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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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 (http://www.itassetmanagement.net/2015/03/20/alternatives-to-oracle-database/). 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, Bild.de. 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.”