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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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 (http://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/brain-implant-typing/). 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 (http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/215301-tesla-launches-stunning-model-x-suv-one-year-backlog-for-new-orders) 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 Amazon.com 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 Boston.com 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.”