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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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, 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.”