The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 30th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 30th 2015


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

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

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

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

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

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe

1)          Scientists Connect Brain to a Basic Tablet—Paralyzed Patient Googles With Ease

Brain-computer interfaces are moving along very nicely. I don’t think I want to see the day when these are implanted in healthy patients, but they can be a godsend for people with spinal cord injuries, stroke, ALS, or other serious neurological diseases. The video is impressive but it would have been nicer to see an actual video of the patient described in the article rather than someone playing pong (which is still pretty impressive).

“For patient T6, 2014 was a happy year. That was the year she learned to control a Nexus tablet with her brain waves, and literally took her life quality from 1980s DOS to modern era Android OS. A brunette lady in her early 50s, patient T6 suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), which causes progressive motor neuron damage. Mostly paralyzed from the neck down, T6 retains her sharp wit, love for red lipstick and miraculous green thumb. What she didn’t have, until recently, was the ability to communicate with the outside world.”

2)          The $24 Billion Data Business That Telcos Don’t Want to Talk About

Gee, I must be getting old. I remember when the police had to get a warrant to get access to your phone records (what we now call metadata). I even remember the outrage against surveillance states like East Germany. Ah, but nowadays metadata can be bought and sold by private interests, even if the police still need a warrant. I’m sure you’d like to believe the data is ‘anonymized’ but research has shown how easy it is to de-anonymize data with just a few data points. So carriers profit off the same stuff Snowden nailed the NSA for. Amazing.

“U.K. grocer Morrisons, ad-buying behemoth GroupM and other marketers and agencies are testing never-before-available data from cellphone carriers that connects device location and other information with telcos’ real-world files on subscribers. Some services offer real-time heat maps showing the neighborhoods where store visitors go home at night, lists the sites they visited on mobile browsers recently and more. Under the radar, Verizon, Sprint, Telefonica and other carriers have partnered with firms including SAP, IBM, HP and AirSage to manage, package and sell various levels of data to marketers and other clients. It’s all part of a push by the world’s largest phone operators to counteract diminishing subscriber growth through new business ventures that tap into the data that showers from consumers’ mobile web surfing, text messaging and phone calls.”

3)          Bosch developing pedestrian avoidance system

Auto safety systems are evolving rapidly as this article suggests. Hopefully Bosch engineers know better than Tesla engineers and steer away from danger rather than toward it. One thing I don’t understand is that the article seems to suggest the system doesn’t do anything until the driver does something, and driver inattention is most likely the root of many collisions. The interesting thing about this system is that it uses simple components, basically two cameras plus smarts, to control existing systems (brakes and steering) so it may come to market sooner rather than later.

“Bosch has plans for a pedestrian protection system that could be fitted to production cars as early as 2018. The system, developed at Bosch’s new R&D centre at Renningen, will automatically intervene if it senses that the driver’s own evasive action will not be enough to prevent a collision. It uses one of the company’s existing stereo video cameras to monitor pedestrians and oncoming traffic. An onboard computer – mounted in the boot in the case of the research vehicle – plots the likely trajectory of pedestrians within the camera’s field of view. If a collision is thought to be likely the system will calculate the best way to take evasive action. But it doesn’t actually kick in until changes to the steering angle, vehicle speed and yaw rate indicate that the driver has initiated their own manoeuvre. From that point on, the system can brake or steer as required to prevent the collision, although the steering assistance is such that the driver can easily override it if necessary.”

4)          Windows 10 adoption estimated at 120 million

I’ve updated all my systems to Windows 10 because it seems to be a far better OS than even Windows 7. Nevertheless, I have read a fair number of complaints about “nagging” and “forced upgrades” to Windows 10 so the 120 million number might be pushing it. Microsoft’s interest in moving its user base to Windows 10 is probably a wise business decision as it simplifies support and allows them to upsell their customers will all kinds of cloud based services they are very keen on promoting.

“The 120 million figure is not an official number, but it’s an estimate reported by Winbeta, citing internal sources. Microsoft’s goal with Windows 10 is to get the operating system onto as many as one billion devices within three years of release. Given that Microsoft will expand Windows 10’s reach to include phones, Xbox and Internet of Things, the number seems plausible. If the momentum for Windows 10 installation continues, Microsoft may be shy of a billion Windows 10 install in 24 months, a year ahead of schedule.”

5)          A Radical Proposal: Replace Hard Disks With DRAM

I don’t think this is that radical: DRAM mass storage has been around for some time and I even wrote DRAM caching into floppy disk drivers back in the early 1980s. This appears to be more advanced, but hey, it was the early 1980s. Yes, DRAM is very fast but it is also very expensive compared to flash and flash is expensive relative to Hard Disk. However, faster connections means you want faster turnaround time on web pages otherwise the faster connections don’t buy you anything. It seems inevitable that, down the road, a hybrid approach using DRAM, flash, and Hard Disk will be the norm for large data centers.

“But the hard disk’s reign may be coming to an end. The most obvious challenger is flash memory, which is faster, more compact, and more resistant to shock. Virtually all mobile devices, such as tablets, smartphones, and watches, already use flash instead of disk. Flash memory is also displacing hard drives in laptops and, increasingly, in large-scale applications running in data centers, where its speed is a significant advantage. Now though, there is yet another alternative to disk: using dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) as the primary storage location for long-lived data. More and more applications, particularly large-scale Web applications, are keeping most or all of their data in DRAM. For example, all of the popular Web search engines, including Google, service people’s queries entirely from DRAM. Also, Facebook keeps most of its social-network data in DRAM. And IBM’s Watson artificial-intelligence system kept all of its data in DRAM when it won the “Jeopardy!” challenge a few years ago.”

6)          Why IoT Security Is So Critical

The major problem with Internet of Things (IoT) is probably going to be security. Not that you should worry about somebody messing with your thermostat or fire alarm (though you should) but that that device is now “inside” your network and it can be used to hack pretty much anything in your home including your notebook or smartphone. IoT companies are, for the most part, not experts in security and even experts in security leave things insecure. In fact most IoT devices are going to be very cheap so little budget will be available for security. Even so, many will be made in places where getting an insecure device into a house sounds like an opportunity. I figure the workaround will be for routers to “sand box” IoT devices so they can’t interact with the home network.

“Twenty years ago, if you told me my phone could be used to steal the password to my email account or to take a copy of my fingerprint data, I would’ve laughed at you and said you watch too much James Bond. But today, if you tell me that hackers with malicious intents can use my toaster to break into my Facebook account, I will panic and quickly pull the plug from the evil appliance. Welcome to the era of the Internet of Things (IoT), where digitally connected devices are encroaching on every aspect of our lives, including our homes, offices, cars and even our bodies. With the advent of IPv6 and the wide deployment of Wi-Fi networks, IoT is growing at a dangerously fast pace, and researchers estimate that by 2020, the number of active wireless connected devices will exceed 40 billion.”

7)          Drone Crash Kills Power to Hundreds of LA Residents

You might recall we recently reported the FAA is planning on required registration of drones. This is yet another example of why: some idiot took out power for 700 people because he thought flying his model airplane into power lines would be a good idea. Actually, more likely than not it was an accident, just like the accident which will cause damage to, or crash, an airplane one day. At least if the drone was registered the power company could sue the guy.

“Drones: beloved by amateur photographers, scourge of air traffic controllers and firefighters nationwide. Now, you can add power companies to that list. According to the LA Times, a drone crashed into wires lining Larrabee Street and Sunset Boulevard about 1:15 Tuesday afternoon, knocking one of the wires to the ground and cutting power to nearly 700 Southern California Edison customers. The power company repaired the damage within three hours, but noted it’s the first time they’ve had a drone take out power.”

8)          Will newbie associates be replaced by Watson? 35% of law firm leaders can envision it

This survey probably says more about what lawyers think of lawyers than it predicts the future employment prospects for lawyers. Watson is wonderful at Jeopardy but it is not clear to me the practice of law is comparable to a trivia game. If it is, I’m paying too much for my lawyer. Most likely, the lawyers in the survey have been seduced by the marketing fluff around state of the art AI and they don’t think much of other lawyers. It makes you wonder: if they figure they won’t need associates, how are they going to find new partners for the firm?

“Thirty-five percent of surveyed law firm leaders say they can envision first-year associates being replaced by artificial intelligence in that time period, and 47 percent said they can envision paralegals being replaced with AI computing. That is a jump from 2011, when 23 percent of law firm leaders believed first-year associates could be replaced with artificial intelligence and 35 percent believed paralegals could be replaced. The Am Law Daily has the story on the Altman Weil survey findings. Twenty percent of law firm leaders surveyed this year said computers will never replace human practitioners, down from 46 percent in 2011.”

9)          Harvard Law Library Readies Trove of Decisions for Digital Age

This item ties into Item 8 and it is probably more representative of the sort of damage which can be done to the legal profession. Time was clerks and associates were billed out at enormous rates to browse through actual books or microfilm for laws and precedents. This has changed over the past decade or so as clients have pushed back against paying such rates for what amounts to a Google search. Large law firms have scaled back, and now we have the prospect even more damage will be done to the industry as the service providers they sue may get put out of business (you can’t justify charging for Lexus Nexus when the client can do it himself for free). The information age is a wonderful thing, unless you are a lawyer.

“Now, in a digital-age sacrifice intended to serve grand intentions, the Harvard librarians are slicing off the spines of all but the rarest volumes and feeding some 40 million pages through a high-speed scanner. They are taking this once unthinkable step to create a complete, searchable database of American case law that will be offered free on the Internet, allowing instant retrieval of vital records that usually must be paid for. “Improving access to justice is a priority,” said Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, explaining why Harvard has embarked on the project. “We feel an obligation and an opportunity here to open up our resources to the public.””

10)      3D printing soft body parts: A hard problem that just got easier

It isn’t completely clear from the article but, no, they are making functioning soft body parts. The problem is, if you are building, say, a blood vessel, it is like a deflated balloon so the sides will touch and you’ll end up with a strip rather than a tube. By using a soluble scaffold, the 3D printer can print a tube or any other soft structure then remove the scaffold. This might be used to, for example, layer stem cells or collagen or some other structure to make the replacement part. So as interesting as this is the tricky bit is still getting the various cells to function as the replacement tissue.

“Humans are squishy. That’s a problem for researchers trying to construct artificial tissues and organs, and one that two separate teams of engineers may have just solved. Using a dish of goo the consistency of mayonnaise as a supporting “bath,” a team led by biomedical engineer Adam Feinberg at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, can now print 3D biological materials that don’t collapse under their own weight as they form—a difficulty that has long stood in the way of printing soft body parts. Once printed, the structures are stiff enough to support themselves, and they can be retrieved by melting away the supportive goo. The other team, from the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville, has a similar system for printing, but without the slick trick of the melting goo.”

11)      IBM to Acquire the Weather Company

Ah, IBM – once great company which continues to be a fountain of great ideas and yet has missed every significant technology market since the PC. So, they have this thing called Watson which won Jeopardy, a trivia game. Winning Jeopardy is now considered “AI” (remember when wining chess matches was AI), and it has so many applications they decide the big one kahuna is weather forecasting. You might be thinking, “wow – so now when the weather guy says it might rain, that’ll mean it’ll rain?” No, he’ll still say it might rain because, well, nobody knows and, in any event for the most part it doesn’t matter that much. Not $2B much. I wish IBM would find out that whenever I cut my hay I know it’ll rain the next few days solid. That would be worth a hundred million to them for sure.

“IBM hopes it has a new use for Watson, its artificial intelligence business. The company announced on Wednesday that it had entered into a definitive agreement to acquire most of the assets of the Weather Company, including a large number of weather data collection points, consumer and business applications and a staff of over 900 people. IBM would not say how much it was paying for the business, but an earlier report in The Wall Street Journal put the deal at over $2 billion. The Weather Channel, a cable television outlet, was not part of the deal, but it would license weather forecast data from IBM.”

12)      BlackBerry’s first Android phone ships November 6th for $699

This week’s GRL is full of dying companies doing stupid things. BlackBerry is in a death spiral so they are joining the commodity Android phone market. Unlike most other companies with a non-measurable market share, BlackBerry has decided to price the device in line with the most expensive and highly featured phones on the market today. Even though there is a good chance the phone will outlast the company (i.e. two years) this is a completely baffling move. Perhaps it is a sort of corporate Seppuku: rather than fading away: go out in glory and with your honor intact.

“BlackBerry has officially started taking preorders for the BlackBerry Priv, the company’s first Android phone. The device is being sold in the US, UK, and Canada, with pricing at $699, £559, and CA$899, respectively. In the US and Canada, the device starts shipping November 6th, and in the UK the Priv will ship “starting the week of November 9.” The official spec list has been posted as well, and it looks like that $700 is a high-end price for a high-end phone. The Priv has a 5.43-inch 1440p AMOLED display with curved edges on the left and right of the screen. Internally, there’s a 1.8GHz Snapdragon 808 SoC, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a non-removable (and massive) 3410mAh battery. There’s also an 18MP rear camera with OIS and phase detect auto focus, and a 2MP front camera. For a carrier, it looks like you’ll need a GSM provider as Blackberry says the device is “Not compatible on Verizon, Sprint, US Cellular.””

13)      Google threatens action against Symantec-issued certificates following botched investigation

Symantec is a company on a long slide to oblivion so you’d think they would be able to get this one thing right. After all, domain certificates are the starting point for web security, and if you were handling most of them you’d be real careful with what you did, especially when messing with one of the largest tech companies in the world. But no, Symantec, who makes a heroic effort to sell security solutions could not even manage that. Even so, their own, rigorous investigation didn’t show a fraction of the errors they made. One can only imagine what you’d find if you looked closer.

“The company’s initial investigation determined that 23 test certificates had been issued for domain names belonging to Google, Opera and three other unnamed organizations. However, with only “a few minutes of work” Google was able to find additional unauthorized certificates that Symantec missed, calling into question the results of the company’s internal audit. In response, Symantec re-opened the investigation and uncovered an additional 164 test certificates that it issued for 76 domains it didn’t own and 2,458 certificates issued for domains that hadn’t been registered. Google is now calling for Symantec to publish a detailed analysis of its failure to detect all certificates during the initial audit and wants the company to explain the root causes for each violation of existing industry policies. The browser maker also wants Symantec to report all the certificates it issues, not just the EV ones, to the CT log in the future.”

14)      3D printed hip and knee joints coming to hospitals across UK in 2016

The title appears misleading as the roll out is of custom made instruments which are used in surgery, not the joints themselves. Nevertheless, according to the report these custom instruments are cost effective and lead to better results. Depending on the volume of surgeries performed it seems likely production of the devices can be centralized which would be more cost effective. After all, joint replacement surgery is usually carefully planned and rarely an emergency.

“Setting up Embody Orthopaedics in 2012 together with Professor Justin Cobb from the Imperial College London, she and her team have since developed 3D printed instruments that have been specifically designed for a single surgical intervention. 3D printed in nylon, they are low cost tools that are easily sterilized and are minimally invasive. ‘[These] devices assist surgeons to position joint replacements precisely, and improve recovery times,’ she explains. The system has been extensively tested at Charing Cross Hospital in London over the last year– in more than 400 surgeries – and the results have been excellent. Each of these instruments is based on CAT scan data to make custom models for each patients, while the same software is used to rehearse the operation on the computer and planning incisions and bone alignment before the actual surgery takes place. ‘It’s better to make these decisions, especially in complex cases, before the patient is anaesthetised and on the oeprating table,’ Dr Clarke tells The Telegraph. ‘Bone shape and size can vary widely between individuals and we provide the 3D-printed parts that are an exact fit. This reduces costs and inefficiencies.’”

15)      Facebook’s Zuckerberg in India to get ‘next billion online’

Facebook seems to have a problem: excluding China (from which they are banned) they claim almost 60% of Internet users as “Monthly Active Users”. Frankly I find those figures a bit hard to believe, but I never understood social media. Suffice it to say that if you are already serving almost 60% of people on line, most everybody who would be interested in Facebook is probably already a member. Adding 1 billion Indians might be a worthy objective but the problem is those 1 billion Indians do not have that much money, and certainly nowhere near the $9.33 per year per user Facebook somehow extracts from its user base. So, they’ll probably have trouble growing users and revenue per user even if India somehow comes online.

“Speaking to about 900 students at New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology, Zuckerberg said broadening Internet access was vital to economic development in a country where a billion people are still not online. “If you really have a mission of connecting every person in the world you can’t do that without connecting people in India,” Zuckerberg, dressed in a grey T-shirt and dark jeans, told the audience. “We have the second biggest community in India and we want the next billion to come online,” he said, adding that Internet access helps create jobs and lift people out of poverty. India is Facebook’s second biggest market after the United States, with about 130 million of its 1.5 billion worldwide users, making it critically important for the site which is banned in China.”

16)      Alphabet’s Stratospheric Loon Balloons to Start Serving Internet to Indonesia

Well, at least this is cheaper than LeoSats (see item 17). After all, balloons are cheap. However, balloons don’t last long (if nothing else the batteries wear out) and Google’s models to the contrary their flightpath is not that deterministic. The real problem is probably poverty: Indonesian islands could simply link to a geostationary satellite, especially since the cost of satellite broadband is plummeting. As given town, once linked could use WiFi, wireless or even wired Internet to serve the entire population. Of course, 600 mSec ping times are not ideal but it works, even for voice.

“The three largest cellular networks serving Indonesia’s 250 million people are set to get an upgrade from a fleet of stratospheric helium balloons floating 20 kilometers overhead. The Loon balloons, as they are called, are operated by Alphabet, Google’s recently created corporate parent. The company said Wednesday that it has signed an agreement with Indonesia’s largest telecommunications companies, Indosat, XL Axiata, and Telkomsel, for a series of trials starting in 2016 that will include providing high-speed wireless Internet service to smartphones and other devices used by the network’s subscribers.”

17)      SpaceX ‘Doesn’t Have A Lot of Effort Going’ into Satellite Internet

This sort of ties in to the Loon project (item 16) however, Low Earth Orbit Satellites (LeoSats) are a singularly daft idea for Internet access. Besides being very expensive to launch, the ground stations would be extremely complex due to the need to track and send to a rapidly moving satellite. Not only that but, in order to works at all they’d have to blanket the globe, meaning 2/3rds of the birds would be over water and a significant proportion of the remainder either over unpopulated areas or areas with service. The idea is so dumb I’m surprised Spacex is backing down on it so soon after Musk’s promotion of it.

“In January, Elon Musk announced that SpaceX would be working on a satellite network devoted to global broadband internet. At a speaking engagement on Oct. 27, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said that the project remains “very speculative,” and that, for now, SpaceX will be focusing on its launch capabilities. “We don’t have a lot of effort going into that right now,” Shotwell said in reference to the internet project at the Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia convention, held in Hong Kong. Partially, that’s because existing providers have such a hold on the commercial internet space. “Certainly I think that from a technical perspective this could get done. But can we develop the technology and roll it out with a lower-cost methodology so that we can beat the prices of existing providers like Comcast and Time Warner and other people? It’s not clear that the business case will work,” Shotwell said.”

18)      At MIT Media Lab, sensors and 21st-century sensibilities

MIT Media Lab doesn’t get the coverage it used to so this article provides somewhat of a refresher. I thought the eye test gizmo was an interesting one, especially since the eye glass/contact lens business is one of the great scams: I can buy 4 pair of reading glasses at Costco for $22, but glasses for near sightedness cost 40x as much, minimum, due to regulatory restrictions on their sale. Eye tests are not rocket science and eyeglass or contact lens manufacture should not be an inherently profitable business. Who knows, maybe somebody will disrupt that industry soon.

“EyeNetra, based in neighboring Somerville, Massachusetts, spun out of Media Lab’s Camera Culture group in October 2011. The 15-person startup designs simple, smartphone-powered eye tests that can be conducted outside of an optometrist’s office. Its product, the Netra, resembles a plastic binocular case. A Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone snaps into the end of the case and you peer through the other. As you turn dials to respond to patterns on the screen, an app measures your degree of nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism. At $900, which includes the smartphone, the highly portable Netra is a fraction of the cost of standard diagnostic machines. Commercial sales of the device began in August, and it is already a key tool for the company’s Blink service, which launched in New York City to provide on-demand eye tests. It is also being used in the similar Nayantara service in India.”

19)      How Can Spotify Shrink and Grow the Music Business at the Same Time?

Streaming services and podcasts are what is going to put radio out of business because you listen to what you want to listen to rather than whatever crap they put between the commercials (including commercials in the commentary). Streaming royalties are based on the radio model in that very little money is paid per listener. The music industry was used to making lots of money off selling recordings then grudgingly accepted music downloads as the only countermeasure against piracy. Artists are complaining they don’t make money from streaming services because of the low pay rates but they didn’t make much from radio either. At least streaming offers emerging artists profile they would never get on radio and ultimately the artists will just accept the real money is in live performances.

“Economists Luis Aguiar and Joel Waldfogel looked at music sales in countries Spotify operated in between 2013 and 2015, and concluded that yes, “Spotify use displaces permanent downloads” — that is, if you’re getting your music from Spotify, you don’t need to buy it from iTunes. But they also found that “Spotify displaces music piracy,” and that the two trends balance each other out: “Interactive streaming appears to be revenue-neutral for the recorded music industry.” The nice thing about the study is that it manages to bolster both Spotify’s main argument to the music industry for the past few years — if you don’t let us distribute your music, and get some money for it, the pirates will do it and you’ll get none — and the music labels’ primary worry about streaming — there’s no way we’re going to sell enough subscriptions to replace albums and single-track sales!”

20)      A startup called Filld just raised $3.25 million to make sure you’ll never have to pump your own gas again

This is the stupid business idea of the week: imagine somebody coming to your car and putting gas in the tank for you! Think of the minutes this will save and the dollars it’ll cost. Heck, I’m a rich guy and I use self-serve and drive out my way to fill up $0.01 per liter cheaper. But I guess I’m not a San Francisco venture capitalist. It is astounding that anybody would have given them a nickle.

“The result of their work is Filld, an iOS app (Android coming soon) that lets you order gas when you want. The company just raised $3.25 million in seed funding from investors Lightspeed Venture Partners and Javelin Venture Partners to get off the ground. Right now, the app is only available in its pilot market around Silicon Valley, but Aubuchon says this new seed round will help them expand — first to the wider San Francisco Bay Area, and then to other cities.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 23rd 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 23rd 2015


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

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

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

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

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

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe

1)          Next-gen cellular networks could use spectrum all the way up to 71GHz

It you would have mentioned 71 GHz radio 20 years ago people would have thought you were referring to science fiction. These sorts of frequencies have more in common with light that with traditional low frequency radio and that is what allows for the design of beam steering, etc.. One can’t help but wonder what happened to the “spectrum scarcity” behind fabulously expensive wireless license auctions.

“”It was once thought that frequencies above 28GHz could not support mobile services because their wavelengths were too short and the signal propagation losses were too high,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said at today’s meetings. “But industry engineers have now turned these weaknesses into strengths by finding ways to use short wavelengths to build dynamic beam-forming antennas to support high-capacity networks that are small enough to fit into handsets. Many expect that these engineering advances will lead to 5G networks that will offer much higher data speeds and substantially lower latency than what commercial mobile services offer today.” There is “little doubt” that future 5G devices will also use spectrum below 1GHz, Clyburn said. Using both low- and high-frequency spectrum would help carriers achieve broad coverage and faster speeds.”

2)          Driverless trucks move all iron ore at Rio Tinto’s Pilbara mines, in world first

This is an update on a story we’ve covered in the past. Mine equipment is an excellent candidate for driverless control, although in this case the application is very different from autonomous vehicles for consumers. In this case, the drivers are absent far away from the mine site. This is not only safer but cheaper as luring drivers to remote sites is costly. As we noted last week, a similar approach could be used in cargo ships.

“”To the naked eye it looks like conventional mining methods. I guess the key change for us is the work that employees and our team members are doing now,” he said. “What we have done is map out our entire mine and put that into a system and the system then works out how to manoeuvre the trucks through the mine.” The company is now operating 69 driverless trucks across its mines at Yandicoogina, Nammuldi and Hope Downs 4. The trucks can run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without a driver who needs bathroom or lunch breaks, which has industry insiders estimating each truck can save around 500 work hours a year. Mr Bennett said the technology takes away dangerous jobs while also slashing operating costs.”

3)          U.S. to force drone owners to register devices soon, report says

This rumor caused pandemonium in the drone enthusiast community. Although you rarely hear of RC airplane enthusiasts flying their toys in restricted airspace and/or endangering lives the barriers to ownership and operation of drones are much lower and, as would be expected more idiots own them. The FAA’s responsibility is to the safety of the public, not half-wits who fly their toys where they shouldn’t. I suspect the registration mandate, if it comes, will apply only to drones above a certain size and range so actual toys would be unaffected.

“The general rules governing the use of commercial and non-commercial drones are still in flux, but one major rule is reportedly set to be enacted soon: legal registration. In much the same way as you might register an automobile, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) is set to lay down rules that require all drone owners to register their devices with the government. The agency has not made an official announcement regarding such a program, but a report from NBC News on Friday claims that the rule is set to take effect in the near future. According to the report, drone owners would be required to register their devices with the DoT in a new program that would be launched by the Christmas holiday, right around the time a large number of drones will likely make their way into the skies as Christmas presents.”

4)          Tesla shares dive after Consumer Reports yanks recommendation for Model S

Not slammed enough. Tesla’s are notorious for frequent and repeat repairs of expensive components like the drive system and batteries. This is not news: we have been commenting on this for years now. Unfortunately, the once credible Consumer Reports appears satisfied with writing aspirational reviews: it writes about what it believes should be true rather than what the facts say. Even so, any and all EVs suffer from an inherent flaw: the batteries are staggeringly expensive (that will not change) and short lived (that will also not chance). Anybody with the copious misfortune of owning an EV more than 8 years old will discover it will need a new battery pack worth much more than a typical car. But at least they don’t need oil changes.

“Consumer Reports withdrew its recommendation for the Tesla Model S — a car the magazine previously raved about — because of poor reliability for the sporty electric sedan. The turnabout comes after the influential consumer magazine handed the luxury car a “worse-than-average” rating in its annual report on the predicted reliability of new vehicles issued Tuesday. … Consumer Reports surveyed 1,400 Model S owners “who chronicled an array of detailed and complicated maladies” with the drivetrain, power equipment, charging equipment and giant iPad-like center console. They also complained about body and sunroof squeaks, rattles and leaks.”

5)          When Tesla’s autopilot goes wrong: Owners post terrifying footage showing what happens when brand new autonomous driving software fails

I’ll give you one thing about Tesla: its quality is consistent, though not consistently good. In summary the company recently rolled out a series of features other car companies have offered for years. Aligned with its undeserved reputation for innovation and technological breakthrough it managed to convince a surprising number of commentators this was a sort of “self-driving car”. As it turns out, the software appears to be dangerously buggy and unless the driver is actively controlling the car at all times it has a propensity to veer into danger. Not-surprisingly, Tesla fans are blaming this on the driver (what do you expect from beta software) where no such shrift would be given if any other car manufacturer had endangered lives in this manner. It is a matter of time before this kills somebody.

“Less than a week into Tesla’s roll out of its autopilot software, footage has emerged showing the dangers of the system. The update lets the car use a range of sensors both inside and outside the vehicle to maintain its speed, keep a safe distance from the car in front and even change lanes automatically. But for drivers who keep their hands off the wheel, the car can sometimes veer out of its lane, according to two new videos. They raise questions over the ‘ambiguous’ legal rules surrounding self driving cars, as New York is the only state that requires a ‘driver’ must have a hand on the wheel at all times.”

6)          Electric vehicles expected to be the norm by 2026

I’m sure if you would have asked me what I wanted when I was 14 I’d have said hoverboard so I’m not sure knowing the opinions of people who know nothing about cars, let alone EVs, and who can’t afford one, are. There is a lot of hype on the Internet concerning EVs, due largely to the efforts of Tesla to promote itself. Unfortunately, the adoption of EVs will be heavily dependent upon progress in battery technology and, Tesla hype to the side that is not progressing as quickly as people are led to believe. If people are really keen on saving the environment they might advocate for mass transit or even drive smaller cars. After all, the fuel efficiency of gasoline engines has improved immensely and consumers have mostly responded by buying more powerful vehicles.

“Respected futurologist Ian Pearson has forecast 2026 as the year in which the electric car will overtake its gasoline-powered counterparts in terms of sales. His prediction is based on new research, published this week by Go Ultra Low, a U.K. government-funded organization for promoting greener motoring. It finds that today’s 14-to-17-year-olds are already fantasizing about owning their first car, and that it is going to be of the electric, rather than the gas-powered variety. When asked, 81 per cent of British 14-year-olds said that their first car would be electric. What’s more, 88 per cent of all respondents said they believed more people should already be driving a hybrid or plug-in electric car in order to protect the environment.”

7)          Coal Trumps Solar in India

A modern electric grid can tolerate some sporadic power sources like wind and solar, especially if the regulatory context pushes the cost of coping to the consumer. Otherwise it is an expensive and unreliable source of power. Unfortunately, it sounds like a good idea, and that is a bad combination. As this article shows the best wishes of Greenpeace are not as good as a connection to the grid. I can’t help but wonder how many Greenpeace activists had to study by the light of a single bulb. Thanks to my friend Evan Spiropoulos of Brickburn Asset Management for this item.

“Rupesh Kumar, an 11th-grader in Dharnai, grew up studying by the light of kerosene lanterns. He was hopeful when Greenpeace representatives came to his family’s two-room house, walking past two buffaloes tied at the front porch. They promised him a light bulb he could study by. He hopes to be the first in his family to go to college and get a job other than farming. Over three months, engineers set up 70 kilowatts of photovoltaic cells on the rooftop of public buildings scattered throughout the village. They installed 224 batteries to store the energy. … Kumar’s family received one compact fluorescent light bulb and a wall outlet to charge their mobile phone. The power would be free for six months and then cost 70 rupees per month. That comes to about $1, but a steep price tag in a place where poor people earn, on average, the equivalent of about 30 cents per day. Most of Kumar’s neighbors could not afford it.”

8)          Getting LEAN with Digital Ad UX

This sounds like capitulation by the adverting industry but I rather doubt it. After all, a significant number of online ads are fraudulent, deceptive, or malware carriers and I doubt those advertisers will pay attention to the industry body. More likely this is a gambit to use voluntary compliance to a loose and unenforced code of ethics to get the vast majority of ads placed on Ad Block Plus’s white list. However, the technology is open source and there are alternatives such as uBlock, which has not yet been coopted by a business model.

“This was choice—powered by digital advertising—and premised on user experience. But we messed up. Through our pursuit of further automation and maximization of margins during the industrial age of media technology, we built advertising technology to optimize publishers’ yield of marketing budgets that had eroded after the last recession. Looking back now, our scraping of dimes may have cost us dollars in consumer loyalty. The fast, scalable systems of targeting users with ever-heftier advertisements have slowed down the public internet and drained more than a few batteries. We were so clever and so good at it that we over-engineered the capabilities of the plumbing laid down by, well, ourselves. This steamrolled the users, depleted their devices, and tried their patience.”

9)          China to invest $78 bn to build 110 nuclear power plants by 2030, will overtake US

China gets a lot of coverage for its deployment of solar and wind power, but a healthy electric grid needs reliable power from nuclear, hydro, or fossil fuel sources. China has used a lot of coal in electric production which has led to a virtual environmental disaster in terms of poor air quality. If a country is concerned with greenhouse gas emissions, modern nuclear power makes a lot of sense as these are very safe and reliable. Unfortunately, political opposition to nuclear power prevents deployment in the developed world but China doesn’t worry about such things. See also

“China plans to build 110 nuclear power plants by 2030 with an investment of over $78 billion overtaking the US which has 100 such plants amid criticism that Beijing is yet to implement enough measures to develop safety controls in existing projects. China will build six to eight nuclear power plants annually for the next five years and operate 110 plants by 2030 to meet the urgent need for clean energy, Beijing-based China Times quoted plan analysts as saying. China will invest 500 billion yuan ($78.8 billion) on domestically developed nuclear power plants, the report said. According to the China Times, the country plans to increase its electricity generation capacity to 58 gigawatts by 2020, three times the 2014 level.”

10)      The subprime ‘unicorns’ that do not look a billion dollars

This provides some context for the current Internet bubble. “Unicorns” are start-up companies whose market values are in the billions based upon a recent round of financing. Of course, valuation based on the last round of financing is not exactly the same as valuation based on daily trades in the stock market and even that is often wrong for extended periods of time. Ultimately, few of these companies will ever earn a profit, let alone generate enough cash to justify their valuation, but at this stage of the market the issue is moot: the financiers are only interested in selling those companies to a hapless acquirer such as Facebook, Google, or Apple, or fobbing the shares off to investors to an IPO. What happens afterwards is of little concern.

“But there is also a false sense of security provided by the private markets at a time when interest rates are negligible and many investors, particularly those who are either new to technology or have short memories, are all too willing to back start-ups whose premises house several baristas and where a dozen blends of tea (not to mention the sea-salt flavoured chocolate bars and bio-dynamically raised Anjou pears) are de rigueur. It is easier to conceal weaknesses, present an aura of invincibility and confound investors as a private company that can escape by making few disclosures than as a publicly traded one. One glance at the list of so-called unicorns — those private technology companies valued at more than $1bn — illustrates this point. A handful of these businesses will become the great, enduring companies of tomorrow. But a good number seem the flimsiest of edifices. Forget the fact that some of these valuations are illusory because the most recent investors have structured their investments as debt in all but name, meaning that they will stand to profit even if the company is worth far less.”

11)      How a criminal ring defeated the secure chip-and-PIN credit cards

It is truly amazing how creative some criminals are nowadays. These guys detected a basic flaw in the chip and pin system and developed a high tech solution which exploited it. I am pretty sure modern chip and pin transactions no longer work this way: the card doesn’t approve the transaction but answers a real time query with an encrypted response. Had that been in place in Belgium, this would not have worked.

“The researchers explain that a typical EMV transaction involves three steps: card authentication, cardholder verification, and then transaction authorization. During a transaction using one of the altered cards, the original chip was allowed to respond with the card authentication as normal. Then, during card holder authentication, the POS system would ask for a user’s PIN, the thief would respond with any PIN, and the FUN card would step in and send the POS the code indicating that it was ok to proceed with the transaction because the PIN checked out. During the final transaction authentication phase, the FUN card would relay the transaction data between the POS and the original chip, sending the issuing bank an authorization request cryptogram which the card issuer uses to tell the POS system whether to accept the transaction or not.”

12)      A Few Thoughts on Cryptographic Engineering

I recall my cryptography prof, in 1987, explaining that if the NSA was pushing a standard it was because they already knew how to compromise it and they figured others didn’t. They would never push a strong standard they could not decrypt. I believe NSA backdoored ECC because that is what they do. The thing is a backdoor is only useful when you are the only one who knows about it. Even if the purported one isn’t the real one if people believe NSA has compromised an algorithm they move away from it. Most likely they already have mathematical (if not real) backdoors for the new stuff as well – after all there are no quantum computers let alone prospects for one. Either way, NSA whether because of ECC or their well-documented coopting RSA ( I doubt NSA’s guidance is viewed with the same respect it used to be. It would be like adopting Red Army or KGB cyphers. Thanks to Jim Laird of Laird Research for this item.

“At the time of Suite B’s adoption, ECC was relatively new to the non-classified world. Many industry and academic cryptographers didn’t feel it had been reasonably studied (Koblitz and Menezes’ anecdotes on this are priceless). ECC was noteworthy for using dramatically shorter keys than alternative public-key algorithms such as RSA and “classical” Diffie-Hellman, largely because new sub-exponential attacks that worked in those settings did not seem to have any analogue in the ECC world. The NSA pushed hard for adoption. Since they had the best mathematicians, and moreover, clearly had the most to lose if things went south, the standards bodies were persuaded to go along. The algorithms of Suite B were standardized and — aside from a few intellectual property concerns — have been gradually adopted even by the non-classified community. Then, in August of this year, NSA freaked out.”

13)      The scientists encouraging online piracy with a secret codeword

We’ve written about the sorry state of academic publishing in the past. Industry consolidation means the cost of such publications has gone through the roof and many academics can’t get access to the article they need. Scientists are fighting back by moving to free online journals and by civil disobedience measures such as these. I disagree with the article on one point: in many countries there are specific exemptions to copyright for academic research. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“In many countries, it’s against the law to download copyrighted material without paying for it – whether it’s a music track, a movie, or an academic paper. Published research is protected by the same laws, and access is generally restricted to scientists – or institutions – who subscribe to journals. But some scientists argue that their need to access the latest knowledge justifies flouting the law, and they’re using a Twitter hashtag to help pirate scientific papers. Andrea Kuszewski, a cognitive scientist and science writer, invented the tag, which uses a code phrase: “I can haz PDF” – a play on words combining a popular geeky phrase used widely online in a meme involving cat pictures, and a common online file format. “Basically you tweet out a link to the paper that you need, with the hashtag and then your email address,” she told BBC Trending radio. “And someone will respond to your email and send it to you.””

14)      Penguin Computing to Build 7-9 Petaflops of Open Compute Clusters for NNSA

Open source solutions are often mocked by investors despite the fact Android (an open source variant of Linux) is by far the most popular OS on the planet and much of the Internet runs off open source software. Open source hardware is relatively new and Open Compute is a Facebook sponsored initiative. The idea is to offer hardware designs which can be produced as commodities and used in data centers, etc.. This might lead to the development of a near zero margin business which would displace current server (and ultimately networking equipment) suppliers.

“Today the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced a contract with Penguin Computing for a set of large-scale Open Compute HPC clusters. With 7-to-9 Petaflops of aggregate peak performance, the systems will be installed as part of NNSA’s tri-laboratory Commodity Technology Systems program. Scheduled for installation starting next year, the systems will bolster computing for national security at Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories.”

15)      How an industry of ‘Amazon entrepreneurs’ pulled off the Internet’s craftiest catfishing scheme

If there is a service or product on the Internet, you can rest assured somebody has figured a scam based on it. The idea with this one is to have somebody ghost write a “book” which is just a miscellaneous assortment of publicly available information. Then pay other people to create a large number of fraudulent favorable reviews for the “book” and use Amazon’s own policies to allow you remove any reviews which are not favorable. Victims see the book, read the reviews and pay money for a worthless piece of garbage. Usually the amount is small and hardly worth a complaint. Amazon itself profits from the scam so it is easy to see why they would do little to stop it. Long story short, short ignore favorable product reviews: chances are they are paid for. And that isn’t limited to e-books.

“The catfishing process varies according to the specific “entrepreneur” using it, but it typically follows the same general steps: After hiring a remote worker to write an e-book for the Kindle marketplace, Amazon’s e-book store, publishers put it up for sale under the name and bio of a fictional expert. Frequently, Kindle entrepreneurs will then buy or trade for good book reviews. At the end of this process, they hope to have a Kindle store bestseller: something with a catchy title about a hot topic, such as gambling addiction or weight loss. “Making money with Kindle is by far the easiest and fastest way to get started making money on the Internet today,” enthuses one video that promises to guide viewers to riches. “You don’t even need to write the books yourself!”

16)      Brain Surgery Using Sound Waves

The technology uses focused sound wave to destroy brain tissue without having to cut into a person’s skull. Once doctors figure out what part of the brain is causing seizures, chronic pain or whatever they plan the surgery and burn the part away. It is sterile and apparently mostly painless. One problem is that you can’t be completely sure of what you are doing as you can with traditional surgery by stimulating the brain and asking the patient to describe what they feel. Perhaps in the future a method will be found to precisely stimulate the brain and we’ll have a complete package.

“A new ultrasound device, used in conjunction with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), allows neurosurgeons to precisely burn out small pieces of malfunctioning brain tissue without cutting the skin or opening the skull. A preliminary study from Switzerland involving nine patients with chronic pain shows that the technology can be used safely in humans. The researchers now aim to test it in patients with other disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.”

17)      Automation expected to cut workforce needs by 25% at IT services firms

If this is how they feel it must be a depressing industry to work in. I wouldn’t take this survey too seriously as it assumes the respondents are in a position to actually judge the pace at which automation with eliminate jobs and they probably are not. Nevertheless, a lot of IT services functions probably lend themselves to automation or simplification of one sort or another. One can’t help but wonder if the lost jobs will be in the major economies or India, which has become a hot spot for IT services outsourcing.

“That automation will take jobs is a well-established labor market truism. For instance, in 1949 there were 182,500 people employed as telephone operators. That was the peak year for that profession. By last year, the number of operators employed by wired telecommunications carriers had declined to 2,170, according to federal labor data. A similar fate is about to befall people who do back-office IT services work. Thanks to automation improvements, dramatic cutbacks in IT services personnel are being forecast, according to a survey of representatives of about 170 global sourcing firms. This includes the IT services industry.”

18)      HBO CEO Richard Plepler Criticizes Comcast, Other Pay-TV Firms for Snubbing Streaming Service

The comment appears to be that HBO expects Internet Service Providers to offer a bundle including HBO’s streaming service HBO Now, especially since so many ISP customers are not also cable TV customers. He makes a good point however ISPs are probably keen to maintain control over their bandwidth by subverting net neutrality and believe HBO should pay them for the privilege of delivering HBO content. Regardless, bundles such as these are probably in the future.

“The HBO CEO called out his Comcast counterpart and multiple other leading U.S. pay-TV distributors who don’t offer HBO Now with their broadband products as digital giants like Apple and Google have over the past nine months. “If you’re Brian (Roberts) and you have 6 million broadband subs, why would you not bundle HBO and share that revenue with us? Why would you give up that real estate and not be paid for it? I don’t understand it,” he lamented Tuesday evening in a keynote Q&A at the WSJD Live event in Laguna Beach, Calif. Plepler repeatedly criticized distributors who he complained were leaving money on the table by not using HBO Now to help drive value to their own broadband access. “Some of our partners are not as skilled at that, and I think that’s myopic on their part,” he said. HBO has managed to secure two deals with traditional distributors — Cablevision and Verizon — for HBO Now. However, Comcast, along with the potentially combining Charter and Time Warner Cable, do not offer the service. Neither do satcaster DirecTV or its own merger partner, AT&T.”

19)      Hewlett-Packard throws in the towel on public cloud

This is another example of the hazards of using cloud services. Discontinuation of a cloud service can create disruption and costs for the subscribers. It isn’t as easy as changing over your provider in most cases, especially if there are customer records, databases, etc.. This is the sort of problem businesses can deal with, but the impact on consumers can be greater. As an example, most Internet of Things applications require access to a specific application on the cloud in order to work at all. If the cloud services provider decides to pull the plug or if the IoT provider figures it wants to get out of the smart lightbulb business, the consumer is left with a paperweight.

“Hewlett-Packard, which has spent the past year downplaying what had once been an aggressive push into the business of providing a “public cloud,” is exiting that business altogether. The company will “sunset” its product, HP Helion Public Cloud, on Jan. 31, 2016, according to a new blog post by Bill Hilf, senior vice president of HP Cloud. Public clouds are one form of “cloud computing,” in which tasks are performed over a network of distributed computing resources, rather than “locally” in the customer’s own data center. In a “public” cloud, those resources are shared by the public; in “private” clouds, the resources are used exclusively by one organization.”

20)      Super-slick material makes steel better, stronger, cleaner

There are lots of interesting developments in materials science and nanotechnology. Here we have an example of a resilient superhydrophobic coating, meaning water won’t stick to it. Obvious applications of superhydrophobic coatings include heat exchangers (steam won’t condense on them) and aircraft surfaces for de-icing (though steel may be too heavy for that application). Unfortunately, the article does not tell us the cost of the coating, which is an important issue.

“While various grades of steel have been developed over the past 50 years, steel surfaces have remained largely unchanged—and unimproved. The steel of today is as prone as ever to the corrosive effects of water and salt and abrasive materials such as sand. Steel surgical tools can still carry microorganisms that cause deadly infections. Now, researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have demonstrated a way to make steel stronger, safer and more durable. Their new surface coating, made from rough nanoporous tungsten oxide, is the most durable anti-fouling and anti-corrosive material to date, capable of repelling any kind of liquid even after sustaining intense structural abuse.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 16th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 16th 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)          Beware of Oracle’s licensing ‘traps,’ law firm warns

I was unaware of Oracle’s licensing strategies until I read an article which claimed half of Oracle’s UK license sales were related to software auditing ( Of course, there is nothing wrong with making sure your customers are paying for your product but suffice it say, this casts recent weakness in Oracle’s licensing revenue in an entirely different light. This article further implies Oracle crafts its license agreements with conditions which ensure customers will run afoul of those terms. All in, it seems like a strategy of desperation.

“Oracle’s aggressive licensing practices have gained it considerable notoriety over the years, and on Tuesday, a Texas law firm specializing in technology issued a warning urging enterprises to beware. “Oracle software licensing is full of traps,” wrote Christopher Barnett, an associate with Scott & Scott LLP, in a blog post. “Businesses need to understand the risks associated with those traps and to proceed with caution.” Of particular note is Oracle’s License Management Services compliance arm, whose zeal for audits and “undeserved windfalls” is “nearly legendary,” Barnett said.”

2)          Tesla will release its software v7.0 with Autopilot on Thursday Oct. 15

I recently heard a proud Tesla owner relating how he expected his Tesla to be driving autonomously with this software update. Alas, the car lacks the systems (LIDAR, etc) and the computing power to drive itself and if it could it would not be street legal. These features are simply equivalent to those found in a variety of vehicles for the past 5 years or so, just marketed better. The impact on the internet was profound with dozens of articles and videos proclaiming Tesla was first to market with a self-driving car. Good marketing and profound ignorance can be very powerful in combination.

“Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced on Twitter Saturday night that his company will release its software v7.0 with Autopilot for the Model S on Thursday (October 15th). In mid-August Tesla sent out the first release of the beta update to about 600-700 early access testers all around the U.S. and parts of Europe. This particular update is an extremely anticipated one. It includes an important UI design overhaul, but also and more importantly several new ‘Autopilot’ features, which some Model S owners have been waiting for over a year now. The new ‘Autopilot’ features included in v7.0 are auto-steering, lane change activated by the turn signal and auto-parking in parallel spaces.”

3)          We could all be flying around in electric planes, but Elon Musk is too busy

Last week I mentioned that futurists seem to blather on about nonsense. Like any musing from Musk, this was immediately taken as gospel, despite its patent absurdity. A Lear 36A has a capacity of 7,400 pounds of jet fuel with a specific energy of about 46 MJ/kg. A lithium ion battery has a specific energy of less than 1 MJ/kg so an electric equivalent of a tiny Lear 36A would have to carry at least 340,000 pounds of batteries – roughly the weight of a fully loaded 767.

“When asked what he’d be doing if he wasn’t running Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk said he’d start work on designing an electric plane. “I do like the idea of an electric aircraft company. I think one could do a pretty cool supersonic, vertical take-off and landing electric jet. I have a design in mind for that,” said Musk in an interview with Marketplace. He noted, “Aircraft and ships, and all other modes of transport, will go fully electric — not half electric, but fully electric.” While that doesn’t count as an official announcement about Musk’s aspirations to design aeroplanes, I’m not completely ruling out the possibility.”

4)          Why Futurism Has a Cultural Blindspot

This is a lengthy and somewhat rambling article which looks at the failure of futurists to tell the future. It covers a lot of bases and makes a lot of good points though I think the “black swan” effect is an important factor that is not considered. Take electronics for example: our world would be vastly different had the transistor not been invented and nobody could have predicted it. Similarly, you can directly link human progress to availability of energy: the future will be very different if there is a breakthrough in nuclear fusion than if we exhaust fossil fuels. Either way you can safely ignore the ravings of charlatans who rave about the future without understanding basic physics.

“In his book Predicting the Future, Nicholas Rescher writes that “we incline to view the future through a telescope, as it were, thereby magnifying and bringing nearer what we can manage to see.” So too do we view the past through the other end of the telescope, making things look farther away than they actually were, or losing sight of some things altogether. These observations apply neatly to technology. We don’t have the personal flying cars we predicted we would. Coal, notes the historian David Edgerton in his book The Shock of the Old, was a bigger source of power at the dawn of the 21st century than in sooty 1900; steam was more significant in 1900 than 1800.”

5)          German publisher Axel Springer bans adblocking users from Bild website

Frankly it is surprising it took them so long to act. I have used adblock (now uBlock) for years now and the worse I see is an admonishment to turn off my adblocker – which ain’t gonna happen. I figure it’ll probably take a few weeks for the adblock folks to figure out how Bild is detecting the adblocker and spoof it.

“Axel Springer SE, among the largest of Europe’s online publishers, has instituted a block on viewers who are using adblocking software for its flagship news website, Adblocking readers who browse to the Bild site now are presented with a page which blocks the site’s content and asks the reader to either switch off the adblocker or subscribe to the publication for 2.99 Euros (£2.23 | $3.40) per month. In a statement (German language) at the Axel Springer blog a spokesperson for the company said that journalism must be financed by the ‘two known revenue pillars’ of advertising or sales. The print edition of Bild has a daily circulation of 2,500,000.”

6)          New Genetic Technologies Diagnose Critically Ill Infants Within 26 Hours

This is about the development of a co-processor which has been designed to be optimized at taking genetic sequencing data and processing it. Time is money and, in the case of sick babies, it is lives as well. The problem is that while the sequencing is relatively quick, making sense of that sequencing takes a lot of computing cycles. Moore’s Law rocks. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“In the intensive care unit for newborn babies, genetic disorders are the leading cause of death. But pediatricians typically can’t scan an infant’s entire genome and analyze it for clues quickly enough to make a difference in the baby’s treatment. Forget the typical. Here is what’s now possible: In a record-breaking 26 hours, pediatricians can now scan and analyze the entire genome of a critically ill infant to find a diagnosis that can significantly alter the course of treatment. In a new study published in Genome Medicine, pediatricians explained how hardware and software specialized for genetic analysis can provide such fast and life-saving information. The key piece of technology: A processor from the company Edico Genome that’s designed to handle the big data of genetics.”

7)          Scientists already had major doubts about Theranos — and now it’s a full-on crisis

Theranos claims to be able to do a wide variety of blood tests using a tiny amount of blood. Their claims have been questioned openly by experts who simply don’t believe this is possible and demand proof, which was not forthcoming. The Wall Street Journal article repeats allegations of former employees suggesting that, indeed, those suspicions are valid. If so, given the company is valued at about $10B, it makes you wonder what level of diligence was conducted by investors. Thanks to my friend Thanos Moschopoulos for this item.

“But while the company opened its first lab testing centers, pulled together a board full of prominent former government officials, and received a valuation that now equals $10 billion, scientists continued to ask questions about how and whether its “revolutionary” technology worked. An investigative report in The Wall Street Journal published Thursday raises more doubts, with one former senior employee reportedly telling The Journal that at the end of last year, Theranos was using its new technology, referred to as “Edison,” for only a small fraction of blood tests. The former employee told The Journal that at the end of 2014, the company ran 15 tests using new technology compared with 190 tests run in a traditional way with a normal needle.”

8)          ‘Digital skin’ activates brain cells

Although many robotics applications focus on machine vision, the sense of touch is an extremely important feedback mechanism for people. As we featured recently, a robot equipped with significant processing power and surrounded by cameras has trouble putting a dowel in a hole – something a human can do blindfolded. This “digital skin” announcement is directed to artificial limbs and touch would be an important feature to prosthesis. The tricky bit is getting the information to the brain: this experiment used slices of brain from genetically engineered mice and is pretty impractical for human use. It may be that robots gain touch before people do.

“Engineers have built a flexible sensor that detects touch and, just like skin, produces electrical pulses that get faster when the pressure increases. They have also used those pulses to drive neuronal activity in a slice of mouse brain. They say the system is a more faithful replica of touch sensation than many other designs for artificial skin, making it a promising option for the development of responsive prosthetics. The work appears in Science magazine. The main advantage, according to senior author Zhenan Bao, is that the bendy, plastic-based sensor directly produces a pattern of pulses that makes sense to the nervous system.”

9)          Tru-Marine develops first 3D printed nozzle ring for quick turbocharger repair

Marine turbochargers are enormous and expensive devices used to boost the output and efficiency of large marine diesel engines. They are not made in large volumes and they have plenty of wear parts. This is not a great article but it shows how a company has figured out how to 3D print replacement parts or even to replace worn surfaces and damaged surfaces. This is exactly the sort of application 3D printers are suited for.

“3D printed with an exotic super metal alloy, Tru-Marine’s new nozzle ring design provides improved heat and corrosion resistance compared to current casting standards. The material has a high ultimate tensile strength that, when used in additive manufacturing processes, can achieve near-perfect densities of greater than 99.5 percent. Further, the ability for 3D modelling software to create complex geometric forms means that each nozzle ring can be individually tailored to the technical specifications of the vessel it will be used for. The company’s proprietary 3D printing process also enables reconstructing worn out areas directly onto the original component, reducing material waste and delivery times, while reclaiming parts to ‘like new’ condition. Due to 3D printing’s ability to produce small-scale or even single-run batches, repairs only happen as and when the vessel calls for it, in a fraction of the time and cost compared to conventional metalworking production, which requires economies of scale to be financially viable.”

10)      Will you buy a smartphone, from Pepsi?

We’ll see if Pepsi does actually release a phone, and if so in which markets, but it is not beyond the realm of reason. First, you don’t need to design a smartphone to be in the smartphone business: ODMs will happily make any phone you want with any styling you want. Second, the soft drink business is brutally competitive and marketers spend a lot of time and effort trying to think up the next thing to grab consumers’ attentions. I can imagine Pepsi releasing a branded smartphone with branded apps but the marketing value would probably depend on the whole package.

“Soft drink outfit PepsiCo is out to make history again. This time, the United States beverages maker isn’t going to release one more flavor of Pepsi Cola, instead, it’s working on a smartphone (yes, you heard that right: smartphone) that will break cover this October. Pepsi P1, as sources in China revealed to Mobipicker will get launched next Tuesday on October 20th.”

11)      ZTE jumps on lease-to-own trend for phones

It is perplexing that relatively wealthy people still finance their phones through their carrier rather than buying them outright. They would never finance a TV, but they finance their phones. Some carriers seem to be moving away from financing phones and lack of access to the carrier channel can limit new entrants into the market. ZTE has a solution: they’ll let you finance your phone through them.

“The Chinese handset maker on Wednesday unveiled a lease-to-own payment plan for customers who want to spread the cost of buying an unlocked ZTE phone or other mobile device over several months. The payment plan, which extends to devices such as the well-rated Axon Pro Android phone and the ZTE Spro 2 smart projector, is expected to launch to online customers soon, although ZTE did not provide a specific date. Leasing programs backed by smartphone makers have become more common as wireless operators move away from traditional two-year contracts and the device subsidies that come with those plans, and instead are requiring customers to pay full price for devices. Instead of signing up for a lengthy wireless contract or paying a lump sum up front for their handsets, ZTE customers can choose to pay off their phone one month at a time until they own the device outright.”

12)      Could autonomous ships make the open seas safer?

Autonomous trucks have been used in mining for a couple years now. In many ways industrial applications are more tolerant than, say, driving around on city streets since the routes can be known, and there are no pedestrians, dogs, etc., to confound computers. Plus there is a payback replacing skilled labor with capital. I think ships are a likely market for automated systems since they are often simply moving across open ocean and mostly need people around when they get close to shore or when things go wrong. A locked down ship would be hard to hijack and could probably safely sail in rougher seas as well.

“It’s not unheard of for cargo ships to sink — 49 sank or were submerged in 2014 — but as The Atlantic reports, it’s very rare for a ship of El Faro’s size to simply disappear, without sufficient warning to evacuate crew members. And in cases where accidents do occur at sea, human error is usually to blame. That has spurred some groups to develop more autonomous technologies that would all but remove humans from the equation. Such “drone ships” would be remotely piloted by onshore captains, but all the onboard operations that crew members currently carry out, like navigation and power management, would be handled by computer systems. Advocates of the technology say it would make shipping safer, less expensive, and more environmentally friendly. But the proposals have been met with skepticism from shipping labor unions, and there are major regulatory hurdles that still need to be cleared.”

13)      ‘Great Pause’ Among Prosecutors As DNA Proves Fallible

If you’ve ever watched CSI you know they can solve the most horrific of crimes by lifting the DNA from a skin flake left by the killer. (I’ve often wondered why Tony Soprano could beat somebody to death with a steel pipe and get away with it, but I guess he didn’t leave skin flakes behind). DNA evidence is considered the gold standard of evidence, which is unfortunate because lots of crime scene technicians can’t find that skin flake. Unfortunately, technicians have become more and more imaginative at finding DNA evidence even when it isn’t really there. Unfortunately, for the convicted the certainty of a “1,000,000 to 1” match is all the jury needs to hear, even if it may be overstated by a factor of 100,000.

“But when a state lab reran the analysis of a DNA match from a murder case about to go to trial in Galveston, Texas, it discovered the numbers changed quite a bit. Under the old protocol, says defense lawyer Roberto Torres, DNA from the crime scene was matched to his client with a certainty of more than a million to one. That is, you’d have to go through more than a million people to find somebody else who’d match the sample. But when the lab did the analysis again with the new protocol, things looked very different. “When they retested it, the likelihood that it could be someone else was, I think, one in 30-something, one in 40. So it was a significant probability that it could be someone else,” Torres says.”

14)      HP, SanDisk partner to bring storage-class memory to market

It is looking increasingly likely HP is stepping away from memristor development, which is unfortunate because the technology has promise and HP has the resources to develop it. Besides, it was the one promising technology HP seemed to have a lead in. Perhaps that’s the problem: a potentially revolutionary technology has no place at HP. Sandisk’s future is uncertain due to consolidation within the semiconductor industry so this may be the end of memristor development by mainstream companies. I continue to believe the technology has promise.

“Hewlett-Packard and SanDisk today announced an agreement to jointly develop “Storage Class Memory” (SCM) that could replace DRAM and would be 1,000 times faster than NAND flash. The two companies will market their SCM products for use in enterprise cloud infrastructures based on HP’s memristor (a revolutionary form of resistor), which it has been developing for at least five years, and SanDisk’s ReRAM memory technology. The resulting non-volatile memory technology is expected to be up to 1,000 times faster while offering up to 1,000 times more endurance than flash storage, the companies said.”

15)      Advanced Nuclear Industry to Regulators: Give Us a Chance

I figure people 100 years from now will look back at the present and wonder why we stopped building nuclear reactors. Although disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima are pretty frightening, these were primitive systems designed decades ago. Modern reactor designs address almost all the issues exposed by earlier designs and yet the regulatory structure makes even building a prototype almost impossible. Something tells me “new nuclear” will take off in China before it does in the developed world.

“Under the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, one new nuclear plant has been approved and launched in the last 35 years. Yet there are now nearly 50 companies in the U.S. and Canada researching and developing advanced nuclear power technologies, according to Third Way, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization focused on energy, climate change, and national security. These companies are backed by more than $1.3 billion in private capital from individual investors like Bill Gates and from major venture capital funds (see “Experiments Start on a Meltdown-Proof Nuclear Reactor” and “Advanced Reactor Gets Closer to Reality”). … Many of these new entrants view the NRC’s prolonged and expensive licensing process as a barrier to innovation. It can take a decade or more, and hundreds of millions of dollars, just to get a license for a prototype reactor from the NRC.”

16)      How the NSA can break trillions of encrypted Web and VPN connections

I recall reading a book which explained that a big part of cracking the Enigma code was the predictability of German code clerks in the choice of greetings and “random” dial settings. It seems that this is a weakness being exploited by the NSA in breaking encrypted web traffic. Fixes are pretty simple (go with a longer code) and some might say it really doesn’t matter. The problem with weaknesses like this is that other countries have smart people as well. If the NSA figured it out you can rest assured the Russians and Chinese have as well.

“For years, privacy advocates have pushed developers of websites, virtual private network apps, and other cryptographic software to adopt the Diffie-Hellman cryptographic key exchange as a defense against surveillance from the US National Security Agency and other state-sponsored spies. Now, researchers are renewing their warning that a serious flaw in the way the key exchange is implemented is allowing the NSA to break and eavesdrop on trillions of encrypted connections. The cost for adversaries is by no means modest. For commonly used 1024-bit keys, it would take about a year and cost a “few hundred million dollars” to crack just one of the extremely large prime numbers that form the starting point of a Diffie-Hellman negotiation. But it turns out that only a few primes are commonly used, putting the price well within the NSA’s $11 billion-per-year budget dedicated to “groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities.””

17)      Watch Out, YouTube: Facebook Is Finally Building A Video Hub

A number of other video hubs have failed or become the living dead due most likely to the chicken and egg phenomenon: if there is little content, few people use it and if few people use it there is little incentive to upload content. One thing about Facebook is that they do have a powerful marketing channel and a lot of people seem to use them so they might have a chance, provided enough people can upload enough cat videos. However, what is working against them is the lack of anonymity: some degree of which can be desirable for many videos. On a side note it is worth understanding that because a growing portion of web traffic is streaming video less of it has to be stored on people’s computers or smartphones. The correlation between growth in web traffic and growth in mass storage (i.e. HDD shipments) is likely diverging.

“Facebook video is finally getting a home. Up to now, the social network has been content to let its users bump into video on the News Feed — serendipitously and targeted via algorithm — a strategy that has paid off exceedingly well, with people watching more four billion videos a day on Facebook. But YouTube remains the place to go for people actively looking for video to watch, and therefore, the Google property still remains the world’s top platform for video marketing. Today, Facebook announced a move that could start shrinking the gap. It is testing a dedicated hub for people looking to watch video on Facebook that will help “people discover, watch and share videos on Facebook that are relevant to them.” The test, rolling out first for a small number of people, will give people access to the video section via an icon at the bottom of the iPhone app or from the “Favorites” section on the left-hand side of the News Feed on the Web.”

18)      Affordable camera reveals hidden details invisible to the naked eye

I think $80 in cost – which would translate to a couple hundred at retail – is an awful lot to pay for a gizmo which tells you if an avocado is ripe. Nevertheless, there are probably industrial or medical applications for hyperspectral cameras so this might be cost effective for those applications.

“The team of computer science and electrical engineers developed HyperCam, a lower-cost hyperspectral camera that uses both visible and invisible near-infrared light to “see” beneath surfaces and capture unseen details. This type of camera is typically used in industrial applications and can cost between several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. In a paper presented at the UbiComp 2015 conference, the team detailed a hardware solution that costs roughly $800, or potentially as little as $50 to add to a mobile phone camera. They also developed intelligent software that easily finds “hidden” differences between what the hyperspectral camera captures and what can be seen with the naked eye.”

19)      UK’s first wristwatch phone that can track a child ANYWHERE in world set to be Christmas sellout

There is room for criticism of such a device but parents are protective and kids make mistakes and wander off. Being able to track a missing child is not the same as constant surveillance: kids go missing, and most are found, but they would be found sooner with this product.

“Britain’s first ever wristwatch that can track a child anywhere in the world is set to be a Christmas sellout. Launched today, the Spy Kids gadget allows children to talk into the watch face like secret agents and has a unique SOS button if they need help. The £79 Moochies For Kids device alerts parents if the child wanders off from an agreed play zone and has an SOS button to call help. Parents can also vet the 20 pre-agreed incoming calls. Co-designer Adrian Lisle, 36, said it would “put parents’ minds at rest”.”

20)      Walmart Takes Swipe At Amazon With Open Source Cloud

I would not worry about Walmart staying afloat however this is an interesting development. Walmart has some very advanced online systems and this is probably one of them. As the article notes by open sourcing OneOps Walmart may subvert vendor lock in – provided, of course, enough companies adopt it. Cloud services are like a race to the bottom in terms of pricing and margin and only vendor lock in provides any hope. Once a customer is in, it can cost them a lot to move out. We’ll see how this develops.

“One way in which Walmart is planning to stay afloat amidst intense competition, and to keep up to date with technology trends, is to crack open its OneOps cloud computing code so that anyone can use, effectively making it open source. OneOps is Walmart’s very own cloud platform, with the company claiming it changed the way its engineers developed and helped shaped how Walmart launched new products to customers.This week WalmartLabs said OneOps will be released to the world as open source, with the source code being uploaded to code repository GitHub by the end of the 2015. By making the cloud platform open source, Walmart is taking the fight to Amazon Web Services by giving developers a chance to avoid vendor lock-in, a situation in which companies are stuck to contracts and technologies supplied by one cloud provider.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 9th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 9th 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)          Facebook row: US data storage leaves users open to surveillance, court rules

It is only reasonable that EU courts should rule that US companies have to comply with EU law. Nevertheless, unless it has been changed US law demands US companies comply with requests for data no matter where that data is held, which is of course in conflict with this ruling so it is more likely than not Facebook et als will eventually find itself in court again. Either way, whatever the legality, various intelligence agencies almost certainly have complete access to whatever they want with the full cooperation of the companies gathering the data. What Snowden did was simply expose illegal behavior, he didn’t stop it.

“The personal data of Europeans held in America by online tech corporations is not safe from US government snooping, the European court of justice has ruled, in a landmark verdict that hits Facebook, Google, Amazon and many others. The Luxembourg-based court declared the EU-US “safe harbour” rules regulating firms’ retention of Europeans’ data in the US to be invalid, throwing a spoke into trade relations that will also impact on current negotiations on a far-reaching transatlantic trade pact between Washington and Brussels. The ECJ, whose findings are binding on all EU member states, ruled on Tuesday that: “The United States … scheme enables interference, by United States public authorities, with the fundamental rights of persons…””

2)          Half of Viewers Under 32 Won’t Pay for TV by 2025

I never pay for industry analyst research because most of the value is associated with their forecasts and a drunken sea slug is probably as accurate. I can believe that 50% of TV viewers will watch streaming video vs. cable or satellite, but that is not the same as not paying. Unless viewers are content with I Dream of Genie reruns, professional content will be in demand and that is expensive. I figure some form of disruption of the broadcast and distribution business models is coming, and I am not convinced Netlfix like services are the ultimate solution.

“In a forecast that should send a few more shivers down the spine of the pay TV industry, Forrester Research is predicting that 50% of all TV viewers under age 32 will not subscribe to a traditional pay TV service by 2025. Given that bleak-looking future, based on a survey of more than 55,000 U.S. adults, Forrester analyst James McQuivey suggests that providers must try new ways to connect with cord-cutter and cord-nevers and develop game plans on how to serve them down the road.”

3)          Sources: Apple Dumps VMware Licensing Agreement, Will Step Up Deployment Of Open-Source KVM Virtualization

It is hard to know whether this real or just a rumor. Companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and others use a lot of open source software so it’s not like the idea is foreign to them. However, from what I have read KVM requires a lot of hand holding and support as it is less mature than many other open source software. Of course, Apple has the resources to hire the people needed to support such a system as well as contribute to its development. It may be that VMware is approaching a turning point, or, perhaps, Apple is simply negotiating.

“KVM, short for kernel-based virtual machine, is emerging as a lower-cost alternative to VMware’s ESXi hypervisor. IBM, which inked a landmark enterprise mobility partnership with Apple last year, is a big proponent of KVM, as is Red Hat. Apple’s decision to use open-source KVM could save the company millions of dollars in licensing costs as its scales up its cloud infrastructure in the same manner as cloud computing behemoths like Amazon Web Services, Google and Facebook.”

4)          Why we can’t bring you back from the dead with a computer

I am really starting to lose patience with futurologists (see item 5). They seem to have a sort of Tourette syndrome where common of basic judgement intervenes to stop them from spouting nonsense about things they simply don’t understand. This article is a good takedown: we can’t simulate a nematode and we’ve known every nerve connection in its body for some time. How is it somebody can believe we’ll be downloading brains human brains which are at least 10 orders of magnitude more complex any time soon?

“In both industry and academia, it can be really easy to forget that the bleeding edge technology you study and promote can have a very real effect on very real people’s lives. Cancer patients, those with debilitating injuries that will drastically shorten their lives, and people whose genetics conspired to make their bodies fail them, are starting to make decisions based on the promises spread by the media on behalf of self-styled tech prophets. For years, I’ve been writing a lot of posts and articles explaining exactly why many of these promises are poorly formed ideas that lack the requisite understand of the problem they claim they understand how to solve. And it is still very much the case, as neuroscientist Michael Hendricks felt compelled to detail for MIT in response to the New York Times feature on whole brain emulation. His argument is a solid one, based on an actual attempt to emulate a brain we understand inside and out in an organism we have mapped from its skin down to the individual codon, the humble nematode worm.”

5)          Ray Kurzweil: In The 2030s, Nanobots In Our Brains Will Make Us ‘Godlike’

As noted in item 4, futurologists have no problem spouting off on whatever nonsense pops into their heads. The weird thing is, they seem to have a significant influence and furturology is a rampant online subculture. If you wrote stuff like this in a science fiction book, people would realize you are telling a story, not making a prediction. Unfortunately, most futurology is basically science fiction which people accept as real. Suffice it to say that until such a time as we can figure out how the brain works, make functioning robots, figure out how to make nanobots (which isn’t as easy as it sounds), etc., I wouldn’t worry about “godlike” humans by the 2030s.

“Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil predicts humans are going to develop emotions and characteristics of higher complexity as a result of connecting their brains to computers. “We’re going to be funnier. We’re going to be sexier. We’re going to be better at expressing loving sentiment,” Kurzweil said at a recent discussion at Singularity University. He is involved in developing artificial intelligence as a director of engineering at Google but was not speaking on behalf of the company. Kurzweil predicts that in the 2030s, human brains will be able to connect to the cloud, allowing us to send emails and photos directly to the brain and to back up our thoughts and memories. This will be possible, he says, via nanobots — tiny robots from DNA strands — swimming around in the capillaries of our brain. He sees the extension of our brain into predominantly nonbiological thinking as the next step in the evolution of humans — just as learning to use tools was for our ancestors.”

6)          Remember Your Old Graphing Calculator? It Still Costs a Fortune — Here’s Why

The education market is remarkable, especially in the US where, for the most part, teachers are poorly paid and overworked. However, as we noted on reporting on the LA iPad debacle/scam, when technology is concerned budgets appear unlimited. There is nothing brilliant about TI-83 calculator and, as the article notes, there’s an app for that. However, schools have rules and curricula and kids are forced to pay $100 for a calculator which should sell for about $20. I’m sure TI is happy though.

“This year, high school juniors and seniors will buy a $100 calculator that’s older than they are. You remember the TI-83: the brick-sized graphing machine you likely covered in stickers and used to send messages, spell out obscenities, play games and maybe do some math, if you were paying close enough attention. Some students today will be the second generation to use it. The TI-83 was released in 1996, when mobile phones had antennas and PCs were mostly used for word processing. In 1996, Google was born. It was also the year of the Palm Pilot and Hotmail. Microsoft Office ’97 debuted on a floppy disk. You could install the Internet on your computer with a CD from AOL. In fact, the TI-83 existed for half a decade before the iPod, which became smaller and more powerful for generations before it, too, became obsolete. The iPod made way for the smartphone, a computational powerhouse — the size of, well, a calculator — that is quickly taking over the world.”

7)          Gene-editing record smashed in pigs

Genetic therapy is a promising field however it’ll probably be years before it is mainstream given the risks. Fortunately, pigs do not have good lawyers so you can experiment all you want on them. The aim here is to produce a pig which has the antigens of a human, or at least not a pig, so their organs can be harvested for transplant. In other words, rather than waiting for somebody to die or be a live donor, and hoping that person is a match, scientists hope to produce pigs whose organs do not cause graft versus host disease, or perhaps a milder more manageable form.

“For decades, scientists and doctors have dreamed of creating a steady supply of human organs for transplantation by growing them in pigs. But concerns about rejection by the human immune system and infection by viruses embedded in the pig genome have stymied research. By modifying more than 60 genes from pig embryos — ten times more than have been edited in any other animal — researchers believe they may have produced a suitable non-human organ donor.”

8)          Facebook plans satellite ‘in 2016′

There has been lots of chatter about delivering Internet service with drones, balloons, or even low earth orbit satellites. The thing is, geostationary satellites have been around for ages and they are perfectly capable of delivering broadband, provided it isn’t raining. In fact, recent advances in technology suggest geostationary satellite bandwidth is posed to plummet in price. Ground stations are a bit complicated to set up, but it is the sort of thing which can be learned. So unlike drones, balloons, and leosats, this has a chance of actually working.

“In partnership with French-based provider Eutelsat, Facebook hope the first satellite will be launched in 2016.”We’re going to keep working to connect the entire world — even if that means looking beyond our planet,” Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post. The project is part of Facebook’s project, which has come under fierce criticism in some countries. In some areas, particularly India, businesses reacted angrily to the plans saying it gave Facebook, and its partners, an unfair advantage in developing internet markets.”

9)          Volvo says it will take the blame if one of its self-driving cars crashes

I used to own Volvos and that is why I am a reasonable competent mechanic: if you drive Volvos you have to be rich or a mechanic and I wasn’t rich. Hopefully their self-driving systems will be more reliable than their engine mounts, clutch cables, etc.. Well, one can dream. In any event, this is probably how things are going to go once the technology matures, though it almost certainly applies where the self-driving car is at fault and there is probably going to be all kinds of fine print.

“Ahead of a speech to be delivered in DC by Volvo Cars CEO Håkan Samuelsson on Thursday, the company has laid out its concerns about roadblocks to moving forward on self-driving tech in a press release. As has been frequently suggested by automakers and industry experts alike, Volvo thinks the biggest barriers are regulatory, not technological. Part of that slow-moving regulatory framework needs to capture how liability works in an autonomous world — who takes the blame when a car controlled by a computer gets into a crash? Volvo says in its statement that it “will accept full liability whenever one if its cars is in autonomous mode,” which is really, really big news — most of the conversation around autonomous liability has been in posing questions, not answering them, so having automakers take full responsibility could go a long way toward simplifying the rules of a self-driving road.

10)      Australian researchers make quantum computing breakthrough, paving way for world-first chip

This was variously reported as leading to quantum computers on our desktops shortly. Not exactly. Still, through a proprietary technique these researchers claim to have produced two qubits on a silicon substrate. Most likely, this is at cryogenic temperatures and it remains to be seen if anything can be done with these qubits and how long they maintain their quantum state.

“For decades scientists have been trying to turn quantum computing — which allows for multiple calculations to happen at once, making it immeasurably faster than standard computing — into a practical reality rather than a moonshot theory. Until now, they have largely relied on “exotic” materials to construct quantum computers, making them unsuitable for commercial production. But researchers at the University of New South Wales have patented a new design, published in the scientific journal Nature on Tuesday, created specifically with computer industry manufacturing standards in mind and using affordable silicon, which is found in regular computer chips like those we use every day in smartphones or tablets.”

11)      FAA seeks $1.9M fine against drone photography company

The drone fan base is characterizing the company as a victim here, though they seem to ignore allegations SkyPan ignored FAA demands to comply with the law. Regulatory fines are often reduced on appeal (they are more opening bids than fines) however the company deserves to have the book thrown at it for disregarding the law and putting the public at risk. Idiots with drones are going to kill people, just wait. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for bringing this story to my attention.

“Cracking down on commercial use of drones without a license, the US Federal Aviation Administration has proposed a $1.9 million fine for SkyPan International, a Chicago company that for 27 years has been using the unmanned aircraft for clients in the real estate business. “SkyPan conducted 65 unauthorized operations in some of our most congested airspace and heavily populated cities, violating airspace regulations and various operating rules,” the FAA said in a statement on Tuesday, a day before FAA Deputy Administrator Michael G. Whitaker is set to testify about drones in a hearing at the US House of Representatives. “These operations were illegal and not without risk.” The company, which has 30 days to respond to the allegation, said it did nothing wrong: “SkyPan has been conducting aerial photography above private property in urban areas for 27 years in full compliance with published FAA regulations. SkyPan is fully insured and proud of its impeccable record of protecting the public’s safety, security and privacy.””

12)      Commercial drones could require direct human oversight for years, FAA says

Those crazy folks at the FAA figure if you fly an aircraft by remote control you should be able to see it. It sort of makes sense because systems fail (which is why real aircraft have multiple redundancies) and it would be rather hard to fly back if you lost video. Even human pilots have to be specially qualified to fly a real airplane in poor visibility, bad weather, or at night so it is hard to believe the rules should be any different for remote controlled aircraft. Besides, we have seen that enough drone operators are irresponsible idiots that if the pilot can see the drone the police can see the pilot to arrest him.

“If you’re hoping Amazon will send the next George R R Martin novel to you by drone, you may have even longer to wait than you thought: the FAA estimates it will be three years before it has a framework for drone operators to fly the machines without direct human oversight. At a conference for commercial drone operators in Las Vegas on Wednesday morning, the US Federal Aviation Adminstration (FAA) told the drone industry its new rules for drones will be given to the White House by the end of the year, including some more relaxed policies for corporate drone users. At present anyone flying a commercial drone is only allowed to operate it if he can see it. For oil and gas companies, railroads, and even the forest service, relaxing the “line of sight” rules is a top priority. Each of them wants the ability to see where a rail is broken, how much oil has spilled, or the size of the forest fire as soon as possible, rather than send a human being into a potentially dangerous (or expensive) situation.”

13)      In China, Your Credit Score Is Now Affected By Your Political Opinions – And Your Friends’ Political Opinions

This is a sign of things to come as we enter the era of big data. It might appear to be civil rights abuse (assuming such things exist in all countries), but not necessarily. After all if the statistics say gamers are a greater credit risk or that the politically active tend not to pay their bills, so be it. Unfortunately, spurious correlations can also lead to ruined lives. There is a good chance that eventually Facebook and other data aggregators will do the same thing. After all why wouldn’t they?

“This Chinese credit score, which seemed innocent at first, was introduced this summer. More precisely, it was introduced by Alibaba and Tencent, China’s IT giants who run the Chinese equivalents of all social networks, and who therefore have any and all data about you. People can download an app named “Sesame Credit” from the Alibaba network, and the score has become something of a bragging contest, being interpreted as a kind of “citizen status” – and not entirely falsely so. Almost 100,000 people have posted their “status” online on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. … In China, the situation is… more nuanced. It’s not just that you have bought things, it’s also what you buy that contribute to your credit score, in either direction. If you’re buying things that the regime appreciates, like dishwashers and baby supplies, your credit score increases. If you’re buying videogames, your score takes a negative hit.”

14)      4K video shootout shows iPhone 6s outperforming $3k’s worth of Nikon DSLR

I am always amazed at how much people pay for Apple products. It sort of made some sense when the company offered products which were dramatically better than those offered by rivals but that hasn’t been the case for some time now. The answer, of course is marketing. I have no idea if the author of this article was paid or otherwise influenced by Apple – after all maybe he actually believes a sub $10 sensor/lens combination is, in fact, better than a $3,000 Nikon DSLR (or a $200 point and shoot for that matter). Who knows? What is truly remarkable is that people will believe this sort of thing.

“Fresh from showing how an iPhone 6s and a few cheap accessories can enable you to do a great photoshoot, Fstoppers’ Lee Morris has now put the iPhone 6s video capabilities up against a semi-pro Nikon D750 DSLR. The results are actually quite shocking, the iPhone 6s delivering much sharper results, as seen in the 200% zoom above and video below. There are a few riders, of course … First, as Morris notes, the footage was shot in ideal conditions: outdoors in bright light. This is the least-taxing environment for a camera. As I noted in my own camera tests, it’s a different story in low light. Second, he was using a Tamron lens rather than a Nikkor one. I’d have been really interested to see the same footage with the Nikkor 24-70/2.8. Third, the Nikon is of course far more capable in other ways, with selective focus via shallow depth of field heading the list.”

15)      Google tests mobile instant publishing service to rival Facebook, Apple

Having large datacenters doesn’t just save money for companies which run things on the cloud, they can also let you use your spare capacity to offer for free what other companies charge for. In this case, it appears Google is offering instant publishing at no charge while Facebook apparently makes publishers pay for this service. Google’s motives are obvious: if people look at news through Google, Google gets the ad revenue. Of course, lots of people use Facebook so they had the channel and the channel is pretty important.

“Google announced on Wednesday it is piloting a program called Accelerated Mobile Pages that allows users to search for news and pull up a host of articles from publishers instantly. But unlike Facebook’s Instant Articles, or Apple Inc’s Apple News, publishers do not pay Google to have their articles show up. “This is a deal-less environment,” Richard Gingras, head of news at Google, said at a media event announcing the program. Google, whose parent company is now Alphabet Inc, is currently piloting the program. Executives declined to say when it would be available for public use. Publishers have been struggling to get their Web-based content to load as seamlessly as it does inside their own apps. And adblockers, which allow users to block certain content, have made it increasingly important for news publishers to make their sites more user friendly and to ensure they do not have ads that take long to load or cause the content of the articles to reformat as the page loads.”

16)      Scandal Erupts in Unregulated World of Fantasy Sports

It is axiomatic than any unregulated system involving money degrades to fraud and theft (this is most evident with online gambling and Bitcoin). I confess I have no idea at all what fantasy sports are even though I’ve heard the advertisements. Based on the article, it seems players pick some sort of sports team, something happens, and somebody (apparently a small percentage of players) win. Enterprising employees apparently realized they had information other players did not and, better yet, they could use that information to play against customers. No doubt they will be disciplined but there is no reason to believe they will have to disgorge their ill-gotten gains. After all if it isn’t illegal, it’s legal.

“A major scandal is erupting in the multibillion-dollar industry of fantasy sports, the online and unregulated business in which players assemble their fantasy teams with real athletes. On Monday, the two major fantasy companies were forced to release statements defending their businesses’ integrity after what amounted to allegations of insider trading, that employees were placing bets using information not generally available to the public. The statements were released after an employee at DraftKings, one of the two major companies, admitted last week to inadvertently releasing data before the start of the third week of N.F.L. games. The employee, a midlevel content manager, won $350,000 at a rival site, FanDuel, that same week.”

17)      Porsche chooses Apple CarPlay because Google reportedly asks for too much data

I guess German car companies have different priorities from the rest of us: throttle position is verboten, gaming emissions tests is OK. I know a fair bit about cars and I am not really sure Google would have a competitive advantage knowing this information in the unlikely event it decided to build a car. After all, you could just rent a few Porches, take the measurements and you are done. Possibly the choice had more to do with marketing than anything else.

“Both Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto can turn regular vehicles into connected cars, but according to Porsche, one has a distinct advantage over the other. Motor Trend reports that the German car manufacturer went with Apple’s infotainment system over Google’s in its new 911 Carrera and 911 Carrera S because the Android Auto agreement demanded too much data be sent to the search giant. The publication says that Android Auto tracks variables including vehicle speed, throttle position, fluid temperatures, and engine revs, information that is collated and then sent back to Google. Apple’s CarPlay, on the other hand, only checks with the car’s powertrain control module to ensure that the vehicle is moving. Porsche was apparently unwilling to enter a deal that would send reams of information back to Google — partly, Motor Trend says, because the manufacturer thinks those details make its high-end autos special, and partly because Google itself is in the midst of building its own car.

18)      ‘Butt dials’ – a strain on US emergency systems

All mobile phones must be able to make emergency calls even when locked or not associated with a carrier. The rise of touch screens means it doesn’t take much to accidentally dial an emergency number and so a significant portion of 911 calls appear to be accidental. This leaves the 911 operator with the choice of assuming the call was a mistake and ignoring it or wasting valuable time trying to get somebody’s attention when their phone is in their pocket. Software could deal with the problem, of course, but that will probably require regulatory changes.

“In one sample session – when the researchers sat by the call handlers and noted down what was happening – they found 30% of calls coming in from mobiles were accidental butt-dials, also known as pocket-dials. As well as being time-consuming taking the call, the impact of butt-dials doesn’t stop there. Each one requires further attention – after all, the 911 handler doesn’t know if it was a mistake, or someone trying to call for help but unable to talk at that point. And so, all butt-dials are followed up. In the sample period, it took an average of one minute and 14 seconds to get back to people and determine the call was a mistake. In a survey of handlers at the San Francisco 911 centre, 80% said chasing these calls back was a time-consuming part of their already overstretched day. About 39% said it was the single biggest “pain point” they had in the job.”

19)      Apple Music Has Failed

The title is quite an overstatement: as the article suggests, the author doesn’t like Apple Music and it hasn’t improved in the way he’d like to see. It is possible that a large enough group of people are looking for exactly this type of service. Either way, it will only be in a few months as people decide to start paying for it, or notice they are being charged for something they forgot to cancel, before we know for sure.

“For many Apple users, October’s credit card statement will be the first that has a line on it for Apple Music. With the ninety-day free trial rolling over to a paid subscription, this is the key moment for Apple Music. Will people continue to stay subscribed to Apple’s model of a subscription music service? Has the service delivered enough value? Does it compare favourably to the current leading streaming players? Personally, the answer is no.”

20)      Tata Communications, MasterCard to financially empower 100 million women

As we have seen, mobile phones have made a significant impact to people’s lives in the developing world, however, as the article note women are underrepresented in that demographic. No doubt Tata and MasterCard are hopeful people will get hooked on paid services but that is a fair trade provided the result is an improved standard of living for all.

“Tata Communications and MasterCard have partnered to financially empower 25,000 women in developing economies like India, Nigeria, Indonesia and Guatemala and aim to take the number to 100 million by 2020. The global telecommunications and payments technology firms and their network of partners will realise this vision by taking a non-linear implementation approach, the two companies said in a joint statement. The companies have joined hands to bring their shared vision to life over the next five years through mobile platforms comprising a range of financial, health and education applications and services, it added. The programme will kick-off with pilot projects in India, Nigeria, Indonesia and Guatemala, targeting 25,000 women, serving as microcosms and replication of these microcosms will enable scale with a vision to reach 100 million women by 2020, it said.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 2nd 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 2nd 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)          Teslas Hit by 180% Danish Tax on Cars as Green Goals Ditched

What I find surprising about this article is the bias which Bloomberg, usually a pro-business publication, uses throughout. Face it: Teslas are toys for wealthy people (typical income over $300K) who typically own several vehicles and the “green” benefits of EVs are dubious at best. The Danish government is simply coming to its senses: why heavily subsidize toys for rich folk when the money can be applied to better use. It is noteworthy that in its current form Tesla is not viable without subsidies at the consumer and production (i.e. ZEV credits) and, like all parties, subsidies come to an end.

“Denmark will almost triple the price of Teslas as it phases out tax breaks on electric cars. The country will also make diesel vehicles more attractive by canceling a pollution levy, according to provisions in the 2016 budget draft. The government is defending the measures by saying they will help businesses save money and create more jobs. “Things have to be done with reason,” Finance Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen told reporters after the draft was unveiled in Copenhagen on Tuesday.”

2)          Preemie mortality cut in half by blocking light to IVs, review finds

This is a stunning result: reducing infant death by 50% by something as basic as keeping the IV fluids from being exposed to light. There is no downside to the approach so simply wrapping the bag and IV lines in tinfoil would cost next to nothing and be done immediately.

“Preemies’ survival rates improve when the light is blocked from reaching the IV nutritional mixture they need, a Canadian review finds. Researchers at the University of Montreal, Sainte-Justine Hospital in Montreal and the Children’s and Women’s Health Centre of BC in Vancouver have reviewed studies on parenteral nutrition — in this case, meaning it’s delivered by IV — on about 800 preterm infants. They were randomly assigned to receive light-exposed solution or light-shielded solution. “Mortality in the light-protected group was half of that in the light-exposed group,” Jean-Claude Lavoie of the University of Montreal and his co-authors reported in the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition.”

3)          UCI brain-computer interface enables paralyzed man to walk

There has been a lot of progress made in brain-computer interfaces and this has led to advances in a number of applications ( In this application, a paralysed man has been able to take a few steps, albeit with assistance, without mechanical prosthesis. Of course, this technology is in its early stages so it should improve rapidly – subject to the customary regulatory impediments.

“In the preliminary proof-of-concept study, led by UCI biomedical engineer Zoran Nenadic and neurologist An Do, a person with complete paralysis in both legs due to spinal cord injury was able – for the first time – to take steps without relying on manually controlled robotic limbs. The male participant, whose legs had been paralyzed for five years, walked along a 12-foot course using an electroencephalogram-based system that lets the brain bypass the spinal cord to send messages to the legs. It takes electrical signals from the subject’s brain, processes them through a computer algorithm, and fires them off to electrodes placed around the knees that trigger movement in the leg muscles.”

4)          Self-Driving Cars Could Save 300,000 Lives Per Decade in America

The introduction of self-driving will almost certainly have profound effects on the economy. Lives will be saved and injuries drastically reduced, which will hit the medical and rehabilitation businesses. Body shops should see fewer repairs and fewer cars will be written off due to collisions. These will also have an impact on the auto insurance industry. Unfortunately, true self driving cars are probably a decade or two away (though some are more optimistic see item 5). Nevertheless, auto-braking and adaptive cruise control are already on the market and bound to have much of the same impact and much sooner.

“By the end of this century, there’s good reason to believe that tens of millions of traffic fatalities will be prevented around the world. This is not merely theoretical. There’s already some precedent for change of this magnitude in the realms of car culture and automotive safety. In 1970, about 60,000 people died in traffic accidents in the United States. A dramatic shift toward safety—including required seat belts and ubiquitous airbags—helped vastly improve a person’s chance of surviving the American roadways in the decades that followed. By 2013, 32,719 people died in traffic crashes, a historic low. Researchers estimate that driverless cars could, by midcentury, reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90 percent. Which means that, using the number of fatalities in 2013 as a baseline, self-driving cars could save 29,447 lives a year. In the United States alone, that’s nearly 300,000 fatalities prevented over the course of a decade, and 1.5 million lives saved in a half-century. For context: Anti-smoking efforts saved 8 million lives in the United States over a 50-year period.”

5)          Driverless cars: closer and safer than you think

This article is more or less an overview of comments and observations from a conference but there are some useful nuggets. Despite the headline, there isn’t a lot of support for the 2017 date and I rather doubt a single commercially available driverless car will be on the road within the next 5 years. This is a 20 year technology with major technological, legal, and cost challenges to overcome.

“An ITF report said major car companies are planning on commercial production of driverless cars as soon as 2017 and the forum heard that major challenge looms over regulation of driverless cars. Conference delegates overwhelmingly felt that autonomous driving would happen, it was just a matter of when and how. “Most crashes involve human error. If greater autonomous operation reduces or eliminates these errors, then benefits for road safety may be substantial,” the report states.”

6)          Elon Musk Says Tesla Cars Will Reach 620 Miles On A Single Charge “Within A Year Or Two,” Be Fully Autonomous In “Three Years”

Can there be any safer prediction than breakthroughs in mature battery technology – especially coming from a master destroyer of capital who is in the heavily subsidized EV and now battery business? Ignore the fact that the much hyped, bizarrely featured Tesla Model X costs about $5,000 more than a similarly equipped model S ( despite the fact the battery is almost certainly the most expensive part. It also, somehow has less range than the model S. Perhaps the cost of batteries will stay the same for a year or two and then magically plummet, despite what all the actual battery experts believe.

“Asked, for example, when he thought the company could produce a car that can “break 1,000 kilometers” (or 620 miles) on a single charge, he said his guess would be “within a year or two,” adding, “2017 for sure.” As readers might recall, a new record was established last month by one enthusiastic Model S owner, who drove a painful 24-miles-per hour to make it a stunning 452.8 miles on a single charge. (The car is advertised as having a 265-mile range.) Musk didn’t elaborate on whether someone would need to drive just as slowly to reach 620 miles in 2017. We’d guess that’s not what he had in mind, though. Musk also said that self-driving Tesla cars are around the corner. Already, owners of Tesla’s Model S models are expecting a software update that will allow their cars to start driving themselves in a hands-free mode that Musk calls “auto pilot.” Musk told the Danish interviewer that the software is still being beta-tested and will “hopefully go into wide release next month.””

7)          Race for a New Grid Battery Hits a Speed Bump

Golly. Go figure: a revolutionary battery technology which doesn’t work as expected. Where have I heard that before? Who knows maybe Ambri will eventually solve its problems but this just goes to show that things do not always easily translate from the lab bench to the production line. Mature battery technology such as Lithium Ion benefit from the fact all these issues have been sorted out, which also means significant improvements are hard to come by.

“One of the most promising startups working on new types of grid-scale batteries, Ambri, has revealed disappointing test results for its novel technology, forcing it to lay off one-quarter of its staff in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and push back commercial deployment indefinitely. The problem, according to CEO Phil Giudice, is the seals that keep Ambri’s liquid electrodes enclosed. Ambri’s liquid-metal batteries are housed inside steel cans that must be hermetically sealed with materials that hold up for many years. Founded in 2011, the company has been working for the last couple of years on the sealant issue, and by early 2015 researchers were confident they’d come up with a solution. Testing over the summer, however, indicated that the seals had failed to achieve the required levels of performance. Now, says Giudice, it’s back to the lab.”

8)          Google Wants to Break Cable’s Grip Over Set-Top TV Control Box

I find it interesting that even financially well off people finance their purchase of, say, a mobile phone through their carrier when they would never finance the purchase of a TV. The same goes for things like PVRs: why rent if you can buy? The US cable industry has made it so consumers don’t have a choice and managed to rake in billions of dollars of high margin revenue as a result. Whether Google does it or somebody else, that is a situation primed for disruption.

“It’s an afterthought or even an object of scorn in some homes, and it costs TV viewers an estimated $232 per household each year. Now the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is considering breaking the grip cable and satellite-TV companies have over the set-top box. Supporters of the idea such as YouTube owner Google Inc. and independent set-top box maker TiVo Inc. say competition would lower costs and improve functionality of the devices — like combining subscription channels with Web streaming services such as Netflix Inc. into one remote control. “Decades ago we ended the practice of forcing customers to lease a black rotary dial phone from Ma Bell,” said Chip Pickering, chief executive officer of the Comptel trade group with members including Inc. and Netflix, which favors more competition. “The archaic practice of forced leasing a set-top box from the cable company is a holdover from a bygone era.” The cable industry, already reeling from the loss of subscribers to “cord cutters” who get their video over the Internet, is fighting the move. It makes an estimated $19.5 billion a year renting the boxes and mines them for valuable data on viewing habits.”

9)          Stem cell trial aims to cure blindness

The first version of this article claims the patient had had her blindness reversed by the procedure, but this much better article simply shows the transplant itself has been successful, which is a very good thing. Nevertheless, whether the implant has the desired effect is the important issue. We should know by year end.

“Prof Peter Coffey, of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, who is co-leading the London Project, said: “We won’t know until at least Christmas how good her vision is and how long that may be maintained, but we can see the cells are there under the retina where they should be and they appear to be healthy.” The cells being used form the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) – the layer of cells that nourish and support the photoreceptors in the macula – the seeing part of the eye. In macular degeneration, the RPE cells die, and as a result the eye loses function. Patients with AMD lose their central vision, which becomes distorted and blurred. The cells used in the operation were originally derived from a donated early embryo – smaller than a pinhead – which has the potential to become any cell in the body.”

10)      L.A. Unified to get $6.4 million in settlement over iPad software

Talk about burying the lede – a $6.4 million dollar settlement from a $1.3 billion dollar fiasco. Long story short, possible as a consequence of corruption (the FBI investigation is ongoing) the L.A. school board decided giving very expensive iPads to children would be a good idea. Of course this reasoning assumed the curriculum would actually be ready, teachers knew how to use the devices, etc.. Funny thing is none of that actually happened and taxpayers got less than a penny on the dollar in compensation.

“The Los Angeles Unified School District has reached a tentative $6.4-million settlement over curriculum from education software giant Pearson that the school system said its teachers barely used. The pact is the latest fallout from an aborted $1.3-billion plan to provide an iPad to every student, teacher and campus administrator in the nation’s second-largest school district. The Board of Education is expected to vote on the settlement in October. The bidding process that led to the original contract is the subject of an FBI investigation. Under that contract, Apple agreed to provide iPads to L.A. Unified while Pearson provided curriculum on the devices as a subcontractor. As a result, the settlement was with Apple, even though the dispute concerned the Pearson product.”

11)      Google Ads Boss: ‘We Need to Deal With’ Ad Blocking as an Industry

I’ve been an avid user of ad block software since I discovered it. Use of ad block is rising, Apple has enabled it in its latest OS (don’t expect that feature to appear on Android) and, almost in response the ad industry is using more and more bandwidth (see items 12 and 13) to push its garbage and malware on people who are less and less interested. This is rather important if you are in the business of selling ads on the Internet as Google is. What can be done about it is anybody’s guess.

“Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s top advertising executive, thinks crappy ad experiences are behind the uptick in ad-blocking tools, and that Google, along with the advertising and publishing industries, is obliged to come up with a fix. His statements, delivered at Advertising Week in New York, mark the search giant’s first public comments on the practice since Apple opened its Safari mobile browser to content-blocking apps two weeks ago, spurring a wave of new popular ad-blocking apps. Ramaswamy fingered websites that give a “pretty terrible user experience,” citing ads that take over entire sites, for the rise in the trend.”

12)      Mobile Operator Digicel Will Block Advertising Across Its Network

This touches on the issue of net neutrality, which is something carriers would love to subvert. Net neutrality forces carriers to treat all traffic the same and that means ad traffic as well as content. Fundamentally subscribers pay for bandwidth, content providers pay for bandwidth, and net neutrality ensures shakedowns like this do not occur. Of course, it may be that net neutrality is not law in the Caribbean, and there are efforts afoot to derail it elsewhere.

“Who needs an ad-blocking app when your telecom operator will prevent ads from reaching your mobile device? Wireless operator Digicel will soon begin blocking online advertising from traveling across its networks in the Caribbean and South Pacific, the company announced Wednesday. German telecommunications group Deutsche Telekom is also considering blocking advertising on its networks, a person familiar with the matter said. Jamaica-based Digicel said online advertising companies such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo will now be required to pay to deliver ads to its subscribers, or can expect to have them blocked.”

13)      The Cost of Mobile Ads on 50 News Websites

This provides another motivation for ad blocking ads: cost you money! Obviously the choice of website matters, but some sites goggle up more than half of your bandwidth in ads. This is not a situation which has escaped the notice of mobile network operators (see item 12).

“The amount of data each website uses can vary. To get these figures, we loaded each home page on an iPhone 6 at least five times over two days and repeated the test with an ad blocker enabled. The difference was easy to spot: many websites loaded faster and felt easier to use. Data is also expensive. We estimated that on an average American cell data plan, each megabyte downloaded over a cell network costs about a penny. Visiting the home page of every day for a month would cost the equivalent of about $9.50 in data usage just for the ads.”

14)      Freevolt: Perpetual, free RF energy harvesting to power the Internet of Things

Energy for nothing and your packets for free. Back in the day there were scams revolving around “free energy” and these have become somewhat more evolved. Of course there is nothing fraudulent about selling a device which extracts power from radio waves – this is exactly how the old crystal radios used to work. The thing is, you are extracting a negligible amount of power, the gizmo isn’t free, and the energy isn’t free either. That power comes from the transmitter, and power you extract is power which doesn’t get to a receiver. There is no free lunch. Besides, a long life battery would provide as much power at a fraction the size and cost. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this link.

“Overall, the white paper says that the “average RF density measured in an office or external environment ranges from 20 to 35nW/cm2.” After you’ve factored in losses from the rectifier and elsewhere in the system, usable power is probably less than half that figure. You can get more power by increasing the size of the antenna (Lord Drayson said they had looked at embedding huge energy harvesters in the walls of buildings), but for most consumer-oriented devices (sensors, smart home dongles, etc.) there won’t be more than a few hundred nanowatts available. At the unveiling today, Lord Drayson showed a Freevolt unit that simply lit up a blue LED every time it had harvested enough power to do so. At the start of the event, he asked us all to put our devices in Airplane Mode; later, after he’d asked us to turn our devices back on, the blue LED was pulsating much more quickly. (Still, it’s worth noting that an LED requires a really small amount of power to turn on.)”

15)      Amazon to Stop Selling Apple TV and Chromecast

I guess Walmart has no obligation to carry Best Buy stuff and vice versa, and it is hard to pick sides when titans squabble. It is hard to believe Chromecast or Apple TV sales will be much impacted by this move, however, you have to wonder what would happen if, say, Google started blocking searches for Amazon TV. Market power swings both ways.

“Amazon said on Thursday that it would stop selling devices from Apple and Google that compete with its own streaming media players, escalating the entertainment battle between the major tech companies. Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast are popular items in Amazon’s electronics store. But the devices are in a brawl for market share with Amazon’s Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, which were introduced in 2014. The Fire Stick delivers Amazon’s rapidly expanding video offerings to its customers. Apple TV and Chromecast do not. Amazon’s move to ban competitors is not a retailing gambit. In fact, the company is willing to risk annoying customers who cannot get what they want because it is pursuing a much bigger prize. The stick is crucial to Amazon’s ambitions to move from being just a retailer to a multifaceted provider of everything virtual and physical.”

16)      Microsoft and Google resolve long-running patent fight over phones and Xbox

Unfortunately the financial details have not been disclosed, which is standard practice in patent settlements. On the one hand, Microsoft makes billions off its dubious patent claims on Android, but it typically shakes down phone vendors, not Google, for that. On the other hand, it looks likely Google has made some financial return on its purchase then quick resale of Motorola while keeping Motorola’s IP portfolio.

“Microsoft and Google have decided to end their ongoing patent wars, agreeing to dismiss all outstanding patent lawsuits before courts in the US and elsewhere. Both companies said Wednesday that they had agreed to dismiss around 20 patent lawsuits brought to court over the past five years over royalties for patents related to smartphones, Wi-Fi and Web video protocols. The companies did not disclose the exact terms of the agreement, however they did say that they had agreed to join forces on patent matters and that they would likely work together in other areas in the future to benefit customers. The companies declined to elaborate on what that collaboration entails.”

17)      5D ‘Superman memory crystal’ heralds unlimited lifetime data storage

This is an interesting technology but there are several “gotchas”. As the article notes, writing takes place at kilobytes per second, and if you do the bath than means it would take a billion seconds (about 32 years) to write a terabyte, though they hope to speed that up soon. Then the question becomes one of formats: one challenge with archival storage is finding the gear and software to read it back. Not a big deal for print or film, but a major challenge for outdated formats such as magnetic tape.

“Data written to a glass “memory crystal” could remain intact for a million years, according to scientists from the UK and the Netherlands who have demonstrated the technology for the first time. The data-storage technique uses a laser to alter the optical properties of fused quartz at the nanoscale. The researchers say it has the potential to store a staggering 360 terabytes of data (equivalent to 75,000 DVDs) on a standard-sized disc.”

18)      Every Android device is vulnerable to newly discovered bugs

I have been thinking a lot about the importance of computer security to the Internet of Things (IoT). If you think about it, IoT vendors are most likely not security experts, nor are they likely to have the resources or interest to ensure security. Yet every week we read of major hacks, security breaches, and vulnerabilities associated with players with the expertise and the resources to ensure security. You really have to wonder if a secure platform is even possible.

“Two major vulnerabilities have been discovered in Google’s Android mobile software by the same security company that found a whole series of dangerous bugs earlier this year. Several of the bugs discovered by the security researchers pose a danger to every active Android device out there. The two new bugs, which can expose people with Android-powered smartphones and tablets to attacks by malicious hackers, are the latest in a “library” of vulnerabilities that have come to be known as Stagefright. Zimperium zLabs initially discovered this class of vulnerabilities in April, but has now found the problem is broader than originally thought.”

19)      Windows 10 growth slows, but breaks 100M device mark

Microsoft continues in its efforts to erase the debacle of Windows 8 from the planet. I just upgraded my Windows 7 desktop after a few unsuccessful attempts which led me to adjust the partitions on my hard disk drive. I can’t say how common those issues are but I have heard from people who faced serious problems as a result of the upgrade. Nevertheless, I expect Windows 10 will be judged a success and eventually lead to a minor PC upgrade cycle.

“Windows 10’s user share growth slowed significantly in September, but by the month’s end approximately 110 million customers were running the new OS, data released today signaled. According to U.S. analytics company Net Applications, Windows 10’s user share — a measure of the fraction of unique users who ran the OS when they went online — grew 1.4 percentage points in September to 6.6%. Microsoft launched Windows 10 on July 29, making September the second full month that the upgrade for Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 devices was available to download and install.”

20)      Watching this robot fail at building IKEA furniture will make you feel better about yourself

It’s a funny thought and maybe a funny video, but it sort of misses the point. I don’t find anything challenging about assembling IKEA furniture and these robot researchers are using a vision systems to try and complete a task which humans do using tactile feedback. You can stick dowels in holes with your eyes closed – at least once you find the hole – and all your eyes do is help you find the hole. It might be that to a hammer everything looks like a nail so to a vision specialist everything looks like a vision problem. Remember this when people predict robotic servants in the near future.

“If you’ve struggled to put together IKEA furniture armed with nothing more than a prayer and a picture book, this will make you feel better. Not only are you not alone, but even machines can’t do it any better than you can. A new effort spearheaded by Francisco Suárez-Ruiz and Quang-Cuong Pham of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore shows that even robots, who in addition to their own fine motor skills, were developed by individuals with some serious engineering degrees, struggle with constructing IKEA furniture. IKEA, let this be a lesson to you — literally no one knows what you’re asking us to do.”