend globally on development over the next five years, according to an analysis by Gartner.”

8) Samsung theorizes globally affordable 5G Internet using low Earth orbit satellites

What’s old is new again. The idea of delivering broadband via LEOSATs generated a lot of hype during the latter stages of the dot-com boom. Radio technology had advanced a lot since then so it could be that the idea suddenly makes sense, although the flaws in the business model remain the same. While these satellites might be characterized as “inexpensive” that is only true in comparison to large geostationary satellite, and a thousand or so “cheap” satellites makes for a large investment in birds and launches. Even though you’d have to launch all of the satellites before the system would work (these things are only in view for a few minutes) LEOSAT broadband would only have a market where no alternative exists. Plus, roughly two thirds of the planet is covered by water, and a lot of the remainder is uninhabited, so less than a third of your satellites would be over people at any given time. Add to that the challenges of communicating with a fast moving satellite as a distance of 1,500 km, and, well, I think you start to see the problem.

“Khan’s plan claims to offer up to one zetabyte of capacity per month. To achieve this goal, he hopes to deploy a large number of inexpensive Low Earth Orbit micro-satellites positioned about 1,500 kilometers from Earth’s surface, much lower than a typical geostationary satellite. The reason for forgoing standard geostationary satellites in favor of these smaller, close-range instruments is due to the latency produced at typical altitudes of up to 35,786km. With so much space (literally) to travel, it can take a quarter of a second for a signal to ping back and forth from the satellite. This delay is much slower than many of us are accustomed to in 2015, potentially causing even the most patient customers to lose their minds due to annoyances like interrupted Skype calls and Xbox Live disruptions.”

9) Your Doctor Can Now Examine an Exact 3D Replica of Your Heart in Virtual Reality

Despite being on Singularity Hub, which is a hotbed for futurism nonsense, this is a good article. The idea is a good one, though the author oversells (colonoscopies do not require “total sedation and a full day of recovery” and the purge procedure is by far the greatest inconvenience). Essentially the software takes in the results of medical scans and presents them in a manner which is more understandable to the physician – basically a virtual dissection. The article does not mention the time it takes to create these images or how much manual intervention is required. Nevertheless, one can imagine that increased computer performance would improve those metrics.

“Today, radiologists look through hundreds and hundreds of flat images, and then draw a diagram (yes, by hand) to show the surgeon how to approach a given procedure. Then the surgeon operates on the patient with no advance knowledge of his or her actual volumetric anatomy. One surgeon I spoke with summed it up perfectly: “I’ve never opened up a patient and seen a 2D view!” Another surgeon specializing in image-guided surgery told us that “half the time I am guessing” when navigating 3D anatomy using 2D images. Sounds a little scary, no? Never fear. It won’t be like this much longer. There’s a pretty powerful solution just now arriving—advanced image rendering through interactive virtual reality. EchoPixel (my company) uses virtual reality to help doctors visualize each patient’s unique anatomy and internal structure in a floating 3D image. The software uses DICOM data, which is already embedded in every MRI scan, CT scan, or ultrasound image.”

10) Will Hacking Into TV Sets And/Or Remotes Be Next?

As more and more things are connected to the Internet, it is worth noting that expertise in network security is a relatively scarce commodity. In other words, while pretty much anybody can make a WiFi connected thermostat, TV, or set top box, making that device secure against hackers is somewhat more complicated. It might smack of paranoia to consider that hackers might be listening to your conversations through your TV, but it is probably inevitable that ransomware scams (pay us or your TV will never work again) become the threat of the moment. Thanks to Nick Tang for this item.

“While we have been worried about personal information getting into the wrong hands — via hacking of laptops, mobile devices, or otherwise — we could start to worry about the sophisticated software inside other devices. Should we start to fear hacks into our TV sets? Perhaps not much of personal information would be in jeopardy here. No matter; lots of hacking is about nuisance and general disruption. New smart TV technology already points in this direction: Samsung TV sets have the ability to store viewers’ private conversations when they’re using voice-recognition remote controls. So what’s next?”

11) The Beginning of the End of the TV Industrial Complex

I have no idea what the “TV Industrial Complex” is, except it is an evil sounding name for media production companies and their partners in crime the Cable TV industry. While there are pay TV producers who seem to have at least some interest in quality (HBO immediately comes to mind) these are vastly outnumbered by the likes of Discovery, TLC, “History”, and the cable news outlets in the race to the bottom. There are probably two forces at play: technology, which provides an outlet for distraction which is not TV, and a demographic shift as a greater portion of the population grew up spending time on the Internet rather than sitting in front of the family TV. Companies which can deliver a quality product are advised to plan streaming services (such as the somewhat overpriced HBO Now service). One challenge is the producer extricating themselves from distribution agreements based upon the cable TV model as “over the top” distribution become more important.

“To spell it out: Pay TV subscriber growth has been tailing off for years, and now it has vanished altogether — the number of people who pay for cable TV, satellite TV or telco TV is shrinking. Per analysts Craig Moffett and Michael Nathanson: “A year ago, the Pay TV sector was shrinking at an annual rate of 0.1 percent. A year later, the rate at which the Pay TV sector is declining has quickened to 0.7 percent year-over-year. That may not seem like a mass exodus, but it is a big change in a short period of time. And the rate of decline is still accelerating.””

12) Artificial Intelligence is Already Weirdly Human

I have a lot of interest in neural networks, though I recognize they have their own limitations and benefits. This article provides an update on some of the challenges associated with current neural network architectures. Ultimately, I suspect the challenges will be overcome and neural networks will eventually be constructed using analog memories such as memristors, rather than simulations.

“At the moment, humans can’t find out what that computer-created rule is. In a typical neural net, the only layers whose workings people can readily discern are the input layer, where data is fed to the system, and the output layer, where the work of the other layers is reported out to the human world. In between, in the hidden layers, virtual neurons process information and share their work by forming connections among themselves. As in the human brain, the sheer number of operations makes it impossible, as a practical matter, to pinpoint the contribution of any single neuron to the final result. “If you knew everything about each person in a 6-billion-person economy, you would not know what is going to happen, or even why something happened in the past,” Clune says. “The complexity is ‘emergent’ and depends on complex interactions between millions of parts, and we as humans don’t know how to make sense of that.””

13) CAUGHT: Lenovo crams unremovable crapware into Windows laptops – by hiding it in the BIOS

Lenovo used to be IBM’s PC division and IBM laptops tended to be favoured by corporate buyers despite often being premium priced and lagging technologically. I believe Lenovo still occupies a favoured position in that niche, though their recent shenanigans should bring their reputation into question. Besides this revelation what their Windows 10 laptops come with crapware built into the BIOS, they were also recently discovered distributing malware ( so you’d think they would have realized people might notice these things.

“Lenovo has sold laptops bundled with unremovable software that features a bonus exploitable security vulnerability. If the crapware is deleted, or the hard drive wiped and Windows reinstalled from scratch, the laptop’s firmware will quietly and automatically reinstall Lenovo’s software on the next boot-up. Built into the firmware on the laptops’ motherboard is a piece of code called the Lenovo Service Engine (LSE). If Windows is installed, the LSE is executed before the Microsoft operating system is launched. The LSE makes sure C:\Windows\system32\autochk.exe is Lenovo’s variant of the autochk.exe file; if Microsoft’s official version is there, it is moved out of the way and replaced. The executable is run during startup, and is supposed to check the computer’s file system to make sure it’s free of any corruption. Lenovo’s variant of this system file ensures LenovoUpdate.exe and LenovoCheck.exe are present in the operating system’s system32 directory, and if not, it will copy the executables into that directory during boot up. So if you uninstall or delete these programs, the LSE in the firmware will bring them back during the next power-on or reboot.”

14) U.S. Identifies Insider Trading Ring With Ukraine Hackers

It appears this racket has been going on for at least 5 years, though I would bet longer than that. The news services, three of them no less, appear oblivious to the hack, suggesting their own network security is not exactly up to snuff. If I understand the scam correctly, companies filed news releases with the wire services well in advance of distribution and the hackers simply front ran the information. Of course, if companies were required to only release after the markets closed, and all trading halted (including aftermarket) prior to distribution to the new services, none of this would have happened. Unfortunately disclosure practices appear firmly entrenched in the era of ticker tape, and that provides a window for such scams.

“The suspected hackers, who are thought to be in Ukraine, allegedly infiltrated the computer servers of PRNewswire Association LLC, Marketwired and Business Wire, a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., over a five-year period. They siphoned more than 150,000 press releases including corporate data on earnings that could be used to anticipate stock market moves and make profitable trades, the U.S. said. The hackers passed the information to associates in America and Ukraine, who allegedly used it to buy and sell shares of dozens of companies, including Panera Bread Co., Boeing Co., Hewlett-Packard Co., Caterpillar Inc. and Oracle Corp., through retail brokerage accounts.”

15) Oracle to ‘sinner’ customers: Reverse engineering is a sin and we know best

I have never dealt directly with Oracle or used their software, but to an outside observer it seems to me the company has become pathological. This blog post by the company’s “Chief Security Officer” is a case in point: evidently, customers come across security flaws from time to time and Oracle’s response seems to be to shoot the messenger – or at least denounce them. If the person in charge of security has that attitude towards security, you can just imagine the overall culture within the firm.

“When I first read an online rant by Oracle chief security officer Mary Ann Davidson, I pinged the software provider’s PR, asking if the blog post was legitimate. While I’m yet to receive a response, the CSO’s apparent commentary does make for an eyebrow-raising read. Taking a cursory look at social media, I do not appear to be the only one this afternoon absorbing her words of wisdom while switching between copious amounts of eye-rolling and outrage and laughter. Yesterday, Davidson took to the Oracle corporate blog to pen her thoughts on security. Titled, ” No, You Really Can’t,” the essay [Editor: Oracle has unpublished the post, but the full text is available below.] — or perhaps interpreted as a wine-fuelled ramble — waxes less-than-eloquently on the uphill battle Oracle has between maintaining decent security (-cough-) and battling against their nefarious customers who insist on making the job harder by reverse-engineering. Those meddling kids.”

16) The Evolving Role of News on Twitter and Facebook

I have neither a Facebook nor a Twitter account but I can see where this is coming from. Besides the face that fewer people are reading newspapers, listening to radio, or watching TV, the quality of news production has gone own the tubes as fast as most other media content has. I PVR the 60 minute CBC National News so I can skip through the fluff, sports/celebrity coverage disguised as news, etc., and get through it in about 10 minutes. Thanks again to Nick Tang for this item.

“The new study, conducted by Pew Research Center in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, finds that clear majorities of Twitter (63%) and Facebook users (63%) now say each platform serves as a source for news about events and issues outside the realm of friends and family. That share has increased substantially from 2013, when about half of users (52% of Twitter users, 47% of Facebook users) said they got news from the social platforms. Although both social networks have the same portion of users getting news on these sites, there are significant differences in their potential news distribution strengths. The proportion of users who say they follow breaking news on Twitter, for example, is nearly twice as high as those who say they do so on Facebook (59% vs. 31%) – lending support, perhaps, to the view that Twitter’s great strength is providing as-it-happens coverage and commentary on live events.”

17) Gazan medico team 3D-prints world-leading stethoscope for 30c

This is an article about two things, namely production of a good quality stethoscope with a 3D printer and an effort to open source (and thus cost reduce) basic medical instruments to increase their availability in the developing world. Frankly I am a bit puzzled by the comment a stethoscope costs $200 – this is a simple product made of low cost materials. Somebody should be able to make a knock off for $15 or less.

“”This stethoscope is as good as any stethoscope out there in the world and we have the data to prove it,” Loubani says. He is so confident of the device that he expects the peer-review process to be a “cake walk”. The device was tested using a the standard practice of pressing it against a balloon filled with water – a test dubbed the Hello Kitty protocol given the availability of cat-branded balloons at the time. Loubani says sterilization is not a problem with the devices, and metal can be used if necessary. The team is now developing cheap but effective 3D-printed medical devices including a pulse oximeter which monitors blood oxygen levels in the blood and is at a stage ready for calibration. They are also working on an electrocardiogram for cardiac patients and will work on haemodialysis machines.”

18) Healing Injuries Could Be Better Thanks To This 3-D Printed Cast

This sounds like another medical use for 3D printing, but I really doubt it will catch on. Fibreglass casts have their issues but they only take a few minutes to make, they are cheap, and they get the job done. A minimalistic 3D printed plastic cast would take some time to make (3D printers are slow), cost a lot more, and likely be less rigid than a fibreglass cast. So, perhaps some wealthy patients with certain classes of injuries (likely not broken bones) would return after a few days to get a replacement 3D printed cast, but it is hard to imagine many hospitals would invest in the equipment to provide that service.

“When Scott Summit tore a ligament in his arm he knew there was a better way to heal than spending six months trapped in a fiberglass cast from his biceps to his knuckles. The senior director of functional design at 3D Systems—a 3-D printing behemoth—and founder of Bespoke, a company that developed prosthetics and braces, Summit naturally turned to technology to find a better way.”

19) Surgeons Smash Records with Pig-to-Primate Organ Transplants

This is a promising line of research: use genetic engineering to produce pigs whose organs are similar enough to humans that a human body won’t reject them. This would provide an abundant supply of organs for human transplant which would mean that transplant patients would be getting “known good” organs from animals raised in a sterile environment. This would also mean that people would get transplants as soon as they need them rather than waiting months or years with deteriorating health for a matching organ. Plus, the rest of the pig could be eaten.

“With the financial aid of a biotechnology executive whose daughter may need a lung transplant, U.S. researchers have been shattering records in xenotransplantation, or between-species organ transplants. The researchers say they have kept a pig heart alive in a baboon for 945 days and also reported the longest-ever kidney swap between these species, lasting 136 days. The experiments used organs from pigs “humanized” with the addition of as many as five human genes, a strategy designed to stop organ rejection.”

20) Biotech Report: Will Gene Therapy Go Mainstream?

This article would have us believe that safe, effective gene therapies are pretty much ready for prime time. I don’t know enough about the state of the science to comment on whether or not that is true, though I believe that if it isn’t true it probably will be eventually. The cost argument is a two-way street: lower cost might fuel adoption, but costs which are too low might make a case for R&D to be shelved. Drug companies are in the business to make money, not to cure people, especially if treating them is more profitable than curing them.

“Within the healthcare marketing community, gene therapy is an object of intense fascination. In understanding the potential curative promise of such drugs, marketers have fallen over themselves to tout their virtues and rip off list after list of “best practices” for promoting them—even though it’s hard to codify best practices when so few of the products have actually reached the market. Nonetheless, you’d be hard-pressed to find even a C-list pharma marketer who hasn’t long since awakened to the eventual virtues of gene therapy. Enthusiasm within the scientific and investment communities couldn’t be higher. And yet within patient populations and many provider circles, gene therapy remains an object of interest for different reasons. The moniker gene therapy is one of them, given how in certain uneducated circles it conjures images of mad scientists attempting to, say, create a superhuman being or performance-enhance their livestock. So with gene therapy targeting any number of conditions on its way, the question needs to be asked: Is the US market ready for gene therapy and everything that comes with it?”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 1st 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 1st 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) Tech’s Enduring Great-Man Myth

This is a worthy article, although I do not entirely agree with it’s conclusions. I believe there are, indeed, “great-men” (and women) who make huge strides in science and technology. People like Newton, Einstein, Tesla, Cray, etc., may stand on the shoulders of giants, but they were also giants themselves. Others, like Jobs and Musk, are businessmen with the aptitude to cajole others to actually invent stuff and associate their mere presence with the act of invention. The relationship is very much like Dilbert and his Pointy Haired Boss (every engineer has had a boss like that). Inventing something doesn’t consist of doodling an idea – it involves actually solving the serious problems getting the thing to actually work. The media love a hero story even if those who are closer to the technology dismiss their coverage as piffle and the actual inventors continue to work for salary, far from the reporter’s gaze. Thanks to my friends Duncan Stewart and Humphrey Brown for this item.

“The idea of “great men” as engines of change grew popular in the 19th century. In 1840, the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote that “the history of what man has accomplished in this world is at bottom the history of the Great Men who have worked here.” It wasn’t long, however, before critics questioned this one–dimensional view, arguing that historical change is driven by a complex mix of trends and not by any one person’s achievements. “All of those changes of which he is the proximate initiator have their chief causes in the generations he descended from,” Herbert Spencer wrote in 1873. And today, most historians of science and technology do not believe that major innovation is driven by “a lone inventor who relies only on his own imagination, drive, and intellect,” says Daniel Kevles, a historian at Yale. Scholars are “eager to identify and give due credit to significant people but also recognize that they are operating in a context which enables the work.” In other words, great leaders rely on the resources and opportunities available to them, which means they do not shape history as much as they are molded by the moments in which they live.”

2) Is a Cambrian Explosion Coming for Robotics?

I am a big believer there is a coming industrial revolution associated with robots which will have left the constraints of the factory floor. A mobile robot requires a surprising amount of computing power depending on its functionality, so it makes sense cloud computing would be applied. Consider a robotic lawnmower: rather than making it smart enough to function with built in computing power, the machine could be designed to have enough computing power to operate its safety systems and rely on substantial cloud resources to take care of the heavy lifting. Since only a small fraction of robotic lawnmowers would be used at any one time, those in operation would have access to a supercomputer via a wireless link. Unfortunately, at least three of the technical driving factors (Moore’s Law, Electrical Energy Storage, Electronic Power Efficiency) are not progressing exponentially, or at least there is some doubt as to whether they are.

“Today, technological developments on several fronts are fomenting a similar explosion in the diversification and applicability of robotics. Many of the base hardware technologies on which robots depend—particularly computing, data storage, and communications—have been improving at exponential growth rates. Two newly blossoming technologies—“Cloud Robotics” and “Deep Learning”—could leverage these base technologies in a virtuous cycle of explosive growth. In Cloud Robotics— a term coined by James Kuffner (2010)—every robot learns from the experiences of all robots, which leads to rapid growth of robot competence, particularly as the number of robots grows. Deep Learning algorithms are a method for robots to learn and generalize their associations based on very large (and often cloud-based) “training sets” that typically include millions of examples. Interestingly, Li (2014) noted that one of the robotic capabilities recently enabled by these combined technologies is vision—the same capability that may have played a leading role in the Cambrian Explosion.”

(PDF Download)

3) How Driverless Cars Could Turn Parking Lots into City Parks

I am rather skeptical of the figure that 64% of local cars were searching for a place to park but I understand the frustration. Driverless cabs (in contrast with driverless cars) would presumably be continuously in motion and not need to park, however, that still leaves the question of how to get to the city. The obvious solution would be improved mass transit, but that has been an obvious solution for decades. Intelligent parking systems (see item 7) could allow you to find and reserve a parking spot so that you would avoid the great hunt for parking and simply drive to the empty spot (or, if you have an driverless car, it could just go there by itself).

“Traffic jams aren’t exactly Zen. People are anxious about getting somewhere else instead of being happy about where they are. To make matters more frustrating: In many cases, the cars clogging roadways are often already at their destination—and just circling the blocks looking for parking. There’s plenty of research showing that a surprisingly large number of people are driving, trying to find a place to leave their car. A group called Transportation Alternatives studied the flow of cars around one Brooklyn neighborhood, Park Slope, and found that 64 percent of the local cars were searching for a place to park. It’s not just the inner core of cities either. Many cars in suburban downtowns and shopping-mall parking lots do the same thing. Robot cars could change all that. The unsticking of the urban roads is one of the side effects of autonomous cars that will, in turn, change the landscape of cities— essentially eliminating one of the enduring symbols of urban life, the traffic jam full of honking cars and fuming passengers.”

4) Review: Epson Kills the Printer Ink Cartridge

This is not a big story, and, frankly, it is high time. I gave up on inkjet printers long ago because of the high cost and inevitable gummed up cartridges. Laser printers have a high up-front cost, but they have been more reliable and have lower cost of ownership. Epson is simply doing what has been done in commercial printers a long time ago, namely using refillable ink tanks. Needless to say, the positioning as “eco” is pretty much required these days, although I have found it amusing that essentially disposable consumer products (including TVs, washing machines, refrigerators, etc.) have not raised the ire of the environmentalist crowd.

“Epson, the maker of my nightmare printer, has finally put an end to the horror of ink cartridges, at least for people willing to throw cash at the problem up front. The five new EcoTank series printers look like normal models, only they have containers on their sides that hold gobs and gobs of ink. How much? Years’ worth. Enough that your children—or at least mine—could go on a two-hour coloring-page-printing bender and you wouldn’t even notice.” article_email/review-epson-kills-the-printer-ink-cartridge-1438683871-lMyQjAxMTE1MTAyNDAwNDQ3Wj

5) SSD vs HDD: Waiting for Price Parity is Pointless

This article compares the state of the art of Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) and Solid State Drives (SSDs). Although new 3D flash (see item 6) might close the gap somewhat, the cost per bit on SSDs is likely to remain considerably higher then HDDs for some time. However, that is not all that matters: SSDs are much faster, use less power, and, while prone to wear, are more reliable. Emerging SSD interfaces should have a dramatic improvement on performance and a consequent further improvement in power consumption. I firmly believe HDDs on consumer and business PCs will be as rare as floppy disks within 5 years.

“Based on performance alone, most power users would choose the solid state drive for the operating system and frequently used programs, with the hard drive for documents and media. For some system builds, a hard drive might not even be included—just a singular SSD. But though hard drives may be on their way out as primary storage volumes, they continue to serve well for mass storage and data backup for the foreseeable future. A similar thing happened to tape backup media. Datacenters still use tape formats such as Linear Tape Open (LTO) for storage despite the fact that they’ve been outclassed by other storage types. Slow as LTO storage is, it works great for archival purposes. It sticks around because it fills a unique niche, just like how hard drives may fill another niche in the future. Even when comparing different SSDs, price/GB shouldn’t be the main focus. Performance and reliability factors should drive the purchasing decision.”

6) SanDisk, Toshiba double down, announce the world’s highest capacity 3D NAND flash chips

3D NAND flash technology has the potential to significantly reduce the cost per bit of SSDs. Although Intel/Micron have similar technology, this is not the same as the novel 3D Xpoint (Crosspoint) memory those companies announced a few weeks ago. 3D NAND flash is similar to stacked flash memory chips, with all the performance and endurance limitations associated with the technology. That being said, 3D NAND flash may shift the gap between SSD and HDD cost per bit sufficiently that HDDs are pushed out of the consumer and business PC markets.

“SanDisk and Toshiba announced today that they are manufacturing 256Gbit (32GB), 3-bit-per-cell (X3) 48-layer 3D NAND flash chips that offer twice the capacity of the next densest memory. The two NAND flash manufacturers are currently printing pilot the 256Gb X3 chips in their new Yokkaichi, Japan fabrication plant. They are expecting to ship the new chips next year.”

7) Barcelona: The most wired city in the world

Barcelona appears to have become a test bed for what amounts to Internet of Things (IoT) applications in city management. Although I have serious concerns regarding privacy, it seems most people aren’t bothered by such things. (Heck – I’m old enough to remember when Orwell’s 1984 was considered dystopian fiction.). One must always take “cost savings” with a large grain of salt, especially when calculated by vendors and related by politicians. Nevertheless, there are some clear potential efficiency benefits, provided their public sector unions permit them.

“The boxes are no regular electricity meters. They are fine-tuned computer systems, capable of measuring noise, traffic, pollution, crowds, even the number of selfies posted from the street. They are the future of Barcelona, and in some sense they are the future for all of us too. The hard drives are just one piece of what is “unusual” on this street, in fact. Cast your eyes down, and you might spot the digital chips plugged into garbage containers, or the soda-can-size sensors rammed into the asphalt under the parking spaces. Then again, you might not notice anything. Discreet and largely unannounced, the changes in Barcelona have slipped by even observant residents and the millions of tourists who pour into Spain’s second-biggest city every summer to soak up its tapas, music, and beaches. Yet the stealthy transformation is profound and potentially so sweeping that no one is sure where it will lead.”

8) Fast fibre-optic internet arrives in many small towns before big cities

Of course, one challenges of a “smart city” (item 7) is that you need the infrastructure to support it. Vast amounts of data require fiber optics, even if the last 100 meters is wireless. Laying fiber optic cables is expensive but it has to be done. Unfortunately, the regulatory environment in some countries (including Canada and the US) provide no incentive for incumbent companies to do so as the net result would be reduced return on investment. It turns out that laying fiber in small towns are rural areas is relatively cheap per unit distance and forward thinking small towns are doing just that.

“These small communities, and many more, have fast internet because they have high-throughput fibre-optic cables deployed directly into homes and businesses, enabling the quickest-yet speeds of up to 1,000 megabits, or one gigabit, per second. That’s enough to stream numerous ultra HD Netflix movies at once, and many times the bandwidth of a typical home connection in urban Canada. But it’s not Rogers, Bell, Telus, Shaw, AT&T or any of the big telecom companies that are providing the services. Instead, a number of small Canadian towns and cities, like dozens in the U.S., are installing their own high-speed fibre-optic cables, or are benefiting as local companies do it — setting up homes and businesses with the fastest the internet has to offer.”

9) Time to fix patents

When you hear complaints of a broken patent system they are always referring to the US patent system, which is the only one which matters, and which has been broken on purpose, much like its copyright system. Powerful forces have contrived to create a system which, in many ways ways, to create barriers to competition. Although the focus is on patent trolls, or “non-practicing entities” the likes of Microsoft, Apple, and drug companies exploit the system to much greater profit – the trolls fight over table scraps. I doubt much will change, however. Unfortunately, the article loses a lot of credibility by suggesting a “use it or lose it” requirement on patents as this shows an utter obliviousness of the role patents play in innovation.

“Patents are supposed to spread knowledge, by obliging holders to lay out their innovation for all to see; they often fail, because patent-lawyers are masters of obfuscation. Instead, the system has created a parasitic ecology of trolls and defensive patent-holders, who aim to block innovation, or at least to stand in its way unless they can grab a share of the spoils. An early study found that newcomers to the semiconductor business had to buy licences from incumbents for as much as $200m. Patents should spur bursts of innovation; instead, they are used to lock in incumbents’ advantages.”

10) Microsoft wants you to pay $15 for DVD playback in Windows 10

As I mentioned last week, Windows 10 seems to be a huge improvement, even though my laptop has lost its ability to wake from sleep mode. Since this is a problem shared by tens of thousands of people, suggesting it will get fixed eventually. Last week we noted serious concerns regarding privacy with Windows 10 and this week I discovered there are a number of missing functions as well. I don’t have a DVD/Bluray player in my laptop, and if I did I would be plenty annoyed to discover I could no longer play discs after the upgrade. Hell not having frozen over, I would not pay money for a fix: I would find and download a free player such as VLC, which would likely be more featured in any event.

“If you partake in Microsoft’s free upgrade offer from Windows 7 or 8 to Windows 10, Windows Media Center will be removed without warning. In its place, a new app called Windows DVD Player has been added to the Windows Store. It costs the princely sum of £11.59, or $14.99/€14,89 if you live in the terrifyingly parched wastes outside Blighty. Microsoft doesn’t exactly hide the fact that Windows 10 forcibly deprecates Media Center, but the information isn’t in the most obvious of locations either. If you visit the Windows 10 upgrade website, and then click the “Windows 10 specifications” link in the small print at the bottom of the page, there’s a big list of deprecated features. Media Center is the main one, but you’ll be dismayed to hear that Solitaire, Minesweeper, and Hearts have also been removed.”

11) Japanese court rules that bitcoin can’t be ‘owned’

You might recall the heady days of 2014 when almost every week had a story about yet another Bitcoin exchange being “hacked” (most likely by the guys running the exchange). It seems that Bitcoin may be wonderful but once you steal some you want to convert it into old fashioned untraceable cash. The most memorable “hack” was Mt. Gox, and last week the guy responsible for that was arrested in Japan for “fraud”. Now, the problem with virtual currency is that it is not clear whether law applies to it. Last time I checked, only once person had ever been convicted of stealing virtual currency had plead guilty and paid a $30 fine because his mother told him to. Interestingly, a court in Japan just ruled you can’t own Bitcoin. If that ruling stand, it calls into question the aforementioned fraud prosecution. If, in fact, you can’t own Bitcoin therefore you can’t have it stolen from you, and therefore it is the perfect crime.

“Tokyo’s district court has ruled that it’s not possible for people to own bitcoin, and therefore they can’t sue for compensation in the wake of Mt. Gox’s collapse. The ruling comes a few days after the head of what used to be the world’s largest bitcoin exchange was arrested on charges of fraud concerning its collapse. The case involved an anonymous individual who had 458 BTC in their account, roughly equivalent to just under $130,000 today. Naturally, the person was seeking to claw some of that cash back, but Judge Masumi Kurachi felt that bitcoins do not possess the necessary “tangible qualities” to constitute owned property under the country’s law. We won’t debate their wisdom here, nor the intricacies of Japanese property law, but given that Gox was holding thousands of people’s bitcoin stashes, there’s plenty more angry customers looking for compensation.”

12) Media Stocks Continue Slide, as Netflix Shares Shoot to Record High

At the same time as streaming becomes more and more popular, cable companies continue to raise rates. Rather than offering a high quality product, content providers seem bent on reducing the quality of their offering to base levels. For example, I used to get Discovery, which occasionally (perhaps once a week) had something worth watching. There are now four “sister” channels and I don’t think there is a watchable item on any five channels ever. I do not understand the investment thesis behind Netflix after all, it is just streaming video, almost all of which is produced by somebody else, however, the outlook for mainstream content producers and cable channels seems pretty bleak unless they up their game and drop their prices.

“The drop in media stocks Wednesday were triggered by Disney’s cut forecasts for pay-TV affiliate fee increases from “high singles” to “mid-single digit” percentages in reporting earnings, and CEO Bob Iger’s acknowledgment that ESPN has seen “some subscriber losses.” That triggered “a sky-is-falling mentality among media investors with respect to expectations on cord-cutting,” Juenger wrote in a research note. The severe reaction in the market was overblown, in Juenger’s opinion, who said he’s optimistic that the pay-TV bundle will continue to remain solid even as subscribers levels continue to slowly erode. “We believe yesterday’s dramatic selloff was much more severe than warranted by any new evidence of risk,” he wrote. There are signs the U.S. pay-TV sector is contracting at a faster rate. The industry lost a net 357,000 subscribers in the second quarter of 2015 (excluding Cablevision and DirecTV), versus a decline of 151,000 subs in the year-earlier period, according to estimates by research firm MoffettNathanson.”

13) ‘Man in the Cloud’: Hackers can access Dropbox, Google Drive accounts without the user’s password

I figure cloud storage is where you put stuff you don’t mind sharing. A consumer might not care but every business should care and never store anything of any value on a cloud server. Besides the obvious single point of failure (they go off line, you go off line), the activities of the NSA mean you are sharing everything with the US government, and by extension the Russian and Chinese governments as well. If that wasn’t enough, we now have word of a “man in the cloud” hack which allows a third party to intercept your data without you knowing about it.

“Researchers at Imperva released details about a new type of attack, called ‘Man in the Cloud’. The attack can quietly coopt common file synchronization services, such as Box, Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive, to turn them into devastating attack tools not easily detected by common security measures. According to Imperva’s report, which was presented at BlackHat USA 2015, this next-generation attack does not require compromising the user’s cloud account username or password. “Our research has revealed just how easy it is for cyber criminals to coopt cloud synchronization accounts, and how difficult it is to detect and recover from this new kind of attack,” said Amichai Shulman, CTO of Imperva. “Since we have found evidence of MITC in the wild, organisations who rely on protecting against infection through malicious code detection or command and control (C&C) communication detection are at a serious risk, as man in the cloud attacks use the in-place Enterprise File Synch and Share (EFSS) infrastructure for C&C and exfiltration.””

14) Design flaw in Intel processors opens door to rootkits, researcher says

This seems like an oldie but a goody: a flaw in Intel (and probably AMD) processors which allows highjacking of the machine. This may, in fact be an oversight, however, it is just as likely a contrived situation which gave access to any computer made since 1997. Similar vulnerabilities or “back doors” were discovered in random number generators used by RSA and others ( along similar time lines.

“A design flaw in the x86 processor architecture dating back almost two decades could allow attackers to install a rootkit in the low-level firmware of computers, a security researcher said Thursday. Such malware could be undetectable by security products. The vulnerability stems from a feature first added to the x86 architecture in 1997. It was disclosed Thursday at the Black Hat security conference by Christopher Domas, a security researcher with the Battelle Memorial Institute. By leveraging the flaw, attackers could install a rootkit in the processors System Management Mode (SMM), a protected region of code that underpins all the firmware security features in modern computers.”

15) New Benefits Emerge from Traditional Public Works Infrastructure

The title should read “lots of people befuddled by free energy scheme”. Long story short, water flows through pipelines, so if you put a turbine inside those pipelines you get free electricity! I know what you are thinking: “that same water comes out of my taps so I could run a tiny turbine to charge my smartphone” and you’d be right. The problem, of course, is that whatever power is being extracted to run the turbines translates to downstream loss of pressure. The pressure is there because of the upstream pumps which are either pushing the water or pumped it into a reservoir uphill from these turbines. One way or another, there is no free lunch.

“As regions of the country seek renewable sources to replace energy from coal-fired power plants, city public works agencies are turning to new approaches for conservation and energy production. In January, the Portland Water Bureau (PWB) in Oregon flipped the on switch for the first project in the U.S. to produce energy from in-pipe hydropower in a municipal water pipeline. PWB partnered with a Portland-based startup called Lucid Energy Inc., a provider of renewable energy systems for in-pipe hydropower. The company’s system, which it says was installed at no cost to PWB or the city of Portland, uses the gravity-fed flow of water inside a PWB pipeline to spin four 42-inch turbines that are now producing electricity for Portland General Electric customers under a 20-year power purchase agreement with the utility.”

16) Does Apple lie about how it powers its data centers?

Yeah, actually, that is pretty much the case. “Greenwashing” is pretty common, from branding stuff as “eco” to claiming it is “carbon free”. So, for example, I might run a completely destructive operation and claim it is “carbon free” because I buy carbon credits from somebody who pretends to plant trees to offset my purported carbon emissions. It could be worse: some claim to use “biofuels” which actually produce more carbon than an equivalent amount of diesel due to the copious amounts of diesel used to produced them.

“The trick, however, is that those same companies are buying renewable energy certificates and building facilities such as wind and solar power farms to put energy into the grid to offset the non-renewable energy that they buy to power their data centers. So while the truth is that the data centers are not powered by renewable energy, these companies are making at least an equivalent amount of renewable energy available for sale to the general public, offsetting any increase in non-green emissions, and such. The real issue here is that the Apple marketing machine, by claiming that their data centers are 100% powered by renewable energy, has made the reality of the situation as invisible as possible to their customer base and to activists such as Greenpeace, who give Apple top ratings for “using” renewable power. Apple customers who have any awareness of the power issues are able to add to their smug sense of self-satisfaction that their beloved company is doing the right thing. This explains the outraged tone of the Truthout article. Never buy into the marketing hype without checking it out first.”

17) Facebook unveils drone for beaming internet access from the sky

This is Facebook’s answer to Google’s Internet by balloon plan. I confess my skin crawls when terms like “gigabytes per second” are used to describe bandwidth (gigabits), but, hey, what are you going to do? It would be cool to see if these things actually work, and if they do, how reliable they would be. Even if they were reliable enough, there would probably be a need for special access point hardware, which would not be cheap. Then there is the question of what subscribers would get: would it be the real Internet, or a portal into the banality of Facebook?

“Facebook is taking to the skies. Last week, the tech giant unveiled Aquila, the drone it hopes will deliver internet to the masses. The drone has been in development for over a year as part of, Facebook’s initiative to help underdeveloped countries get online. A video published on Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page describes Aquila as having a wingspan of 40 metres, about the same as a Boeing 737. It is made out of lightweight composite materials, including carbon fibre, and is solar-powered. In the company’s long-term vision for the project, hundreds of drones will circle a large area at an altitude of 60,000 feet, remaining aloft for three months at a time. Lasers will beam information at tens of gigabytes per second between the drones and systems on the ground.”

18) Paralyzed Men Move Legs with New Non-Invasive Spinal Cord Stimulation – NIH study

This is an update on some earlier work which used implanted electrodes to stimulate muscles of paralyzed patients. This approach is non-surgical, meaning it would be much cheaper, safer, and probably easier to upgrade as the technology evolves. It is important to realize this does not mean they can walk, just that their legs can move, though there appears to be some hope walking might be possible. What is interesting is that the stimulation appears to have a residual effect in that the men develop an ability to move without stimulation.

“At the initiation of the study, the men’s legs only moved when the stimulation was strong enough to generate involuntary step-like movements. However, when the men attempted to move their legs further while receiving stimulation, their range of movement significantly increased. After just four weeks of receiving stimulation and physical training, the men were able to double their range of motion when voluntarily moving their legs while receiving stimulation. The researchers suggest that this change was due to the ability of electrical stimulation to reawaken dormant connections that may exist between the brain and the spinal cord of patients with complete motor paralysis. Surprisingly, by the end of the study, and following the addition of buspirone, the men were able to move their legs with no stimulation at all and their range of movement was—on average—the same as when they were moving while receiving stimulation.”

19) Space mining is closer than you think, and the prospects are great

One of my many rules of thumb states that most businesses involving space are doomed to failure. This is a pretty silly article as the excerpt shows: they are comparing the cost of sending a little rover to Mars with mining. Mining is a proven technology with centuries of experience behind it. Once you build a mine, you end up with a long lived source of a commodity for which there is a known market. Mining in space has never been done, but it would almost certainly be staggeringly expensive. Once you found the ore, you’d have to send it to some sort of space refinery to produce the platinum or whatever it was you wanted. All this has never been done, not even on a tiny scale, and while the construction of a space mine/refinery complex would be staggering, it would require a prodigious amount of power to run it. Maybe the article is right: I’m thinking maybe in a couple hundred years and it’ll only be 150.

“Despite all this activity, sceptics remain unconvinced about the prospects for space mining for reasons such as expense and time. Mining in space will certainly be expensive. The total budget of the project to send Curiosity to Mars and operate it for 14 years was US$2.5 billion. But mining on Earth is also expensive. In 2014, Rio Tinto reduced its exploration budget from US$948 million in 2013 to US$747 million. A single study can cost over US$650 million. The corresponding figures for BHP Billiton are US$1,047 million in 2013 down to US$716 million. That’s the sort of money these companies are already spending, trying to find new terrestrial deposits. So, the absolute scale of an investment in space mining is not beyond existing mining companies.”

20) Privacy Badger 1.0 Is Here To Stop Online Tracking!

One of the major faults with the Microsoft Edge browser which comes with Windows 10 is the lack of any ad-blocking or privacy extensions. Otherwise it seems like a decent browser to use when you encounter a page which won’t load on Firefox, or which contains Flash (I never install Flash on my main browser). Until then, it is a good idea to use something like uBlock for ad-blocking and Privacy Badger to prevent online tracking. I have seen arguments against ad-blocking, though I don’t think they hold water, I have never seen an argument against Privacy Badger.

“EFF is excited to announce that today we are releasing version 1.0 of Privacy Badger for Chrome and Firefox. Privacy Badger is a browser extension that automatically blocks hidden trackers that would otherwise spy on your browsing habits as you surf the Web. More than a quarter of million users have already installed the alpha and beta releases of Privacy Badger. The new Privacy Badger 1.0 release includes many improvements, including being able to detect certain kinds of super-cookies and browser fingerprinting—some of the more subtle and problematic methods that the online tracking industry employs to follow Internet users from site to site. Other enhancements in Privacy Badger 1.0 include: significant UI improvements, translation into 4 different languages (with more on the way), easier customization of your Privacy Badger settings, improvements to stability, and support for Version 1.0 of EFF’s recently announced Do Not Track Policy.”