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.”

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