The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 25th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 25th 2015

Hello,

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.

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe

1)          A diesel whodunit: How software let VW cheat on emissions

This was a huge news story for investors this week. Long story short it appears Volkswagen committed widespread fraud in order to pass emissions tests. They defrauded governments and consumers who thought they were buying a “green” alternative. It is amusing that slot machine software is carefully audited while the safety and emissions systems of automobiles are not. In any event, this will be fodder for cases studies in corporate governance for decades: at some point, somebody thought they could get away with this. What could go wrong?

“Volkswagen AG CEO Martin Winterkorn announced today he is stepping down as the result of his company’s cheating on emission tests, bypassing environmental standards and landing the company in regulatory hot water. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Volkswagen was able to cheat emissions tests for half a million of its U.S.-sold cars. The software that enabled cars to thwart emissions tests is in as many as 11 million other vehicles, Volkswagen admitted Tuesday. Diesel cars from Volkswagen and Audi cheated on clean air rules by including software, likely a single line of code that made the vehicles’ emissions look cleaner than they actually were.”

http://www.computerworld.com/article/2985283/telematics/a-diesel-whodunit-how-software-let-vw-cheat-on-emissions.html

2)          Lockheed Martin Compact Fusion Reactor Update with Video of Technical Presentation made at Princeton

Some coverage of this more or less implied a working 100 MW fusion reactor was in the cards, which is a very different thing from working on a 100 MW reactor. The idea is that Lockheed Martin has come up with a new approach to fusion, however, even though the company has a great track record the reality is nothing has really been shown to work yet. Nevertheless, it seems likely a breakthrough will be made in nuclear fusion eventually and we can hope it will be sooner rather than later. Obviously, a working, small 100 MW fusion reactor would be a tremendous boon to humanity.

“In October 2014 Lockheed Martin announced that they will attempt to develop a compact fusion reactor that will fit “on the back of a truck” and produce 100 MW output – enough to power a town of 80,000 people. Lockheed is using magnetic mirror confinement that contains the plasma in which fusion occurs by reflecting particles from high-density magnetic fields to low-density ones. Lockheed is targeting a relatively small device that is approximately the size of a conventional jet engine. The prototype is approximately 1 meter by 2 meters in size.”

http://nextbigfuture.com/2015/08/lockheed-martin-compact-fusion-reactor.html

3)          BBC planning Netflix-style service for US

This is a sample of a major trend sweeping the broadcast industry. Content providers now have a global market and can stream whatever content they want wherever they want it – except, of course, in places where existing license holders prevent that. In fact any content provider with the resources to produce content will eventually adopt this form of distribution. One thing with video streaming is that you can subvert things like ad-blocking, and it is hard to spoof advertisers with fake traffic (see item 4)

“A BBC spokeswoman said its programmes would still broadcast on US TV channels, and that the new service was not designed to compete with products such as Netflix, which stream content from a number of partners. “The subscription service will complement our existing footprint in the USA. Other video streaming services remain an important part of our business plan to ensure we bring the best of British to our audiences,” she said.”

http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-34289852

4)          How Much of Your Audience is Fake?

This is a well written article, except the dopey animations of fake mouse pointers. The article makes the case that a lot of web traffic (i.e. page hits) are generated by bots and that a lot of ad spending is based upon a fraudulent premise. I don’t find this surprising since the ad vendors have no real incentive to block this sort of behavior. In summary, unless you use ad-block, a web page is cluttered by advertising which is mostly clicked on by paid bots. At least the bots don’t use ad-block.

“Late that year he and a half-dozen or so colleagues gathered in a New York conference room for a presentation on the performance of the online ads. They were stunned. Digital’s return on investment was around 2 to 1, a $2 increase in revenue for every $1 of ad spending, compared with at least 6 to 1 for TV. The most startling finding: Only 20 percent of the campaign’s “ad impressions”—ads that appear on a computer or smartphone screen—were even seen by actual people. “The room basically stopped,” Amram recalls. The team was concerned about their jobs; someone asked, “Can they do that? Is it legal?” But mostly it was disbelief and outrage. “It was like we’d been throwing our money to the mob,” Amram says. “As an advertiser we were paying for eyeballs and thought that we were buying views. But in the digital world, you’re just paying for the ad to be served, and there’s no guarantee who will see it, or whether a human will see it at all.””

http://www.bloomberg.com/features/2015-click-fraud/

5)          The sorry state of LTE in America: U.S. falls to #55 in global speed rankings

Any ranking of telecommunications infrastructure which places Canada ahead of Kazakhstan is immediately suspect. Indeed, as with most broadband studies this one is incomplete as it tracks the speed you get if you get LTE. Other important issues are whether you have access to wireless broadband at all or whether you can afford it (admittedly neither is probably the case for Kazakhstan.) Therefore, while the US or Canada may have “coast to coast” LTE coverage, there is a lot of land in between where even mobile is not available. The interactive report can be seen at https://opensignal.com/reports/2015/09/state-of-lte-q3-2015/.

“A new report from OpenSignal paints a bleak picture of the state of 4G LTE in the United States as it compares to the rest of the world. The firm’s data was taken from 325,221 LTE users around the world during the three-month period from June 2015 through August 2015. Where LTE download speeds are concerned, OpenSignal found that New Zealand had the fastest average speeds at 36Mbps. Singapore (33Mbps), Romania (30Mbps), South Korea (29Mbps) and Denmark (26Mbps) round out the top five. So where does the U.S. sit on this list? All the way down at No. 55, just behind India, Mexico and Kazakhstan. All four countries have average LTE download speeds in the neighborhood of 10Mbps.”

http://bgr.com/2015/09/24/lte-speed-test-us-vs-world-q3-2015/

6)          The US is overhauling dozens of policies to promote high-speed internet access

It is hard to believe the US and Canada once had world leading telecommunications infrastructure, but it is remarkable what a couple decades of mismanagement and corruption will do. Unlike Canada, the US is taking baby steps to move things ahead, all the while cautious not to annoy the regional monopolies which now control much of the communications infrastructure there.

“Twenty federal agencies are overhauling their policies to promote the deployment of broadband internet across the US. The changes range from allowing community recreation centers to tap into a $2.3 billion program to pay for high-speed internet, to collecting more data on who is and who isn’t able to access broadband, to making it easier for service providers to lay cables beneath federal lands. The actions come as a result of the Broadband Opportunity Council’s first report on expanding access to high-speed internet, which is being released today. The council was formed by President Obama earlier this year, with the goal of ensuring that the federal government is doing everything within its current powers to encourage the deployment of broadband. That means there are no new funding programs here, but existing sources of funding are being opened up and barriers to deployment are being brought down.”

http://www.theverge.com/2015/9/21/9365327/broadband-opportunity-council-report-recommendations

7)          The New Technique That Finds All Known Human Viruses in Your Blood

The headline probably overstates things and it is clear the technique is quite expensive. Nevertheless, knowing what ails the patient is an important part of medicine. There is a reasonable chance the technique can be cost reduced, which might make “virus scans” a normal component of a blood test. This might, in turn, lead to breakthroughs since most viral infections are only detected when someone is suspected of being sick due to a viral infection. There may plenty of illnesses which do not appear to be viral but actually are.

““When people analyze samples from people who are ill, they have some idea in mind. This is probably an enterovirus, or maybe it’s a herpesvirues. They then do a specific assay for that particular agent. They don’t usually have the capacity to look broadly.” The new system, known as VirCapSeq-VERT, barrels past this limitation. Lipkin, together with fellow Columbia professors Thomas Briese and Amit Kapoor, designed it to detect all known human viruses, quickly, efficiently, and sensitively. By searching for thousands, perhaps millions, of viruses at once, it should take a lot of the (educated) guesswork out of viral diagnosis.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/09/detecting-all-human-viruses/406642/

8)          Microsoft strikes deal with China’s Baidu, gets a chance to upgrade more than half a billion PCs to Windows 10

One thing about Windows 10 is that it probably makes piracy of the OS a bit harder due to its continuous upgrade model. China is awash with pirated software so even a small change could have a material positive impact on Microsoft’s sales of Windows and related products. Of course, for security reasons, including NSA spying, Chinese government and enterprises are likely to adopt domestic versions of Linux as an alternative.

“Microsoft has made some progress already. We’re off to a great start in China,” Mehdi claimed, citing the earlier partnerships with Lenovo, Qihu 360 and Tencent. “Great” is in the eyes of the beholder, of course. According to Baidu, which tracks the operating systems that power the devices reaching its search engine, Windows 10 accounted for just 1.1% of all personal computer OSes last month. That was significantly less than the global average: U.S. analytics company Net Application estimated Windows 10’s user share as 5.2% for August. But it was larger than Baidu’s measurement of 0.8% for Windows 7 in January 2010, three-plus months after the operating system’s debut.”

http://www.computerworld.com/article/2985808/windows-pcs/microsoft-strikes-deal-with-chinas-baidu-gets-a-chance-to-upgrade-more-than-half-a-billion-pcs-to-w.html

9)          The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead

There are several challenges with e-books: the pricing (which tends to be absurd), and the user experience. Tablets and e-reader had promise, but reading a book on even a large smartphone is always a positive experience. The pricing is the reason I have never actually paid for an e-book: they often cost more than a paperback and come with all sorts of restrictions and limitations. The large publishers know that keeping people on paper is important to them so they probably want to do all they can to sabotage the new format. It seems to be working however e-books remain an excellent format for new authors.

“Digital books have been around for decades, ever since publishers began experimenting with CD-ROMs, but they did not catch on with consumers until 2008, shortly after Amazon released the Kindle. The Kindle, which was joined by other devices like Kobo’s e-reader, the Nook from Barnes & Noble and the iPad, drew millions of book buyers to e-readers, which offered seamless, instant purchases. Publishers saw huge spikes in digital sales during and after the holidays, after people received e-readers as gifts. But those double- and triple-digit growth rates plummeted as e-reading devices fell out of fashion with consumers, replaced by smartphones and tablets. Some 12 million e-readers were sold last year, a steep drop from the nearly 20 million sold in 2011, according to Forrester Research. The portion of people who read books primarily on e-readers fell to 32 percent in the first quarter of 2015, from 50 percent in 2012, a Nielsen survey showed. Higher e-book prices may also be driving readers back to paper. As publishers renegotiated new terms with Amazon in the past year and demanded the ability to set their own e-book prices, many have started charging more. With little difference in price between a $13 e-book and a paperback, some consumers may be opting for the print version.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/23/business/media/the-plot-twist-e-book-sales-slip-and-print-is-far-from-dead.html

10)      Breakthrough with New Technique for Graphene Production

It is hard to know which graphene announcements are real and which are vapourware. This sounds pretty exciting: a cost reduction of 99% and an improvement in quality is the sort of advance which might leave a mark. Graphene has many potential applications, however, the stuff has been staggeringly expensive to make even in small batches. Nevertheless, it is made from carbon, which is as cheap as you can get for a raw material so potential cost reductions such as these would make a big difference.

“The new technique, called nanoCVD, involves growing graphene in an industrial cold wall Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) system that was recently developed by the UK graphene company Moorfield. The method is based on a concept already used for other manufacturing processes in the semiconductor industry, and demonstrates, for the very first time, a way to mass produce graphene with present facilities. The researchers state that their method can grow graphene 100 times faster, reduce costs by 99 percent and enhance the electronic quality of the graphene. Professor Monica Craciun from Exeter said the new discovery could pave the way for “a graphene-driven industrial revolution.” “The extremely cost-efficient procedure that we have developed for preparing graphene is of vital importance for the quick industrial exploitation of graphene,” said former Exeter professor Thomas Bointon.”

http://science.dodlive.mil/2015/09/23/22601/

11)      Samsung’s 950 Pro M.2 SSD pairs NVMe with V-NAND for eye-popping performance

My first special report for BCA Research outlined my position the Solid State Drive will essentially eliminate the Hard Disk Drive industry. Announcements like this, and a similar announcement by Intel, show one reason why: besides being astoundingly fast, this SSD costs only about double a similar capacity traditional SSD, which is itself dramatically faster than any HDD. Unfortunately, the cost is still about 10x the cost per GB of a HDD however, I expect that gap to close markedly in 2016.

“Most SSDs still make use of the AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface) architecture, which was originally developed for spinning platter SATA hard drives back in 2004. While AHCI works fine for traditional hard drives, it was never designed for low latency NAND chips. As flash speeds have increased, AHCI has become a performance bottleneck. NVMe exploits both the PCIe bus and NAND flash memory to offer higher performance and lower latency. In the case of the 512GB Samsung 950 Pro, the combination of NVMe, speedy V-NAND chips, and a triple core, eight-channel UBX controller has resulted in some eye-popping performance. Sequential read speeds top out at 2500MB/s, while sequential writes hit 1500MB/s. By comparison, Samsung’s OEM-only SM951 AHCI drive—which is based on the same UBX controller, albeit paired with planar NAND—tops out at 2150MB/s sequential reads and 1500MB/s sequential writes.”

http://arstechnica.co.uk/gadgets/2015/09/samsungs-950-pro-m-2-ssd-pairs-nvme-with-v-nand-for-eye-popping-performance/

12)      Supermassive black holes found spiraling in at seven percent light speed

The universe is stranger than we can imagine. Here are two impossibly massive objects spiraling into each other as relativistic speeds. Due to conservation of angular momentum, their speed (and presumably energy emissions) should increase as they get closer and closer. When they finally merge, it should be quite the spectacle.

“One likely black hole binary, PG 1302-102, was first observed last year by ground-based telescopes. A new study confirms this tentative identification. The estimated masses of the two black holes, along with the orbital period, allow us to estimate how close they are. In this case, the answer is “really close.” The inferred distance between them is somewhere between .007 and .017 parsecs, which is not much bigger than the diameter of the Solar System. That’s astoundingly close for two objects of this size—so close that there’s been debate in the scientific community as to how that’s possible (See sidebar). To maintain their orbit, the black holes have to be whipping around at relativistic speeds.”

http://arstechnica.com/science/2015/09/supermassive-black-holes-found-spiraling-in-at-seven-percent-light-speed/

13)      Court adviser deals major blow to EU-U.S. data share deal

Although this only really got a high profile with the Snowden revelations of widespread spying by the NSA, at a minimum, this has been a problem since the post 9/11 “Patriot Act” obligated US firms to comply with warrantless searches of user data anywhere they hold that data. In countries with some degree of privacy regulations, this presents a problem since those same companies are required to comply with those privacy laws. I figure most of this is theater, even if well-meaning theatre. One way or the other hosted, unencrypted, data will be scanned by all and sundry spy agencies, be they American, Russian, or Chinese. That includes corporate data, of course.

“A deal easing the transfer of data between the United States and the EU is invalid, an adviser to the European Union’s top court said on Wednesday, dealing a blow to a system used by Facebook, Google and thousands of other companies. The Safe Harbour agreement did not do enough to protect EU citizen’s private information when it reached the United States and should have been suspended, Yves Bot, Advocate General at the European Court of Justice (ECJ), said. While Bot’s opinions are not binding, they tend to be followed by the court’s judges, who are considering a complaint about the system in the wake of revelations from ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden of mass U.S. government surveillance.”

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/23/us-ireland-eu-privacy-idUSKCN0RN0O720150923

14)      Mobile money, trade credit, and economic development

This study suggests that the introduction of mobile payment systems into developing economies has a profound impact on GDP growth. The fact many such economies otherwise have limited banking infrastructure (or, more correctly, banking is unavailable to the poor) probably explains a lot of that impact.

“Using the firm-level survey mentioned above and our model, we gauge the economic significance of this effect. Comparing an economy with and without mobile money, we find a difference in macro output of 0.47%. Finally, to assess the economic importance of the mechanism we have proposed, we calculate its contribution to economic growth of Kenya since the introduction of M-PESA in 2007. Kenyan total factor productivity (TFP) and real per capita income grew 3.3% and 14%, respectively, between 2006 and 2013. The quantitative exercise result from the endogenous model implies that M-PESA generates 0.5% TFP growth for the Kenyan economy through the trade credit channel on an annualised basis. This implies that the mechanism we have proposed can explain 14% of TFP growth and 3.4% of per capita real income growth over the same period, suggesting quite a large economic impact of mobile money technology”

http://www.voxeu.org/article/mobile-money-trade-credit-and-economic-development

15)      Two humans link their brains to play 20 Questions

This is an update on a technology which is moving towards direct brain to brain communication (like ESP except real). The experiment is somewhat contrived in that this is not the transmission of abstract thoughts so much as a sort of “yes/no” signal. One can’t help but wonder if it might be used to try communications with people with locked in syndrome or other serious medical issues.

“If you could eschew the telephone, and instead wear a cap that allowed you to share your thoughts with someone else, very far away, would you? It may be a moot point now, but there may come a time in the not-too-distant future when it isn’t, largely due to the work of Andrea Stocco and his team at the University of Washington’s Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences. In this latest round of Stocco’s research, two people were successfully able to transmit their thoughts to each other over the Internet, completing a game of questions-and-answers.”

http://www.cnet.com/news/two-humans-link-brains-for-20-questions/

16)      Your city is stupid Smart cities are great in theory, tricky in practice

I’ve read better articles covering the issue of smart cities. It is a technology which has vast potential however the problem would be one of implementation. Governments are notoriously incompetent when it comes to deploying technology and the larger the project the more likely they are to go over budget by orders of magnitude. Part of this is no doubt due to the tendency to turn projects over to consultancies who then run amok, but either way it is a stretch to assume any significant smart city project will work out as planned.

“In San Diego, California, 70% of the time a traffic light goes out city officials only know because somebody phones in to report it. Believe or not, that statistic isn’t unusual for a city right now. And yet, in the city of Groningen, Netherlands, some traffic lights have sensors that can detect when it is raining or snowing, and will grant more frequent passage to cyclists when they do. Cities are a sieve for data but most of the information is flowing through the holes. Many bus systems will tell you when the next bus is coming, but how many tell you if there is a spare seat or space for your bike? “Smart city” is one of the latest big buzzwords, but it’s a phrase that can evoke such a jumble of ideas that it’s not easy to find one single definition. Perhaps the best interpretation is this: a smart city is one that has been consciously designed, with the aid of technology, to increase efficiency.”

http://www.techradar.com/us/news/world-of-tech/future-tech/your-city-is-stupid-1305140

17)      Lab Grown Kidneys Have Been Successfully Transplanted Into Animals

As the article implies, these kidneys were implanted but they weren’t really properly functioning. They didn’t get rejected (which is good but not hard to do with lab animals), they did filter blood (which is a big deal) but urine removal, which is kind of important for a kidney, remains a problem. Still it is a move in the right direction.

“So far, rats and pigs have been tried. The first wave was with rats, but what is more interesting is the effect with a more complex animal like a pig. The success shown here bring the possibility of a human kidney transplant, using laboratory engineered kidneys, a step closer. The newly grown kidneys were created from stem cells, using rats as the incubators for the growing embryonic tissue. The kidneys are grown complete with a drainage tube and bladder for the collection of urine. The biggest problems the researchers faced were removing urine from the kidneys and avoiding them ballooning up under pressure.”

http://www.thelatestnews.com/lab-grown-kidneys-are-a-success/

18)      Switch the world’s street lighting to LED, urges new campaign

I am a big believer in LED lighting and predicted the rise of the technology years ago. LED street lighting makes economic sense because power consumption is a fraction of alternatives, and, more importantly, the fixtures last forever, which saves costly biannual bulb replacement. Nevertheless, this article is an excellent example of greenwashing: note how neither the article itself or the original “non-profit” report (http://www.theclimategroup.org/what-we-do/publications/the-big-switch-why-its-time-to-scale-up-led-street-lighting/) mentions the tiny detail the report (http://www.theclimategroup.org/_assets/files/LED-September.pdf) was sponsored by Philips, one of the largest manufacturers of LED lights.

“The campaign, called LED = Lower Emissions Delivered, follows up on the non-profit’s 2012 trials of LED street-lighting in 12 major cities including New York, London, and Kolkata, where it looked at how the latest LED products performed and are perceived by the public. The Climate Group said technological barriers to implementation of LEDs have now been overcome, while their consultation with cities has shown using LED technology for street lighting is now broadly accepted.”

http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2427519/switch-the-worlds-street-lighting-to-led-urges-new-campaign

19)      Why Pharma Wants to Put Sensors in This Blockbuster Drug

I can sort of understand the need to track drug usage, in particular in patients who are unable to do so themselves. It is not clear to me that schizophrenics fit in that category: many complain the side effects of the drugs are worse than the illness itself. Mind you, I can the importance from the drug company’s perspective as they get a patent renewal, can charge more for the drug, and essentially police its use.

This month, the Food and Drug Administration accepted an application to evaluate a new drug-sensor-app system that tracks when a pill’s been taken. The app comes connected to a Band Aid-like sensor, worn on the body, that knows when a tiny chip hidden inside a pill is swallowed—so if patients aren’t keeping up with their meds, the program can alert their doctors. The drug here is Abilify, a popular antipsychotic from the pharmaceutical giant Otsuka, and the sensor and the app come from Proteus Digital Health, a California-based health technology company. The FDA has already approved the drug and the sensor system separately—now, they’ll be evaluated together under a whole new category of “digital medicines.” If approved, the ingestible sensor can actually be used in the pill.”

http://www.wired.com/2015/09/pharma-wants-put-sensors-blockbuster-drug/

20)      The (Fake) Meat Revolution

I don’t know why tofu burgers get a bad rap: I actually like the things though I find them too expensive. In any event, this article is not about the monstrosity of stem cell based meat (essentially lab grown tumors) but meat substitutes. Like I said, I like tofu burgers but I am little confused as to why the Whole Foods crowd would be attracted to an industrial product like fake meat.

These meat alternatives could end up being cheaper than real meat. Buyers won’t just be vegans but also carnivores simply looking for healthy, sustainable, cheap food. So look out. If the alternatives to meat are tasty, healthier, cheaper, better for the environment and pose fewer ethical challenges, the result may be a revolution in the human diet. “The next couple of years will be exciting ones,” says Joseph D. Puglisi, a Stanford University professor of structural biology who is working on meat alternatives. “We can use a broad range of plant protein sources and create a palette of textures and tastes — for example, jerky, cured meats, sausage, pork.””

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-the-fake-meat-revolution.html

 

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 18th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 18th 2015

Hello,

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.

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe

1)          Nine of the World’s Biggest Banks Form Blockchain Partnership

I have been very critical of Bitcoin and the associated, and largely deflated, bubble. Visions of an unregulated currency do not align with the establishment of a modern state and the rule of law. Simply put, governments are not going to stand by and let an exchange mechanism exist which is outside the reach of money laundering rules, etc. None of this addressed the issue of the underlying technology, in particular blockchain which, in any event I do not fully understand. Although it is presented as being immune to fraud, I would question why most Bitcoin headlines have been stories about hacks and theft of Bitcoin: if the technology is traceable, all, rather than none, of the ill-gotten gains should have been seized.

“Nine of the world’s biggest banks, including Goldman Sachs and Barclays, have joined forces with New York-based financial tech firm R3 to create a framework for using blockchain technology in the markets, the firm said on Tuesday. It is the first time banks have come together to work on a shared way in which the technology that underpins bitcoin — a controversial, Web-based “cryptocurrency” — can be used in finance. Over the past year, interest in blockchain technology has grown rapidly. It has already attracted significant investment from many major banks, which reckon it could save them money by making their operations faster, more efficient and more transparent.”

https://recode.net/2015/09/15/nine-of-the-worlds-biggest-banks-form-blockchain-partnership/

2)          Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD

There has been a continuous effort to move computers into the classroom since the technology became mainstream. I had the misfortune of covering an “education technology” company once and I have to say the peered reviewed research on the subject is the most dreadfully bad stuff I’ve ever seen. Honestly, I suspect homeopathy has better quality research. In any event, it stands to reason that computers are not going to do much to help learning. First off, many students know more than their teachers on the subject and they get plenty of screen time out of the classroom. Any student who has enough interest can use a computer as a supplemental resource but they probably would have used the library otherwise. Overall, in most cases it is likely more of a distraction than a help. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“The OECD’s education director Andreas Schleicher says school technology had raised “too many false hopes”. Tom Bennett, the government’s expert on pupil behaviour, said teachers had been “dazzled” by school computers. The report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development examines the impact of school technology on international test results, such as the Pisa tests taken in more than 70 countries and tests measuring digital skills. It says education systems which have invested heavily in information and communications technology have seen “no noticeable improvement” in Pisa test results for reading, mathematics or science.”

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34174796

3)          Virus in cattle linked to human breast cancer

I found this to be a very interesting finding. Setting aside for a moment the likelihood a virus which causes cancer in one animal it is likely to effect, at a minimum, genetic alteration in another, I don’t think the fact 100% of milk is contaminated by a bovine cancer virus is a good thing. Milk is pasteurised but hamburger meat isn’t. I’d bet virtually all hamburger meat is similarly contaminated because it is comingled during production. The article suggests undercooked meat might be an issue, but food preparation involves handling uncooked meat and that is probably a likely avenue for an infection. Either way, a vaccine should be developed for cows and people to get this out of our food chain as soon as possible.

“In the study, published this month in the journal PLOS ONE and available online, researchers analyzed breast tissue from 239 women for the presence of bovine leukemia virus (BLV), comparing samples from women who had breast cancer with women who had no history of the disease. They found that 59 percent of breast cancer samples had evidence of exposure to BLV, as determined by the presence of viral DNA. By contrast, 29 percent of the tissue samples from women who never had breast cancer showed exposure to BLV.”

http://news.berkeley.edu/2015/09/15/bovine-leukemia-virus-breast-cancer/

4)          Windows 10 shatters all records

When Windows 8 was released we predicted it would be a disaster, which it was. Windows 10 is far more useable and Microsoft’s free upgrade strategy seems to be having the desired effect of wiping Window 8 and 8.1 from history. The upgrade has not been without problems, of course, with some users loosing applications and/or data. I suspect the success of Windows 10 will rejuvenate PC sales since many consumers probably elected to retain their old systems rather than dealing with the blight of Windows 8.

“Windows 10 had 0.39 percent market share in July, and gained 4.82 percentage points to hit 5.21 percent in August. Windows 8 slipped 0.21 percentage points to 2.56 percent, while Windows 8.1 fell 1.71 points to 11.39 percent. Together, they owned 13.95 percent of the market at the end of August, down from 15.86 percent at the end of July. Windows 8 and 8.1 never gained more than 20 percent market share mark (they peaked at 16.45 per cent in May), and with Windows 10 now available, they never will.”

http://channeleye.co.uk/windows-10-shatters-all-records/

5)          Apple’s secret NoSQL sauce includes a hefty dose of Cassandra

I have been doing some research into the database market over the past few days and only recently learned of NoSQL, which is a database technology which is, not surprisingly, different from SQL, the technology Oracle is known for. It seems that many modern applications are better suited to NoSQL and, furthermore, many large companies have adopted open source SQL databases, in particular MySQL. Note that all of the NoSQL alternatives in the article (Mongo, Couchbase, Hbase, Cassandra) are open source platforms as well.

“At least measured by jobs, Cassandra is Apple’s dominant NoSQL database, with double the listings of any other. What does this translate to in terms of adoption? A year ago, Apple said that it was running over 75,000 Cassandra nodes, storing more than 10 petabytes of data. At least one cluster was over 1,000 nodes, and Apple regularly gets millions of operations per second (reads/writes) with Cassandra. It’s breathtaking, if you stop to think about this scale.”

http://www.techrepublic.com/article/apples-secret-nosql-sauce-includes-a-hefty-dose-of-cassandra/

6)          This mind-controlled prosthetic robot arm lets you actually feel what it touches

Feedback is an important part of any control system, including our bodies. Of course, that feedback can be visual however the sense of touch is extremely important to how we function. I lost the sense of touch for a day due to (apparently) a misdirected novocaine injection and it essentially strips you of all fine motor control. This is still very early work, but the fact a prosthetic arm can provide a sense of touch is a major breakthrough.

“The US government said today (Sept. 11) that it’s successfully made a Luke Skywalker-like prosthetic arm that allows the wearer to actually feel things. At a conference in July, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) presented the achievements it’d had to date in building a robot arm that can be controlled by a human brain. A little over two months later, the agency has announced at another conference that it’s managed to update the technology to give the wearer the feeling of actually being able to sense things with the arm.”

http://qz.com/500572/this-mind-controlled-prosthetic-robot-arm-lets-you-actually-feel-what-it-touches/

7)          3-D printed guide helps regrow complex nerves after injury

Here is another interesting medical application for 3D printing. The idea is that you can mechanically and chemically guide nerves so they regrow properly after damage. This technique involves making a sort of silicone scaffolding impregnated with drugs so the nerves are in the proper chemical environment to repair themselves. One challenge would be finding modes for scaffolds, an issue the article address. It is worth noting humans are mostly symmetrical so the design for a scaffold for a damaged nerve on the right it likely just the mirror image of the one on the left.

“A national team of researchers has developed a first-of-its-kind, 3D-printed guide that helps regrow both the sensory and motor functions of complex nerves after injury. The groundbreaking research has the potential to help more than 200,000 people annually who experience nerve injuries or disease. Collaborators on the project are from the University of Minnesota, Virginia Tech, University of Maryland, Princeton University, and Johns Hopkins University. Nerve regeneration is a complex process. Because of this complexity, regrowth of nerves after injury or disease is very rare, according to the Mayo Clinic. Nerve damage is often permanent. Advanced 3D printing methods may now be the solution. In a new study, published today in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, researchers used a combination of 3D imaging and 3D printing techniques to create a custom silicone guide implanted with biochemical cues to help nerve regeneration. The guide’s effectiveness was tested in the lab using rats.”

http://phys.org/news/2015-09-d-regrow-complex-nerves-injury.html

8)          Ethics Won’t Be A Big Problem For Driverless Cars

We’ve mentioned driverless car ethics a few times in the past. The idea is that a robotic system might be presented with a conundrum such as “do I kill the 3 people who are jaywalking or run over one person who is blameless”? Part of me thinks this is a make work project for ethicists because robotic systems are nowhere near sophisticated enough to even recognize choices exist. As this article points out, human drivers rarely face similar issues and, in any event, often disregard even basic ethics when driving around. All in the societal benefits of driverless cars will more than make up for the occasional bad choice the robot might make.

“The idea that humans will act ethically and wisely while driving is an absurd and false assumption. For starters, in 2013 over 10,000 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, which accounts for 31% of vehicle related deaths. So from the start we have a third of all driving deaths resulting from humans who are probably often using poor judgement, and unethical and unwise decision making. What’s more, even if self-driving cars were unethical monsters it would be a huge improvement. The CDC estimates that recognition errors were a critical reason for 41% of motor vehicle crashes. This includes driver’s inattention, internal and external distractions, and inadequate surveillance, all problems that driverless cars would avoid.”

http://www.forbes.com/sites/modeledbehavior/2015/09/13/ethics-wont-be-a-big-problem-for-driverless-cars/

9)          Self-driving cars: from 2020 you will become a permanent backseat driver

This makes for an interesting read but it is extremely unlikely a single driverless car will be sold commercially within the next 5 years. The technology is nowhere near that advanced and the legal framework is not in place to permit it. We are much more likely to see rising penetration of autonomous systems such as auto-brake, and even those will likely be in the minority of new car cars within 5 years unless regulators demand it.

“So far so good. But then Google set up cameras and looked at what people were actually doing in the cars while they were being driven on the freeway. Urmson was frankly alarmed; far from approaching the experiment with trepidation and due vigilance, as I had watched Aeberhard doing on the autobahn, the human drivers were almost immediately putting their faith in the robotics of the car: “We saw that despite being told this was a prototype, despite moving at high speed on the freeway, they were over-trusting it. We had a guy who was sitting in the front seat, he pulls out his phone charger from the back seat, then turns back again for his laptop sets it up on the seat, and does all this without looking out the windshield. The whole time the thing has been moving fast down the freeway. He believed in the technology enough that he just trusted it. And as these things get more capable we think that faith will only grow. That really worries us. That is why it is extremely tough to get from incremental improvement to full self-driving.””

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/sep/13/self-driving-cars-bmw-google-2020-driving

10)      Honda to test self-driving cars, manufacturers pledge auto-braking for the masses

This article mentions the “pledge” by some major automakers to include auto-braking in their vehicles but without actually making an explicit commitment as to when. It’s as though major vendors decided to include seatbelts and airbags, someday soon, maybe. These systems will add cost and vendors who provide them will be at a pricing disadvantage, though that will be offset by the marketing benefit. Regulators have to step up and set a timeline for all vendors to introduce this lifesaving technology on all models as soon as practicable.

“In another move that could speed the adoption of self-driving cars, ten automakers pledged on Friday to outfit all of their new cars with automatic braking systems, which use on-vehicle sensors to apply the driver’s brakes if a collision with a car or any other object is imminent. Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mercedes Benz, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo promised to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Auto Safety (IIAS) that automatic braking systems would become the norm in their new cars, but they did not specify a target date for total integration. The Associated Press says that those automakers together make up 57 percent of last year’s car and light truck sales.”

http://arstechnica.com/cars/2015/09/honda-to-test-self-driving-cars-manufacturers-pledge-auto-braking-for-the-masses/

11)      In Japan, the Rise of Machines Solves Labor Shortage

Japan is in a demographic crisis due to declining births and little immigration. As a consequence the country has invested heavily in robotics and this article provides some examples of applications for robots. Many developed economies will face similar challenges in the future, as will China due to its “one child” policy, so in some ways this is a look into the future.

“Automation also has huge potential for distribution. Toho Holdings Co.’s 10 billion yen distribution center, which became fully operational in January 2014, employs about 130 workers, roughly half the number at another one of similar size. Productivity per worker is 77 percent higher with robots handling 65 percent of item-picking, the drug wholesaler says. “We wanted to lower manpower requirements by using robots because we already found it hard to recruit people, including part-time workers,” says Mitsuo Morikubo, the company’s executive managing director.”

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-13/in-japan-the-rise-of-the-machines-solves-labor-and-productivity

12)      Sex robots will be ‘detrimental’ to society, ethicists say

I found this rather funny and the CBC “As It Happens” interview with the “robot ethicist” even funnier. As Spongebob would say “good luck with that”. The objective is pretty much impossible and besides this is simply an attempt to regulate other peoples’ morality and therefore should be mocked. What you do to your machines and how you do it to them is nobody’s business but your own.

“Her paper, entitled The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots, can be viewed in full on the Campaign Against Sex Robots website, along with a summary of its main points. Richardson argues, among other things, the development of sex robots further objectifies women and children, will reduce human empathy that could only be developed in a mutual relationship, and build upon ideas present in prostitution regarding the inferiority of women and children. She challenges the notion sex robots will have a positive benefit to society or reduce sexual exploitation and violence towards prostituted persons.”

http://www.cbc.ca/news/trending/sex-robots-ethicists-debate-1.3231089

13)      Demand that mother remove home video from YouTube backfires

Copyright owners have developed a small industry around exploiting badly written laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Even with its’ heavy handedness the DMCA retains a modicum of “fair use” provisions, including the ones relevant in this case. False DMCA takedown notices, where content is demanded removed for fraudulent reasons, are supposed to result in significant sanctions against the complainant, but large copyright holders seem immune for some reason. Hopefully this ruling will stand and rein back the abuse.

“A music company’s demand that YouTube take down a 29-second home video of two children dancing to a song by Prince backfired Monday when a federal appeals court used the case to make it harder for copyright-holders to act against brief, non-commercial uses of their material. Recording companies, motion picture studios and other copyright owners issue numerous takedown notices each day, targeting everything from home videos to campaign ads that include segments of songs or newscasts. When a copyright-holder tells a website like YouTube that one of its postings violates the holder’s exclusive rights to license the material, federal law requires that the posting be removed immediately. But the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the copyright-holder must first consider whether such a video amounts to “fair use” of the work, making it eligible to be legally posted. Fair use includes journalistic accounts and criticism, educational uses for teaching or research, and brief, private postings that don’t damage the commercial market for the work.”

http://www.sfgate.com/music/article/Demand-that-mother-remove-home-video-from-YouTube-6503900.php

14)      iOS Dev: Why Apple TV Is ‘Game Over’ For Xbox One And PS4

This is a baffling article. Somebody who knows nothing about game development seems to have concluded that, somehow, Apple, which has no footprint in the game business, will somehow disrupt it. I guess it could happen, but games on phones are nowhere near as complex as console or PC games and they require a lot of resources to design and build. The default position seems to be Apple will win. I know because I’ve been reading about how Apple TV is going to take over the TV business for a number of years now. It still hasn’t happened, not even a little.

“Last week, the gaming world had become curious about Apple’s long-awaited next installment Apple TV. There had been rumors that Apple would be taking a more gaming-centric approach with its new machine, and interests had become piqued. The actual announcement was a bit underwhelming: the machine comes with a Wii-style gyroscopic remote, and debuted with a demo of Crossy Road played out on the big screen (albeit with multiplayer, a significant, if not monumental, addition). It’s hard to imagine an immediate threat to Microsoft MSFT Xbox One and Sony PS4 running games like Halo and Uncharted. But I talked to Jeff Smith, CEO of the popular Karaoke app Smule , and a developer who’s been with the iOS platform since the beginning. He says that Xbox One and PS4 fans shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the Apple TV as a serious gaming contender. The key, he says, is that Apple is a developer-friendly platform, and that means more content, and, as iOS has shown, more quality content as well.”

http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidthier/2015/09/13/ios-dev-why-apple-tv-is-game-over-for-xbox-one-and-ps4/

15)      Nimble flashes the all-flash array as ‘intense’ consolidation period approaches

The first piece I published for BCA Research outlines how the Hard Disk Industry will be substantially disrupted by Solid State Drives (SSDs) within the next couple years. Essentially, the PC sector, which is about 2/3rds of the market, will shift holus bolus to SSDs. I figure Enterprise will take a bit longer, however, and this advertorial suggests, there is a lot of effort to move SSD/Flash storage into the enterprise as well.

“”Over the last 18 months, growth in this space has dried up, driven by three major disruptions; cloud, flash, and converged/hyper-converged systems,” he said. The public cloud is a clear long-term headwind for enterprise storage systems; Flash storage and modern data reduction techniques have turned the storage systems market on its head, especially at the high end, as customers can now spend half of what they used to spend for the same performance; The recoupling of servers and storage (a.k.a. converged/hyper-converged systems) is pressuring the traditional storage market, as customers consolidate their IT infrastructure and budgets. He believes that the “result has been a bifurcation of the storage market, with flash-optimised architectures rapidly taking share from disk-optimised architectures”.”

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2015/09/18/intense_storage_supplier_consolidation_period_coming/

16)      I created a fake business and bought it an amazing online reputation

I’m always impressed by the positive reviews I read on things like Amazon, or even Canadian Tire’s website. A 5 star review with a comment consisting of “the item is well packaged and delivered on time” is exactly the sort of insight which affects my purchase decisions. Of course, the majority of such reviews are written by some poor wretch in Vietnam, not an actual customer. This article walks you through the growing problem of fake reviews, which I strongly suspect make up the majority of positive reviews online.

“If you live in the Bay Area and have looked for something special to spice up a birthday party, you might have discovered the Freakin’ Awesome Karaoke Express, a truck that promises to deliver an unbelievable selection of songs to your doorstep. You might have seen a review on Yelp that said it’s perfect for a girl’s night out or a Facebook review that mentioned it being a crowd-pleaser at a neighborhood block party. You may have been impressed by its 19,000 Twitter followers, and considered hiring this mobile song-slinging truck to drive up to your next outdoor shindig. What you probably didn’t realize was that there is no such thing as the Freakin’ Awesome Karaoke Express (or F.A.K.E., for short). I made it up and paid strangers to pump up its online footprint to make it seem real. I didn’t do it to scam anyone or even for the LULZ. I wanted to see firsthand how the fake reputation economy operates. The investigation led me to an online marketplace where a good reputation comes cheap.”

http://fusion.net/story/191773/i-created-a-fake-business-and-fooled-thousands-of-people-into-thinking-it-was-real/

17)      What We Talk About When We Talk About Ad Blocking

Adblocking is a growing issue for the likes of Google and Facebook. Of course, it is more of an issue for Google than Facebook because of the nature of the product they offer. The real problem is for website which are paid for by ads (see item 18). Large companies like Google will doubtless find a way around the rise of adblocking, but the root cause is the distraction, use of bandwidth, and distribution of malware associated with Internet advertising.

“So here’s an awkward question … How many of you are reading this article without ads? Don’t be shy if you are. You’re definitely not alone. You’ll be getting even more ad-blocking options with next week’s launch of iOS 9, which is supposed to support content blocking extensions. That could be a big step forward for the technology, which has been a largely desktop-only phenomenon until now. Naturally, the news has prompted another round of handwringing about the impact that ad blocking could have on the publishing business. Even without Apple’s support, ad blocking has been on the rise. There are now 198 million global active users of ad blocking software, up 41 percent from 12 months ago, according to a recent report by PageFair and Adobe. The report also estimates that ad blocking will cost publishers $22 billion in revenue this year.”

http://techcrunch.com/2015/09/12/raymond-carver-loved-ads/

18)      You shouldn’t feel bad about using an ad blocker, and here’s why

I never felt bad about using adblock. I pay for my blog to be published and the vast majority of online content (including that by major media outlets) is derivative and of no value. Frankly I could care less is a newspaper or media outlet goes out of business: if they had valuable content people would pay to see it.

“In case the hysteria over ad-blocking software wasn’t already at a fever pitch, Apple’s new iOS version is now in the wild—complete with built-in support for ad blocking—and several ad blockers are topping the most-installed list. Is this an apocalypse for publishers, especially small ones? And if it is, does installing and using an ad blocker make you as a user complicit in the destruction of independent media? … The idea that readers are somehow morally obligated to look at advertising becomes absurd if we apply it to almost any other medium. Are readers who only look at one or two sections of a newspaper—and never the ads—stealing that content? Are people who use PVRs to fast-forward through the ads on television committing a theft of some kind? Would it be better if publishers sued readers for not looking at ads?”

http://fortune.com/2015/09/17/ad-blocking-ethics/

19)      The rivalry between Apple and Amazon is heating up

This probably overstates the rivalry but it does make a good comparison between business models. Apple goes for expensive devices and an upscale customer, Amazon goes for cheap devices and the rest of us. I continue to believe the price gap between Apple and other products will present a major challenge for the firm down the road. Eventually, people figure out that you can get a better tablet for a third the price, or a better smartphone for half the price. As for TV, the content you offer is far more important than things like voice control.

“On Thursday, Amazon unveiled four new tablets and three television-related devices. This is the lineup Amazon will use to lure consumers during the all-important holiday-shopping season. Among the tablets, there are two new HD, or high-definition, devices, a $50 budget tablet and a “Kids Edition” tablet with a heavy-duty case. On the TV side, the new products include a $100 4K ultra-HD TV set-top box, a game controller and a video-streaming device with a remote control that does voice search. … This is a rivalry, but not in the way you might expect. Apple and Amazon are attacking the consumer electronics world in very different ways. Apple does it with high-end, pricey devices. Its cheapest tablet is $270. Amazon courts a more budget-conscious consumer. Its least-expensive tablet costs $50. For Amazon, the goal of selling hardware is to get people to spend money in its marketplace on items like movies, books, music and clothes. For Apple, the goal of selling expensive hardware is selling expensive hardware. That’s where Apple makes its money, but it also ties people to Apple’s world of software and services — where people also buy music and movies.”

http://www.cnet.com/news/amazon-fire-tablets-tv-apple-rivalry/

20)      Xerox introduces printed-memory labels to fight counterfeiting

The article goes into far too much detail as to the significance of powers of two, but the technology itself is quite interesting. For the record, 36 bits isn’t enough for most uses but I’m sure that limit will be broached. Some idea of price and how the device is read or written to would have been useful information.

“Xerox today announced two new printed packaging labels that can store 36 bits on rewritable memory. The labels are aimed at combating counterfeiting and helping businesses and government better secure products as they are distributed. The two printed electronic labels, which Xerox is also calling “printed memory,” can collect and store information about the authenticity and condition of products, storing up to 68 billion points of data, the company said. The labels, for example, can be used to determine if a product is genuine and to track how it’s been handled during distribution, Xerox said.”

http://www.computerworld.com/article/2984213/data-security/xerox-introduces-printed-memory-labels-to-fight-counterfeiting.html

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 11th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 11th 2015

Hello,

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.

I would like to take this opportunity to announced two important professional developments:

  • I recently joined BCA Research in Montreal as their Senior Technology Strategist. BCA is the largest independent research provider in the world and is mainly known for its macroeconomic research.
  • On September 9, I was appointed to the Board of Directors of Evertz Technologies, one of the largest tech companies in Canada and one of the largest vendors of broadcast studio equipment in the world.

Brian Piccioni

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1)          How Microsoft’s data case could unravel the US tech industry

Under the Orwellian named US Patriot act, and the even more Orwellian USA Freedom Act, the law is quite clear: US companies have to hand over data if ordered by a US court regardless of where it is hosted. We know from the Snowden revelations companies were doing so even without court orders and we can safely assume they will continue to do so, regardless of this ruling. The court case itself is simply theatre so Microsoft can appear willing to protect its customer’s privacy. If you use cloud storage you should assume you or your company’s secrets are an open book regardless of the outcome of this case.

“Saying “no” to the government is never a good idea. But Microsoft had little option. In a little under a week, Microsoft will again head to a Manhattan court in an effort to try to quash a search warrant, sought by the US Justice Department, in an international drugs-related case. The warrant itself isn’t out of the ordinary, but it does contain a crucial facet: It is demanding data on an email account stored by Microsoft in a datacenter in Ireland. Microsoft argued the search warrant goes way beyond the means of a traditional search warrant because it forces the company to hand over data it stores in another country, which in itself is subject to different laws and regulations. This one case will determine — effectively — how far the US can use its own legal system to compel companies doing business within its borders to hand over data it stores overseas.”

http://www.zdnet.com/article/why-microsoft-data-case-could-unravel-the-us-tech-industry/

2)          The Internet of Things comes to the NFL

This is an interesting project which will probably lead to all kinds of novel applications during broadcast. It would allow, for example, cameras to track individual players and enhanced play by play, or even dynamic web content. Sports is one of the broadcast segments which tends to be watched real time, so enhancements like this tend to make the offering “sticky” from a customer retention perspective.

“The Internet of Things (IoT) is coming to the NFL in a big way. On Thursday, when the defending Superbowl XLIX champion New England Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers to open the 2015 football season, each player will be equipped with a set of RFID sensors about the size of a quarter embedded in his shoulder pads, each emitting unique radio frequencies. Gillette Stadium (and every other stadium used by the NFL) has been equipped with 20 receivers to pick up those radio frequencies and pinpoint every player’s field position, speed, distance traveled and acceleration in real time. By using two sensors for each player — one embedded in the left shoulder pad and one on the right — the system will also be able to identify the facing of each player.”

http://www.cio.com/article/2980853/wearable-technology/the-internet-of-things-comes-to-the-nfl.html

3)          Autonomous ships and underwater vessels will rule the seas by 2030

Nice headline, but that is not what the article actually says. I don’t know how many future wars will be fought with navies (ships being large, expensive, slow moving targets), but the US military seems to have an infinite budget to create weapons with no real value. Regardless, autonomous vessels are probably the future of cargo since the ships would be cheaper to operate and have more space for cargo. A skeleton crew would be brought on board only when nearing port but the ship would otherwise make its way under remote control.

“By 2030 the seas will be dominated by autonomous underwater and on-surface vessels, a new report has said. The report, conducted by academic researchers and those from commercial companies, said that autonomous systems will become more important for military operations, such as mine detection, but also for humanitarian aid missions. But it warned that while there would be many of the intelligent systems in place, a lot of ships and vessels that would be used by 2030 have already been commissioned so may not be fully autonomous. “Autonomous systems will play an increasingly important role in future naval systems” said the report by Southampton University, in the UK, Lloyd’s Register and QinetiQ.”

http://factor-tech.com/connected-world/19587-autonomous-ships-and-underwater-vessels-will-rule-the-seas-by-2030/

4)          Toyota Announces Major Push Into AI and Robotics, Wants Cars That Never Crash

Self-driving cars get a lot of coverage but those are probably 20 years from being mainstream. Near term enhancements to vehicle systems will automatically intervene to eliminate accidents or at least significantly reduce the frequency and severity thereof. Technology such as auto-braking is available but still rather expensive. Prices will drop and this technology will become as common as anti-lock braking and airbags. We will probably see the impact on insurance claims within 10 years.

“Toyota says an immediate goal is to figure out ways to save lives on the road. But the company is very clear that it’s not trying to develop a fully autonomous car in the same way that Google and many others are. Instead, they’re working on assistive autonomy: you’ll be driving most of the time (or at least in control of the vehicle), but the vehicle will be continuously sensing and interpreting the environment around you, ready to step in as soon as it detects a dangerous situation. Toyota believes this approach could make cars virtually crash-proof.”

http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/artificial-intelligence/toyota-announces-major-push-into-ai-and-robotics

5)          The Bloomberg Terminal, a Wall Street Fixture, Faces Upstarts

Bloomberg and its few competitors have had a good thing going for many years now. They take what is essentially cheap or freely available information, plunk it on a screen, and charge a few thousand a month for the privilege. Pricing is surprisingly sticky, but the financial services industry has plenty of money to waste. It is an industry ripe for disruption.

“For nearly three decades, the flickering orange-on-black screens of the Bloomberg terminal have been omnipresent on Wall Street trading floors and executive suite desks, maintaining a vital lifeline of data and communication. In knitting together the world of finance, those $21,000-a-year terminals have generated billions of dollars for Bloomberg L.P., almost single-handedly paying for the company’s journalistic ambitions, as well as the fortune, political career and philanthropic largess of its founder, Michael R. Bloomberg. Now that golden egg — and all that it pays for — is a target for new competitors looking to knock it from its dominant position. Bloomberg has fended off competition before, but the latest upstarts are gunning for the company at a time when Wall Street is already aggressively looking to cut its spending on Bloomberg terminals.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/10/business/dealbook/the-bloomberg-terminal-a-wall-street-fixture-faces-upstarts.html?smid=re-share

6)          New 3D metal printing technique combines lasers and advanced robotics

One of the challenges in 3D printing is the materials choice, or more correctly, the intersection of materials, speed, and precision. This machine uses a novel approach which looks a bit like precision MIG (Metal Inert Gas) welding. The use of a laser probably gives much finer control than would be possible with an arc.

“While traditional 3D printing using fused deposition modelling (FDM) techniques becomes evermore commonplace, engineers are looking to develop further 3D printing technologies to widen its application within the manufacturing industry. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is one of the key areas for 3D printing research, which uses laser beams to project and bind powdered materials, typically metal, creating solid 3D models. However, a new alternative to rival SLS is being developed by a team of manufacturing researchers at the Southern Methodist University. Led by Professor Radovan Kovacevic, the group have presented a technique called Laser-Based Direct Metal Deposition (LBDMD) which builds on traditional FDM and laser technology to create high-quality metal objects as parts for a range of fabrication uses.”

https://thestack.com/world/2015/09/07/new-3d-metal-printing-technique-combines-lasers-and-advanced-robotics/

7)          Cancer patient receives 3D printed ribs in world-first surgery

It seems every week a new medical application for 3D printing is announced. This one concerns the creation of a replacement sternum and partial rib cage for a patient whose cancer destroyed these bones. A custom made replacement was made using a 3D printer. Ain’t technology wonderful?

“A Spanish cancer patient has received a 3D printed titanium sternum and rib cage designed and manufactured right here in Australia. Suffering from a chest wall sarcoma (a type of cancerous tumour that grows, in this instance, around the rib cage), the 54 year old man needed his sternum and a portion of his rib cage replaced. This part of the chest is notoriously tricky to recreate with prosthetics, due to the complex geometry and design required for each patient. So the patient’s surgical team determined that a fully customisable 3D printed sternum and rib cage was the best option.”

http://csironewsblog.com/2015/09/11/cancer-patient-receives-3d-printed-ribs-in-world-first-surgery/

8)          3D body scanning set to disrupt clothing industry

3D scanning is related to 3D printing but it is a lot easier to do. There are a number of ways of doing this, ranging from LIDAR (a scanning laser) to photographic techniques. The idea here is that you end up with an objective measurement of the subject’s body, rather than relying on them or a clerk to take the measurement. On challenge would be the fact these systems cost money, and the sorts of vendors sophisticated enough to use such a machine probably already know how to take measurements.

“It is estimated that up to half of the clothes bought online are returned to the seller, frequently because they are the wrong size. This costs sellers millions of dollars in extra shipping costs and warehouse fees, putting a dent into their profits. It also frustrates many of those buying the clothes. “The problem is to provide to the garment industry a reliable tool in order to give consistent size advice, fast and reliable for the customers,” says Lara Mazzoni , the founder of start-up Bodi.me. Her solution makes use of simple and inexpensive motion-capture devices like those found in video-gaming hardware. These take 35 precise body measurements and create a visual avatar, which is then stored online. This data can be made accessible to sellers to help them suggest the right size of clothing.”

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/09/3d-body-scanning-set-disrupt-clothing-industry-150903112712046.html

9)          Here’s how the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus compare to the top Android phones

Apple had its big launch event this week and the result was a yawn as the chart in this article shows. The “new” iPhones are not even comparable to Android product already on the market. The real comparison is iPhone 6S plus vs. the Moto X or Nexus 6. The iPhone starts at $749 vs $399 and $499 and has inferior specs compared to the other products. The Nexus 6 has been on the market for almost a year now. Apple investors should be asking themselves how many non-Apple fanatics will pay twice the price for a demonstrably inferior, indeed dated, product. It didn’t work out well for Blackberry.

“What’s not too surprising is that Apple continues to, generally speaking, ignore the spec race that Android phones have gotten into. How much faster are these phones? Well, we only kinda sorta know. What exactly is their battery capacity? We’ll find out later, whenever someone cracks the phone open. Still, there’s a lot to glean from looking at how Apple specs out its phones compared to how other top manufacturers do. Apple’s displays are great, but they tend to be of a lower resolution. Apple’s cameras are great, but they tend to have fewer megapixels. There are good reasons to care about those numbers, and there are good reasons to ignore them, and the iPhone continues to do things differently.”

http://www.theverge.com/2015/9/9/9263285/apple-iphone-6s-plus-vs-android-spec-price-feature-comparison

10)      China’s smartphone brands go downmarket

You can pick up a decent Android phone for a couple hundred dollars unlocked and off contract in Canada. The market in places like China is large and significantly driven by price so you can get a sense for what is possible price-wise. If a phone can be sold in China for less than $100, it can be sold elsewhere for a similar price.

“The race to the bottom has begun in Chinese smartphones. When a Lenovo unit head tells the Wall Street Journal, “You can use someone else’s model to defeat them,” and he’s referring to the low-cost Xiaomi brand that prides itself on being an Apple imitator for half the price, you know almost everyone is jumping in. This has been building for a while. It began last year when the country’s legacy brands like Huawei and ZTE were rolling out special “available online only” phone-brands in a blatant imitation of Xiaomi, which earned a $45 billion valuation thanks to saavy distribution and cheap phones. Now as China’s smartphone sales growth peaks and the next wave of the competitive cycle begins, one in which already thin margins are squeezed and companies will survive because of new innovations or market share, almost everyone is rushing to capture low-cost market share while they still can.”

http://fortune.com/2015/09/09/china-smartphone-brands-go-downmarket/

11)      Neuromemristive Processor Breaks Boundaries in Machine Learning

I’ve mentioned neural networks a number of times in the past. In theory, these attempt to model the function of a brain and brains are really good at solving certain types of problems. Most research is done with modeling software run on a digital computer, and brains (and real neural networks) are not digital but analog. One promise of memristors is that, as sort of analog memories, they may be used to better approximate actual neural networks. This company claims to have made significant strides in this regard.

“Alex Nugent is working on making computers more human. Specifically, he and his team at Knowm Inc. have developed the world’s first adaptive neuromemristive processor along with Dr. Kris Campbell, a researcher at Boise State University and an expert on memrisistors. Product Design & Development interviewed him on Sept. 1 to find out how this adaptive neuromemristive processor came about, and how it could transform machine learning applications, autonomous platforms, and data center operations. Memristors provide the key to adaptive learning, said Nugent, who has been working for almost 15 years on how to make a chip that functions like a human brain. His product has leapfrogged past even IBM’s supercomputing abilities, he said, thanks to neuromemristive technology.”

http://www.pddnet.com/news/2015/09/neuromemristive-processor-breaks-boundaries-machine-learning

12)      Laser Breakthrough Could Speed the Rise of Self-Driving Cars

I think the article really refers to improvement in LIDAR sensors. LIDAR is a sort of light based radar, or a “camera” which forms an image based on a laser scanner. Unlike a camera, which is passive, a LIDAR sends out a beam, so you can chose a wavelength which is unaffected by fog, rain, or snow. LIDAR is by nature less precise than a camera, but a car doesn’t need to know who it is going to hit before applying the brakes. I figure a LIDAR system will cost a few dollars within 5 years: most existing systems were developed for military applications and it is only recently that any interest at all has been applied to cost reduction.

“The eyes of a self-driving car are called LIDAR sensors. LIDAR is a portmanteau of “light” and “radar.” In essence, these sensors monitor their surroundings by shining a light on an object and measuring the time needed for it to bounce back. They work well enough, but they aren’t without their drawbacks. Today’s self-driving cars typically use LIDARs that are quite large and expensive. Google, for instance, used $80,000 LIDARs with its early designs. “Most vehicles in the DARPA urban challenge put half-a-million-dollars worth of sensors on the car,” says Daniela Rus, the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, referring to the government-backed competition that helped spawn Google’s autonomous vehicles. But researchers at the University of California, Berkeley say they’ve developed a new breed of laser technology that could significantly reduce the size, weight, cost, and power consumption of LIDARs, potentially leading to a much broader range of autonomous vehicles. “This is important for unmanned vehicles on land and in the sky,” says Weijian Yang, one of the researchers behind the project.”

http://www.wired.com/2015/09/laser-breakthrough-speed-rise-self-driving-cars/

13)      Germany promises 50Mbps broadband for all, 10 times faster than global average speeds

The abysmal state of broadband infrastructure in the US, Canada, and Australia should be a major priority for governments, however, they remain oblivious to the fact a modern economy requires a modern infrastructure. Not all countries feel the same way, as this article demonstrates. It is interesting to note that deregulation in North America has led to a steady slide in infrastructure whereas European reform has moved things in the opposite direction. In the 1980s, North American infrastructure was world leading and the EU was a joke while the reverse is true today.

“Germany has committed to rolling out 50Mbps broadband for all citizens by 2018, which is ten times faster than current global average broadband speeds. According to Akamai’s most recent State of the Internet connectivity report for Q1 2015 – published in June – the average global speed is just 5Mbps, which makes Germany’s plan to roll out minimum 50Mbps connections across the whole country even more ambitious. If successful, the country would have a minimum downstream connection of more than double the highest global average speed of South Korea (23.6Mbps). The current average connection speed in the US is 11.9Mbps.”

http://thenextweb.com/eu/2015/09/08/germany-promises-50mbps-broadband-for-all-10-times-faster-than-global-average-speeds/

14)      Verizon to be first to field-test crazy-fast 5G wireless

It is interesting how much progress has been made with wireless technology in packing more and more data into the same spectrum. Thus far that has been offset by demand for data, however, that will not always be the case. 5G could be used to rival wired broadband however, even wired broadband has practical upper limits to utility. A major challenge to 5G will be handset design: the math behind these advanced modulation schemes is not trivial and it requires a fair bit of computing power to run the receivers, which translates to short battery life.

“The nation’s largest wireless carrier will begin field trials on so-called fifth-generation, or 5G, technology within the next 12 months, Roger Gurnani, chief information and technology architect for Verizon, said in an interview last week. He expects “some level of commercial deployment” to begin by 2017. That’s far earlier than the time frame of 2020 that many in the industry have pegged for the initial adoption of 5G technology. The trials would make Verizon the world’s first carrier to seriously move into 5G. It also represents an initial step toward the broader telecom industry radically transforming wireless service by adding significantly higher speed and responsiveness. Just as the move to today’s 4G wireless technology drove an explosion of smartphone adoption and mobile services, 5G could similarly drive its own tech revolution.”

http://www.cnet.com/news/verizon-to-hold-worlds-first-crazy-fast-5g-wireless-field-tests-next-year/

15)      HAMR HDD capacities to scale from 4TB in 2016 to 100TB in 2025

I am of the opinion the HDD industry is set to implode as 250 to 500GB SSDs move into the sweet spot of around $50 wholesale, which should happen over the next 1 to 2 years. The HDD industry is not standing still and it continues to contrive new ways to cram more data onto disks. Those advances are irrelevant, except in data warehouses, because the performance and other advantages of an SSD outweigh the benefit of more storage, at least in PCs. Since PC demand makes up the majority of the market, HDD vendors will see revenues decline dramatically.

“Seagate plans to build the first HAMR (Heat-Assisted Magnetic Recording ) HDD prototypes towards the end of next year, reports Softpedia. Initially the drives will be produced in admittedly pedestrian capacities, for testing of the technology. However the head of HAMR development at Seagate, Jan-Ulrich Thiele, expects the technology to be able to facilitate the mass production of 100TB capacity drives by 2025. … With the HAMR prototype tests only due to start in a year or more from now and mass produced drives becoming in limited capacities starting from 2018, Seagate will have a job on its hands to combat the rise of SSD – in storage capacities and adoption. Seagate is reportedly making the new drives available to select cloud and hyper-scale datacentre customers to begin with. Only a fortnight ago, at the Flash Memory Summit, Toshiba said SSDs with its 3D NAND will reach capacities of 128TB SSDs sometime in 2018 (see slide below).”

http://hexus.net/tech/news/storage/85769-hamr-hdd-capacities-scale-4tb-2016-100tb-2025/

16)      New prion disease raises questions about whether Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s could be infectious

Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are familiar diseases, but, for the most part, they are a mystery. This article suggests recent discoveries support the possibility they might be prion diseases, or diseases caused by proteins which miss-fold and which then encourage other proteins to miss-fold. The most familiar prior disease is BSE, or “mad cow” disease. We have to be careful with the term contagious: it doesn’t mean you’ll get Aunt Gertie’s Alzheimer’s by kissing her. More likely a transfer of brain matter would be required. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“Scientists have always kept – and still do – an open mind about whether Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions are transmissible. We’ve known since the early 1960s that amyloid fibrils – the accumulations of Aβ-amyloid in the brain – are self-propagating entities. In diseases involving amyloid protein, the “amyloid enhancing factor”, which causes the disease to progress, is thought to be amyloid itself. In other words, the amyloid is self-replicating and makes copies of itself exponentially.”

http://theconversation.com/new-prion-disease-raises-questions-about-whether-alzheimers-and-parkinsons-could-be-infectious-46936

17)      26 Android Phone Models Shipped With Pre-Installed Spyware

I found it hard to believe so many manufacturers were shipping malware with phones but the article clearly suggests the malware was being installed by middlemen. It seems fairly obvious that it is in the best interests of the major manufacturers to take action against these middlemen and to find a mechanism to reassure customer their devices are free from tampering. It is rather a pity the Chinese government does not make an effort to prosecute those responsible, but that seems to be part of a broader issue.

“A new report claims that some rogue retailers are selling brand-new Android smartphones loaded with pre-installed software. Security firm G Data has uncovered more than two dozens of Android smartphones from popular smartphone manufacturers — including Xiaomi, Huawei and Lenovo — that have pre-installed spyware in the firmware. G Data is a German security firm that disclosed last year the Star N9500 Smartphone’s capability to spy on users, thereby comprising their personal data and conversations without any restrictions and users knowledge. The pre-installed spyware, disguised in popular Android apps such as Facebook and Google Drive, cannot be removed without unlocking the phone since it resides inside the phone’s firmware.”

http://thehackernews.com/2015/09/android-smartphone-malware.html

18)      We Need the Right to Repair Our Gadgets

I avoid stores where they charge for plastic bags because the whole thing is a little more than a cynical money grab: with a price of $0.05 and a cost of 1/3 of a cent, the bags are the highest margin product in the store. I’m also baffled by protests against bottled water but not Coke or beer. Go figure. While people fixate on minutia, vast amounts of potentially perfectly function appliances are sent to the dump because it is not cost effective to repair them. I was quoted a $250 minimum repair for a microwave which cost $350 new. It seems obvious why the manufacturers would conspire to encourage disposal over repair, but why should they get away with it?

“Who hasn’t experienced a situation like this? Halfway through a classic Jack Lemmon DVD, my colleague Shira’s 40-inch TV conked out. Nothing showed up on the screen when she pressed the power button. The TV just hiccupped, going, “Clip-clop. Clip-clop.” This was a great excuse to dump her old Samsung and buy a shiny new TV, right? But before heading to Best Buy, Shira gave me a call hoping for a less expensive option, not to mention one that’s better for the environment. We ended up with a project that changed my view on our shop-till-you-drop gadget culture. We can fix more technology than we realize, but the electronics industry doesn’t want us to know that. In many ways, it’s obstructing us.”

http://www.wsj.com/articles/we-need-the-right-to-repair-our-gadgets-1441737868

19)      Patent Law Shouldn’t Block the Sale of Used Tech Products

On a related note to item 18, companies who sell consumable for printers do all kinds of things, including litigate, to prevent you from replacing a couple dollars-worth of ink or toner rather than throwing away all that plastic and metal and spending 20x that for a new cartridge. It seems like much more of an abomination than a plastic shopping bag or an empty water bottle.

“American patent law should not be used to prevent consumers from reselling, altering or fixing technology products. A federal appeals court will soon hear a case that could clearly establish this principle. Lexmark International v. Impression Products, which is before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, involves toner cartridges produced by Lexmark for use in its laser printers. The company is suing Impression Products, which buys used cartridges, refills them with toner and sells them to consumers. The refilled cartridges cost less than new ones sold by Lexmark. Lexmark argues that Impression is infringing its patents, because Lexmark’s cartridges were sold to consumers under the condition that empty devices be returned to the company. Lexmark also asserts that the cartridges sold in foreign countries cannot be resold in the United States without its permission. The company bases this argument on a previous Federal Circuit ruling in another patent case.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/07/opinion/patent-law-shouldnt-block-the-sale-of-used-tech-products.html?_r=0

20)      FAA Joins Probe of Drone Crash Into Stands at U.S. Open Tennis

Another week, another story of some lout who thought playing with his model airplane during a major sporting event was a good idea. Model airplanes have been around for decades and nobody thought flying them around aircraft or sporting events was a good idea but there seems to be something about people who buy drones which evokes this sort of behavior. This is all fun and games but eventually a drone is going to kill someone by accident or on purpose and all hell will break loose.

“The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is joining an investigation by local authorities into a drone that crashed into the stands at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in New York City late Thursday. The small, unmanned quadcopter crashed into an empty section of seats at a stadium in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens during an evening match between Flavia Pennetta of Italy and Monica Niculescu of Romania. A 26-year-old teacher, Daniel Verley, has been arrested for reckless operation and flying the drone outside an approved area, according to the Associated Press. No one was injured in the incident.”

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-04/faa-joins-probe-of-drone-crash-into-stands-at-u-s-open-tennis

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 4th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 4th 2015

Hello,

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.

Brian Piccioni

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1) Windows 10 grabs 5.21% market share, passing Windows Vista and Windows 8 in just one month

I predicted Windows 10 would be a success and it clearly is. Of course, the “free upgrade” probably won’t translate to an immediate windfall for the company though it’ll probably pay off down the road. Some users have reported serious software issues as a result, though it may be that many of those are because Windows 10 uninstalls pirated Microsoft software.

“The effects of a free upgrade to Windows 10 are starting to trickle in. Available for just over a month, Windows 10 has now captured more than 5 percent market share, according to the latest figures from Net Applications. In just four weeks, Windows 10 has already been installed on over 75 million PCs. Microsoft is aiming to have 1 billion devices running Windows 10 “in two to three years,” though that includes not just PCs, but smartphones, consoles, and other devices as well. Windows 10 had 0.39 percent market share in July, and gained 4.82 percentage points to hit 5.21 percent in August. This is the fastest we’ve seen an OS hit 5 percent, and while we’re unlikely to witness growth like that again, we doubt the firsts will stop here.”

http://venturebeat.com/2015/09/01/windows-10-grabs-5-21-market-share-passing-windows-vista-and-windows-8-in-just-one-month/

2) As energy push accelerates, battery costs set to plunge 60%

This article is an excellent example of information laundering, or how a guesstimate can morph into a fact. First, it is worth noting that lithium ion is a mature technology so a 10% per year price decline is extremely optimistic. The article cites a 130 page report (http://bit.ly/1JodpG8) published by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, and which references (Page 32) an IRENA “forecast” from this report (http://www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/Publications/IRENA_Battery_Storage_report_2015.pdf) which is mercifully only 60 pages long (see figures 20 and 21). Those figures are not, in fact, an IRENA forecast, and IRENA actually appears cautious regarding the need for assumptions and even points out that battery costs are not the whole story. The figures are plucked from a Navigant report (as does almost all the data of the IRENA study), which is expensive subscription industry research. I have found most industry analyst projections to have zero predictive utility and otherwise not worth much. Other than the belief of industry analysts who have a major stake in promoting a rosy outlook for the battery industry, and whose analysis is behind a pay wall and likely of questionable quality, there is no justification for this assertion. That will not stop the subsidies from flowing.

“An energy storage study claims that prices for certain battery technologies will plunge by as much as 60% over the next five years. The report was prepared by Australian consultancy AECOM and published by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). The 130-page study, originally published last month, expects all battery technologies to drop in price. However, the largest reductions are forecast for Li-ion and flow-battery technologies, which are expected to plummet by 60% and 40%, respectively by 2020. Lithium-ion (Li-on) batteries will drop from $550 per kilowatt hour (kWh) in 2014 to $200 per kWh by 2020; and flow battery prices will drop from $680 per kWh to $350 per kWh during the same time.”

http://www.computerworld.com/article/2977655/sustainable-it/as-energy-push-accelerates-battery-costs-set-to-plunge-60.html

3) Tesla has a new $29,000 battery upgrade for its old Roadsters

Despite (purported) plummeting battery prices, Tesla will happily sell you an “upgrade” for your Roadster for a paltry $29,000, or $400 per kilowatt hour. You see, if you are a Roadster owner and actually drive the car, chances are the battery is near end of life, rendering your heavily subsidized statement of wealth (and dubious environmental responsibility) pretty much a worthless piece of scrap metal. Happily, Tesla has an answer: for a mere $29,000 you can get a few more years of life out of it. Frankly I wouldn’t buy a used car if it needed $29,000 worth of work but Tesla owners are special.

“In August 2014, Tesla CEO Elon Musk talked about “a fairly exciting upgrade” (i.e., an improved battery pack) to the company’s first car, the Lotus-based Roadster. Today, we can finally put a price tag on what it’ll cost you to give your ageing all-electric sports car around 35-percent more energy capacity and around 40-percent more range. In short, getting the new, roughly 70-kWh pack will set you back $29,000. Be warned: The new pack is heavier than the older one.”

http://www.engadget.com/2015/09/01/tesla-roadster-battery-upgrade/

4) The Cheap Phones Quietly Winning the U.S.

These devices are at the extreme low end of the spectrum but they are a sign of things to come. It is true that two year old technology can be had for below $100, 1 year old technology can be had for less than $200 and soon enough up to date phones will be well below $300. Due to feature saturation, a state of the art a year from now will have almost identical features to a 1 year old (i.e. current state of the art) phone today. There is no question prices are going to remain under pressure across the sector.

“In most AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile stores, it takes a while to find the ZTE phones, buried in the back, past the latest from Apple and Samsung. But they’re there. In AT&T stores it’s the ZTE Maven, which has a screen, speakers, and a processor with capabilities somewhere between the iPhone 5 and 6. As Tony Greco, ZTE’s head of U.S. retail marketing, puts it, “These were state-of-the-art features two years ago.” The Maven’s draw, really, is price. Without any subsidies from a wireless carrier, the phone costs just $60. And it’s not even one of the company’s cheaper models.”

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-03/zte-s-cheap-phones-quietly-winning-the-u-s-

5) Google’s Prototype Self-Driving Cars Coming to Austin for Testing

Google continues on its self-driving car development. It makes a lot of sense the machines be tested in different places. It is not coincidence these machines are being tested in places with relatively benign weather and, importantly, no snow. I think the target of having these being on the market in four years is probably a reach.

“For two months, Google’s Lexus self-driving cars have been travelling around Austin with great success, said Haroon, head of business operations of Google’s Self Driving Car Project. Austin has six self-driving cars so far and three of the prototype vehicles on the way in the next few weeks. “One of the questions I get asked a lot is how does the vehicle deal with deer,” Haroon said. “Yes, it can handle deer, even at night.””

http://www.siliconhillsnews.com/2015/08/30/googles-prototype-self-driving-cars-coming-to-austin-for-testing/

6) Google’s Driverless Cars Run Into Problem: Cars With Drivers

Ideally all drivers should follow the rules of the road but many do not. Even basic common sense and self preservation seems suspended when behind the wheel: last night I encountered an idiot driving down a dark highway with no lights on. This article shows that in order to share the roads with humans, driverless cars have to become more human and therefore less safe. The good news is, the machine’s reaction time would probably ensure no damage was done in a game of 4 way stop “chicken”.

“Google’s fleet of autonomous test cars is programmed to follow the letter of the law. But it can be tough to get around if you are a stickler for the rules. One Google car, in a test in 2009, couldn’t get through a four-way stop because its sensors kept waiting for other (human) drivers to stop completely and let it go. The human drivers kept inching forward, looking for the advantage — paralyzing Google’s robot. … “The real problem is that the car is too safe,” said Donald Norman, director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, who studies autonomous vehicles. “They have to learn to be aggressive in the right amount, and the right amount depends on the culture.””

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/02/technology/personaltech/google-says-its-not-the-driverless-cars-fault-its-other-drivers.html?_r=0

7) Nielsen is finally using data from Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu streaming

It is good to see that Nielsen is adapting to the reality of streaming services as it should provide more objective information regarding “cord cutting”. Of course, streaming services know exactly what their viewers are watching, when they are watching, and so on, and could provide precise information but choose not to. This is probably done for competitive reasons though, as the article clearly shows, it may be to hide unwise deals from their investors.

“The business of television is currently trying to figure out how to deal with the reality that a growing number of households are using subscription streaming services to get their television programming. Streaming video services based on the internet like Netflix and Amazon don’t provide data to the public about how many people are streaming their shows and both companies are increasingly getting into content production on their own. The Nielsen company has started collecting data for almost 1,000 streaming shows, and that’s not necessarily good news for Netflix.”

http://www.geek.com/news/nielson-is-finally-using-data-from-netflix-amazon-and-hulu-streaming-1632561/

8) Amazon Prime Video: Now with offline viewing on Android, iOS

Offline viewing makes perfect sense though it is important to appreciate the DRM (Digital Rights Management) issues. Streaming video is now limited to subscribers with access to reliable high speed Internet access, leaving a sizable portion of the market unreachable. Offline viewing allows the subscriber to download video through a slow pipe and then watch it later. This might further dampen interest in torrent driven piracy and actually be good for content owners.

“Now that most default on-the-go devices are bereft of ways to load DVDs and Blu-rays, offline options for streaming video services have become that much more desirable in areas with little to no reception. Sadly, the current king of the American streaming crop, Netflix, has said in no uncertain terms that offline viewing options are “never going to happen,” and the company’s reasoning was cold comfort for people in cabins, on airplanes, or with frequent local-ISP outages. For some time, Amazon Instant Video was the only major American streaming video subscription service with an offline option, but the service used to come with a pretty big catch: you needed a Kindle-branded tablet or phone to download those streaming-only videos. That changed on Tuesday with the relaunch of the video app, now simply named Amazon Video, for all iOS and Android devices.”

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2015/09/amazon-prime-video-now-with-offline-viewing-on-android-ios/

9) Beyond bitcoin: 7 ways to capitalize on blockchains

My disdain for Bitcoin has mostly to do with advocacy among neo-Libertarians who foolishly believe a “free” currency can emerge. There is some underlying technology which may have broader application in business world and this article looks into those. One word of caution, however: the chain of ownership strengths of Bitcoin are somewhat overstated as hacks of Bitcoin exchanges show that ownership is not evidently an obstacle to theft or fraud.

“From the beginning, bitcoin has assumed a shadowy, almost outlaw mystique. The technology’s origin and founder remain shrouded in mystery, even to this day. Add to that the Silk Road scandal, in which anonymous users traded bitcoins to buy drugs, landing its pioneer in prison for life, and it’s easy to see why many initially viewed bitcoin as a funding mechanism for the underworld. Even the mathematics of the technology are inscrutable enough to believe the worst. The irony is that the mathematical foundations of bitcoin create a solid record of legitimate ownership that may be more ironclad against fraud than many of the systems employed by businesses today. Plus, the open, collaborative way in which bitcoin processes transactions ensures the kind of network of trust that is essential to any business agreement.”

http://www.infoworld.com/article/2976358/encryption/beyond-bitcoin-7-ways-to-capitalize-on-blockchains.html

10) Australia Deploys Killer Robots to Terminate Reef-Eating Starfish

This is a pretty interesting idea and the video is cool. It may provide an answer to invasive species which are typically invasive because there are no local predators to keep the numbers down. This prototype wanders about looking for suitable victims and then injects them with a poison which is, presumably, relatively harmless to other critters. Assuming the project moves ahead, a number of such robots could prowl reefs and keep the population under control. The video is worth a watch.

“The Great Barrier Reef is under attack from hungry hordes of Crown-of-Thorns starfish, but Australia has an answer: killer robots trained to recognize the many-armed menace — and administer a lethal injection. It sounds like the plot to a bad sci-fi movie, but it’s very real. These starfish have multiplied in recent years, and are estimated to have caused 40 percent of the reef’s coral loss. Divers regularly do sweeps for COTS, as they’re called, but they don’t call it the Great Barrier Reef for nothing — there’s a lot of space to cover.”

http://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/australia-deploys-killer-robots-terminate-reef-eating-starfish-n421192

11) Robots Lay Three Times as Many Bricks as Construction Workers

We recently carried an article about a cement block laying robot but that only showed an animation, calling into question whether the machine was real or simply a concept. This system shows an actual brick laying robot at work. Brick laying is a lot harder than it looks so the introduction of such a machine could have a significant impact on the trade. The machine itself looks like a prototype and I have my doubts how long the robot itself would last on a construction site, especially since mortar is a nasty material. Some degree of ruggedization is called for.

“Construction workers on some sites are getting new, non-union help. SAM – short for semi-automated mason – is a robotic bricklayer being used to increase productivity as it works with human masons. In this human-robot team, the robot is responsible for the more rote tasks: picking up bricks, applying mortar, and placing them in their designated location. A human handles the more nuanced activities, like setting up the worksite, laying bricks in tricky areas, such as corners, and handling aesthetic details, like cleaning up excess mortar. Even in completing repetitive tasks, SAM still has to be fairly adaptable. It’s able to complete precise and level work while mounted on a scaffold that sways slightly in the wind. The robot can correct for the differences between theoretical building specifications and what’s actually on site, says Scott Peters, cofounder of Construction Robotics, a company based in Victor, New York, that designed SAM as its debut product.”

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/540916/robots-lay-three-times-as-many-bricks-as-construction-workers/

12) Exploding IoT has semiconductor industry calling for government help

It just goes to show that it isn’t just electric vehicles and alternate energy players who look for subsidies – even the semiconductor industry extends a hand when it can. I think the Internet of Things (IoT) is way over hyped and most of the projections are downright silly. Setting aside for a moment the dubious forecasts, most such gizmos will have extremely limited function since they don’t need to do much and semiconductor content will cost only a few cents. If the industry can’t supply it, costs will go up and growth forecasts will moderate. No cause for panic or taxpayer money.

“As the Internet of Things sweeps the globe, the need for memory will exceed 3×1024 bits by 2040, the report claims – and the number of silicon wafers needed to supply that memory would outstrip the world’s known supply of silicon, unless new technologies are developed. The report also discusses the need for innovation to support the development and deployment of the myriad sensors that make up the IoT. Unlike mainframes of yore, these sensors will need to be highly specialized, and be able to operate on very low energy.”

http://fcw.com/articles/2015/09/02/iot-semiconductor.aspx

13) US group develops 3D-printing technique for optical glass

This is an interesting development, however, it is hard to see broad based application. The surfaces may be transparent but they are not smooth and you are bound to end up with something that looks like art rather than a useful object. Reducing the size of the extrusion nozzle will probably lead to something akin to fibreglass, so I suspect this will be a dead end.

“Production of glass parts is said to be highly repeatable, while the glass constructs resemble those that are conventionally obtained: “the 3D printed glass objects can thus be extended to implementations across scales and functional domains including product and architectural design.” The MIT and Harvard group says its research lies at the intersection of design, engineering, science and art, and represents a highly interdisciplinary approach.”

http://optics.org/news/6/9/3

14) Autodesk releases Within Medical to optimise 3D printing of medical implants

We’ve carried numerous articles about medical applications of 3D printers and it seems clear this will be a major application of the technology since it is high value add, low volume, and most applications need customization. Most medical applications have applied off the shelf solutions though medical specific solutions are likely to be better. Software and hardware vendors are rolling out products for specific application in medicine and this should speed adoption.

“Autodesk has announced a brand new venture into the medical industry today with the launch of Autodesk Within Medical, a generative design software that optimises 3D printing of medical implants for the orthopaedic industry. There are currently more than 600 living patients with implants designed using Within Medical technology. The software allows biomedical engineers to create orthopaedic implants with micro-lattice porous structures that help properly connect the implants to living bone (osseointegration), and promote development of blood vessels in the surrounding tissue to facilitate healing. “Within Medical uses various pore size configurations and rough lattice surfaces to help the porous implant integrate properly with the bone,” explained Mark Davis, senior director of design research at Autodesk. “Within Medical designs are also optimised for specific 3D printing processes – such as direct metal laser sintering and electron beam melting – that allow for highly accurate manufacturing.”

http://www.tctmagazine.com/software/autodesk-releases-autodesk-within-medical-optimise-3d-printing-implants/

15) Is Silicon Valley in Another Bubble . . . and What Could Burst It?

Back in 1999 one of the major Wall Street banks had an advertisement admonishing investors that most bubbles are accompanied by claims “it is different this time” but then the ad hyped the Internet and concluded “but it IS different this time”. Needless to say, it is never different enough each time: hype is hype and a bubble is a bubble. Many of these companies have no prospect of ever having significant free cash flow and the greatest hope of their investors is that they can be fobbed off on an unsuspecting public by way of an IPO or, better yet, bought at a staggering valuation by larger firms who seem to believe it is better to blow money on stupid acquisitions than to give it to their own shareholders.

“While he conceded that there were some eerie similarities with the infamous dot-com bubble of 1999—such as the preponderance of so-called unicorns, or tech start-ups valued at $1 billion and upward—Kupor confidently buoyed his audience with slides that read, “It’s different this time,” and charts highlighting the decrease in tech I.P.O.’s, the metric that eventually pierced the froth in March of 2000. Back then, a company went public almost every single day; now it was down to about once per week. This time around, he noted, the money was flowing backward. Rather than entering a company’s coffers in the public markets, it was making its way to start-ups in late-stage investments. There was little, he suggested, to worry about.”

http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/08/is-silicon-valley-in-another-bubble

16) 65 per cent of Europe’s electronic waste is stolen or mismanaged

Electronic waste is a wonderful topic. It is such a blight on humanity that my clueless government in Ontario charges $1.50 for a $10 telephone with a gram of “e-waste”, more than what it charges for a personal computer with 5 kilograms of e-waste. The fee on a mobile phone is $0.07, 1/20th the cost of a wired telephone despite having 10x the content. And the halfwits charge nothing for a refrigerator, which is chock full of electronics. Not only that, but the fee is charged at purchase and the consumer is expected to locate a recycling depot and drop it off at his own cost. Needless to say, as a result almost all e-waste end up in land fill. Like any other such scheme it is a profit centre for those who collect the fees, increases the cost for consumers, and does absolutely nothing for the environment

“Something stinks about Europe’s trash. A two-year investigation into Europe’s electronic waste found that most of it is stolen, mismanaged, illegally traded, or just plain thrown away. The European Union has guidelines on how to correctly dispose of unwanted electronics, like IT equipment, household appliances, or medical devices. But, according to a report published Sunday by the United Nations University and INTERPOL, only 35 per cent of electronic waste was disposed of correctly in 2012. Meanwhile, criminals absconded out of Europe with 1.3 million tonnes of undocumented equipment, such as laptops, circuit boards, or refrigerators. The loss of functional components or the precious metals inside cost the European Union up to 1.7 billion euros each year, say the researchers. An additional 4.7 million tonnes of electronics were mismanaged or illegally traded inside Europe. That means that toxic materials that can be harmful to the environment or to people’s health, such as lead, cadmium, and mercury, are not being disposed of in a safe way.”

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn28114-65-per-cent-of-europes-electronic-waste-is-stolen-or-mismanaged/

17) Quantum computer that ‘computes without running’ sets efficiency record

Quantum stuff is not the sort of thing my brain can understand and quantum computing is no exception. This sounds significant but I can’t hep but wonder if the next step is a quantum computer with computes without being built.

“Due to quantum effects, it’s possible to build a quantum computer that computes without running—or as the scientists explain, “the result of a computation may be learned without actually running the computer.” So far, however, the efficiency of this process, which is called counterfactual computation (CFC), has had an upper limit of 50%, limiting its practical applications. Now in a new paper, scientists have experimentally demonstrated a slightly different version called a “generalized CFC” that has an efficiency of 85% with the potential to reach 100%. This improvement opens the doors to realizing a much greater variety of applications, such as low-light medical X-rays and the imaging of delicate biological cells and proteins—in certain cases, using only a single photon.”

http://phys.org/news/2015-08-quantum-efficiency.html

18) No, The FCC Is Not (Intentionally) Trying To Kill Third-Party Wi-Fi Router Firmware

Things like WiFi routers are extensively software driven which means that software could be written which would interfere with the radio function and allow, for example, my router to disrupt all other routers in the general area. It makes some sense to restrict modifications to the radio software, however, the FCC proposed rule appears to have been loosely written, leading people to conclude various open source router projects might be in jeopardy. That does not appear to be in the cards.

“For a few months now a rumor has been circulating that the FCC is intentionally planning to ban third-party custom router firmware. Wi-Fi hobbyists (and people who just like a little more control over devices they own) have long used custom, open source firmware like DD-WRT or Open-WRT to bring some additional functionality to their devices, with the added bonus of replacing clunky router GUIs. Custom firmware is also handy in an age when companies like to force firmware upgrades that either eliminate useful functionality, or add cloud-features and phone-home mechanisms a user may not be comfortable with. But at last July’s BattleMesh 8 event, Wi-Fi enthusiasts noticed the clunky wording of an FCC NPRM (notice of proposed rulemaking) discussing the FCC’s plan to modify the rules governing RF devices. The NPRM in question (pdf), like all NPRMs, is basically the FCC’s way of fielding questions about potential rule changes. It’s important to understand no rules have actually been passed yet before committing gadget-nerd seppuku.”

https://www.techdirt.com/blog/wireless/articles/20150831/07164532118/no-fcc-is-not-intentionally-trying-to-kill-third-party-wi-fi-router-firmware.shtml

19) Meltdown-Proof Nuclear Reactors Get a Safety Check in Europe

I figure 100 years from now people will look at our reluctance to embrace nuclear power as bizarre. The experiences at Chernobyl and Fukushima may have underscored the hazards of nuclear reactors but these were all very old designs so the lessons are not that relevant to modern systems. Reactor design and control systems have com a very long way and I believe it is simply a matter of time before sanity prevails and more money goes towards perfecting and proving the value of these valuable energy sources.

“First built and tested in the 1960s, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, molten salt reactors would be the first genuinely new technology for nuclear power generation to reach the market in the last three decades. Producing zero carbon, they use a radioactive solution that blends nuclear fuel with a liquid salt. They can run on uranium, but are also ideally suited for thorium, an alternative nuclear fuel that is cleaner, safer, and more abundant than uranium. Molten salt reactors also offer inherent safety advantages: because the fuel is liquid, it expands when heated, thus slowing the rate of nuclear reactions and making the reactor self-governing. And they’re built like bathtubs, with a drain in the bottom that’s blocked by a “freeze plug.” If anything goes wrong, the freeze plug melts and the reactor core drains into a shielded underground container. They can operate as producers of thermal power or as “burner” reactors that consume nuclear waste from conventional reactors. Essentially, molten salt reactors could solve the two problems that have bedeviled the nuclear power industry: safety and waste.”

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/540991/meltdown-proof-nuclear-reactors-get-a-safety-check-in-europe/

20) Could diesel made from air help tackle climate change?

According to this article it seems were are getting close to powering our equipment with the air we breath. And money. And a whole lot of energy. The way it works you are never going to get more energy out of a synthetic fuel than you get in, and in the specific case of the Fischer–Tropsch process, you are going to waste at least half the energy. Not only that but it is going to be very expensive to pull CO2 out of the air (about $2 per litre equivalent of diesel). Long story short, back of the envelope calculations suggest diesel at around $4 per litre at wholesale, about 8x the current price.

“Making diesel out of thin air sounds like something from science fiction. But small companies in Germany and Canada are doing precisely this – capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) and finding ways to sell it. German company Sunfire produced its first batches of so-called e-diesel in April. Federal Minister of Education and Research, Johanna Wanka, put a few litres in her car, to celebrate. And the Canadian company Carbon Engineering has just built a pilot plant to suck one to two tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air daily, turning it into 500 litres of diesel. The process requires electricity, but if the start-ups use renewable electricity they can produce diesel that is carbon neutral.”

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34064072