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

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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.”

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