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

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


I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.

I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.

They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni

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1)          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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.””

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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”.”

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.”

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.”

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?”

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.”

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.”

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