The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 27th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 27th 2015


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

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

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

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

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

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe



1)          Moore’s law and the productivity paradox

The productivity paradox is observation that investment in computer technology leads to lower productivity. On the face of it I don’t see the problem: quality of life is the best it has ever been and virtually every part of a modern economy exploits computing technology. This may simply be correlation, but it is almost certainly causation. Perhaps economists are measuring the wrong things, or maybe the fact that technology is almost by definition deflationary is somehow an import aspect of the purported paradox.

“It’s a fascinating topic that happens to animate a significant portion of my new paper on the 50th anniversary of Moore’s law, which surveys the past and prospects of exponential computer trends. While I don’t address the macroeconomic factors or implications, I do look at the mismeasurement question, pointing toward Steve Oliner’s good work on microprocessor prices as a prime example of what is likely a much more pervasive and multifaceted measurement challenge. It turns out, for example, that the price of computer power, as measured by the producer price index, might be overstated by a factor of 27.”

2)          Apple Will Switch To OLED For iPhone Displays: Report

This rumor sort of shows what Apple has become: if true, the iPhone 8 may have the same display technology companies like Samsung and LG (as well as numerous other firms) have today. The real implications are even more disturbing: if true, in 2018 we’ll see all kinds of ads and articles (which are mostly ads) trumpeting how Apple is the first to bring OLED to market, and how Apple’s new display is the best display anybody has ever seen. Perhaps by then the rest of the market will be on to quantum dot displays …

“Apple will adopt organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays on iPhones starting in 2018, according to a Japan-based report. Apple will make the switch from liquid crystal display (LCD) technology, currently used on iPhones, to OLED, leaning on manufacturers such as LG Display, according to a report from Nikkei. (Nikkei Asian Review report here.) If accurate, Apple would be following companies like Samsung and LG that already use OLED widely on their phones as well as other products.”

3)          Li-Fi has just been tested in the real world, and it’s 100 times faster than Wi-Fi

This is obviously a line of sight technology and smartphones in particular tend to not be held in plain sight all the time so you would lose your mail, etc., when your phone was in your pocket. Also, wiring isn’t going to be inexpensive: each LiFi node will require a broadband link + power. Unlike WiFi, which goes through walls, you’ll need a lot of LiFi access points. Cat-6 wiring isn’t cheap even when your home has been set up for it as mine has, and retrofitting ceiling connections can be very challenging, even in offices with suspended ceilings.

“Expect to hear a whole lot more about Li-Fi – a wireless technology that transmits high-speed data using visible light communication (VLC) – in the coming months. With scientists achieving speeds of 224 gigabits per second in the lab using Li-Fi earlier this year, the potential for this technology to change everything about the way we use the Internet is huge. And now, scientists have taken Li-Fi out of the lab for the first time, trialling it in offices and industrial environments in Tallinn, Estonia, reporting that they can achieve data transmission at 1 GB per second – that’s 100 times faster than current average Wi-Fi speeds.”

4)          University of Glasgow researchers make graphene production breakthrough

As near as I can tell what these researchers have done is move graphene production from copper plates to copper foil, and since copper foil has a fraction of the thickness of plates, it costs a lot less. The article does not explain why the cost of the copper is so important since this would be capital cost, not production cost unless the copper is somehow used up. Perhaps a “web” based production scheme like they use to make paper is the next big leap.

“Researchers at the University of Glasgow have now found a way to produce large sheets of graphene using the same cheap type of copper used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries found in many household devices. In a new paper published today (Wednesday 18 November) in the journal Scientific Reports, a team led by Dr Ravinder Dahiya explain how they have been able to produce large-area graphene around 100 times cheaper than ever before. Graphene is often produced by a process known as chemical vapour deposition, or CVD, which turns gaseous reactants into a film of graphene on a special surface known as a substrate.”

5)          India’s poverty rate falls to 12.4%, electricity plays big role

This is an interesting overview of the effect of technology on standards of living. Of course, those of us in the developed world don’t consider electricity to be technology but it was when our grandparents first had access to it. As this study suggests, even limited access to electricity even part of the day has a measurable impact on the lives of the poor. Even if a particular family lacks direct access to electricity local vendors can offer charging stations for portable gadgets such as mobile phones and availability of electricity makes the deployment of mobile services much more cost effective.

“The World Bank said improved infrastructure, specifically rural electrification, has had far-ranging effects, changed earnings, consumption and even encouraged schooling for girls. “Rural electrification in India has caused changes in consumption and earnings, with increases in the labour supply of both men and women, and promoted girls’ schooling by reallocating their time to tasks more conducive to school attendance,” said the Bank. “Investment in integration and connectedness through railroads in India helped reduce the exposure of agricultural prices and real income to rainfall shocks, and helped diminish the famine and mortality risks associated with recurrent weather shocks.””

6)          Don’t forget plankton in climate change models, says study

I chuckled when I read this article and I can almost see the authors being shunned at drink ups. The conclusion is pretty much what you would expect: life is resilient and plants and critters which have been around for hundreds of millions of years are not likely to be prone to extinction due to shifts in their environment. In this particular case, they adapted to a rise in temperature within 45 days, or less than the lifespan of most of the animals which eat them. The thing to remember with phytoplankton is that many of them sink to the bottom of the ocean when they die, removing carbon from the environment for thousands or millions of years. It is basically a carbon sequestration scheme on a massive scale, but, unlike most industrial efforts, it actually works.

“A new study from the University of Exeter, published in the journal Ecology Letters, found that phytoplankton – microscopic water-borne plants – can rapidly evolve tolerance to elevated water temperatures. Globally, phytoplankton absorb as much carbon dioxide as tropical rainforests and so understanding the way they respond to a warming climate is crucial. Phytoplankton subjected to warmed water initially failed to thrive but it took only 45 days, or 100 generations, for them to evolve tolerance to temperatures expected by the end of the century. With their newfound tolerance came an increase in the efficiency in which they were able to convert carbon dioxide into new biomass.”

7)          Tesla accused of trying to circumvent Danish tax

I came across this item while reading an article on Der Spiegel about how Kia was gaming German environmental laws with EVs sales (no – I don’t read German I used Google translate). This is not at all surprising as EV sales exist because of politically motivated subsidies, tax credits, etc., and not because they are particularly good for the environment, especially when put into context with alternative uses of tax money. As we reported earlier, the Danish government has rethought its position on the matter and decided subsidizing EVs for rich people might not be the best use of taxpayer money. Predictably, Tesla appears to have decided to game the situation and registered a number of vehicles prior to the tax change. This, of course, raises the question of how this “sale” is treated – since Tesla claims not to have inventory the cars cannot exist, and yet, if they are registered will those fictitious sales make it into their quarterly results?

“The registration of 2,500 luxury electric cars over the past few weeks has led Tax Minister Karsten Lauritzen to suspect extensive tax fraud by electric car manufacturer Tesla. Speaking to DR, the minister said that “2,500 electric cars, most likely Teslas, have been registered, and it seems that it is a circumvention of the tax exemption on electric cars”. Lauritzen announced last month that Denmark will be phasing out its tax credit on electric cars, which exempts the environmentally-friendly vehicles from the nation’s 180 percent car registration levy. As a result, the costs of some popular electric models will skyrocket. The hardest hit will be the luxury model Tesla S P85D, which will more than double in price from 875,000 kroner today to 1,807,100 kroner in 2020.”

8)          Self-Driving Cars: A Coming Congestion Disaster?

Leave it to the environmental movement to find a negative in every technological advance. The theory here is that people who own self-driving cars will be complete idiots so imagine the problems that will cause! Forget about the lives save from few collisions or the greater quality of life for the aged and infirm, somebody might have his car orbit his location because it can’t find parking!

“A suburban father rides his driverless car to work, maybe dropping his daughter off at school. But rather than park the car downtown, he simply tells it to drive back home to his house in the suburbs. During the day, it runs some other errands for his family. At 3 pm, it goes to the school to bring his daughter home or chauffeur her to after-school activities. Then it’s time for it to drive back into the city to pick up Dad from work. But then, on a lark, Dad decides to go shopping at a downtown department store after work, so he tells his car to just circle the block for an hour while he shops, before finally hailing it to go home.”

9)          Are mini-nuclear reactors the answer to the climate change crisis?

The answer is “nuclear power, in general is an ideal source of clean power and it is a pity people’s fears of the technology are based on experiences associated with antique first generation power plants.” Unfortunately, radical pseudo-environmentalism has opposed nuclear power at every opportunity and have exploited those few failures to terrify people. Current reactor designs are to Chernobyl and Fukushima as modern airliners are to pre-WWII aircraft and it is anti-nuclear propaganda which keeps extending the lives of old generation reactors and restricting adoption of new, safe designs. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“Small modular reactors (SMRs) aim to capture the advantages of nuclear power – always-on, low-carbon energy – while avoiding the problems, principally the vast cost and time taken to build huge plants. Current plants, such as the planned French-Chinese Hinkley Point project in Somerset, have to be built on-site, a task likened to “building a cathedral within a cathedral”. Instead, SMRs, would be turned out by the dozen in a factory, then transported to sites and plugged in, making them – in theory – cheaper. Companies around the world, including in Russia, South Korea and Argentina, are now trying to turn that theory into practice and many are looking at the nuclear-friendly UK as the place to make it happen.”

10)      Uber-pressed London black cabs will finally accept cards, from late next year

I don’t consider Uber to be a technology company however I am an avid user of their service especially in cities where cabs are scarce and unreliable. Given the preparation London cabbies require to pass “the knowledge” I can see why they consider competition from some guy with a GPS unfair. Either way, it seems pretty silly that it took the rise of Uber to change this basic feature of the black cab service. As you might expect, it won’t happen soon and customers will be required to pay for it through increased fares. It sort of shows you how out of touch and uncompetitive the cab industry is in London.

“It has taken the massive pressure of Uber’s popularity in the capital to bring about a fundamental change in London’s black cabs that most of us believed should have taken place sometime in the 1990s, at latest – but in any case, from next year, increasingly cashless Londoners will finally be able to pay black cab taxi fares by credit or debit cards, including contactless payment and the possibility of paying for journeys via PayPal. However Transport for London’s announcement also reveals that the expense of bringing London’s fleet of 21,000 licensed Hackney carriages all the way up to the 20th century will put 20p on the minimum fare chargeable, which will rise from its current £2.40 to £2.60. Notwithstanding this buffer to black cab income, TFL has succeeded in negotiating a reduction in credit card transaction fees for this scheme, to three per cent or less, rather than a ceiling of ten per cent.”

11)      ‘Outsiders’ Crack 50-Year-Old Math Problem

Maths has become incredibly esoteric, as most mathematicians will admit. This particular problem appears to have significant real world applications and yet has defied solution until now. It is remarkable that an outsider was able to solve the problem, but that might reflect one of problems in math itself: as the field gets more and more advanced, the experts become more and more specialized and therefore their approach problems is constrained whereas an outsider can approach the question from an entirely different perspective and make progress. Of course, this is a rare outcome.

“In 2008, Daniel Spielman told his Yale University colleague Gil Kalai about a computer science problem he was working on, concerning how to “sparsify” a network so that it has fewer connections between nodes but still preserves the essential features of the original network. Network sparsification has applications in data compression and efficient computation, but Spielman’s particular problem suggested something different to Kalai. It seemed connected to the famous Kadison-Singer problem, a question about the foundations of quantum physics that had remained unsolved for almost 50 years. Over the decades, the Kadison-Singer problem had wormed its way into a dozen distant areas of mathematics and engineering, but no one seemed to be able to crack it. The question “defied the best efforts of some of the most talented mathematicians of the last 50 years,” wrote Peter Casazza and Janet Tremain of the University of Missouri in Columbia, in a 2014 survey article.”

12)      Axel Springer Goes After iOS 9 Ad Blockers In New Legal Battle

Talk about tilting and windmills. Besides embarrassing themselves, it is hard to imagine they can convince anybody, let alone a judge, that they have a working legal theory for their position. To begin with, ads are almost always inserted by third parties (i.e. Google) without any input from the publication so it is hard to believe the publication can claim some sort of freedom of expression – in other words, can you argue freedom of expression by proxy? Similarly, there has been no mechanism found to force people to look at ads in print: I typically discard all advertising inserts, plus advertorial content (sports, travel, home) sections of a newspaper before I even look at the first page. Should I be fined?

“German media giant Axel Springer, which operates top European newspapers like Bild and Die Welt, and who recently bought a controlling stake in Business Insider for $343 million, has a history of fighting back against ad-blocking software that threatens its publications’ business models. Now, it’s taking that fight to mobile ad blockers, too. According to the makers of the iOS content blocker dubbed “Blockr,” which is one of several new iOS 9 applications that allow users to block ads and other content that slows down web browsing, Axel Springer’s WELTN24 subsidiary took them to court in an attempt to stop the development and distribution of the Blockr software. Specifically, explains the law firm representing Blockr, Axel Springer wanted to prohibit Blockr’s developers from being able to “offer, advertise, maintain and distribute the service” which can be used today to block ads on, including the website’s mobile version.”

13)      Yahoo Mail Tried to Block Ad Blockers, And it Might Have Backfired

I was shocked to find out that people still use Yahoo for things and doubly shocked to discover people still use webmail. After all, almost any mail client will allow you to access webmail without using the web interface. In any event, this was supposed to have been an experiment, but it probably became an experiment when people pushed back against the effort. It sort of shows how out of touch Yahoo is: anybody using an adblocker is almost certainly sophisticated enough to use a different mail provider. Regardless, you don’t make money by showing ads on your mail web page: you make money by reading people’s emails and pushing ads at them (they aren’t spam, really) through their mail client.

“Some people who logged into their Yahoo Mail accounts last week were greeted with an ultimatum: “Please disable Ad Blocker to continue using Yahoo Mail.” These users were unable to access their email accounts until they turned off their ad blockers or found a workaround for the problem. The message is not a new policy, but was part of a trial, a Yahoo spokesman told Engadget over the weekend. A “small number” of Yahoo Mail users were prevented from accessing their email accounts because Yahoo detected they had an ad blocker installed on their computer. The message was most likely a result from an A/B test, a technique in which technology companies push changes to a small number of people to gauge user reaction before deploying them widely.”

14)      Raspberry Pi Zero $5 computer unveiled

This may be a bit too much “inside baseball” for some readers but it shows the price of things. Hardly a day goes by when somebody doesn’t ask me about the “huge” opportunity in Internet of Things (IoT). Well, in theory, there are lots of things it would be nice to connect to the Internet if it weren’t for the massive security risk (see item 15) and set up challenges however the dollars aren’t going to be there. This is a full up IoT style computer, on a PCB, for $5 – except for the fact it lacks an actual direct connection to the Internet. My point is simply that while the potential unit sales of IoT devices is high, the actual dollar contribution is going to be quite modest.

“Buying the cheapest computer in the world is now cheaper than buying your lunch. The Raspberry Pi Zero is on sale for $5 US ($6.65 Cdn) from the U.K.-based Raspberry Pi Foundation. The educational charity’s goal is to get children more interested in programming by giving them a cheap, simple computer so they can experiment.”

15)      More than 900 embedded devices share hard-coded certs, SSH host keys

One of the major challenges of Internet of Things (IoT) will surely be security. As this article suggests, embedded device manufacturers appear to be lax with respect to their use of SSH host keys which makes their respective devices highly vulnerable to hacking. The list includes the names of numerous well known tech companies so you can just imagine what assort of security a thermostat company is going to use. The risk is not that some hacker in Poland changes your thermostat setting it is that he/she downloads malware which sits inside your network and monitors traffic for banking information, passwords, etc.

“Embedded devices of some 50 manufacturers has been found sharing the same hard-coded X.509 certificates (for HTTPS) and SSH host keys, a fact that can be exploited by a remote, unauthenticated attacker to carry out impersonation, man-in-the-middle, or passive decryption attacks, Carnegie Mellon University’s CERT/CC warns. Stefan Viehböck, Senior Security Consultant at SEC Consult, has analyzed firmware images of more than 4000 embedded devices of over 70 vendors – firmware of routers, IP cameras, VoIP phones, modems, etc. – and found that, in some cases, there are nearly half a million devices on the web using the same certificate.”

16)      New study spills doubt on some fingerprick blood tests

You might recall Theranos, a company which claims to be able to do a suite of blood tests from a single drop of blood. The company’s claims had been widely questioned in academic circles but it still managed to raise a pile of money from venture capitalists. This article looks at the challenge associated with using a small volume of capillary blood for certain tests. It sort of makes sense that there would be variability: even on a statistical level a larger volume is bound to be more representative than a smaller amount and the tiny cross section of capillaries is probably going to result in some other distortions. One other issue would be contamination: a small amount of debris on the skin is going to be much more significant in a drop of blood than in a millilitre.

“Swings were the problem in the study led by Richards-Kortum. She and her colleague Meaghan Bond drew blood from 11 healthy donors and used successive finger droplets for a handful of tests, including ones that measured hemoglobin and white blood cells. At first, the researchers thought maybe their equipment was off. But after testing the samples further, diluting them into larger volumes of liquid and comparing results with venous samples as controls, the researchers found that the droplets themselves varied. The results are not shocking, Clarke said. The study only looked at relatively big, cell-based blood components, he noted, which may drain out differently depending on blood flow. And, he noted, some other tests using blood drops, such as glucose, have been worked out and are accurate. But, he added, the study offers a good reminder that diagnostic developers need to be careful.”

17)      Ransomware on Your TV, Get Ready, It’s Coming

This article outlines a potential threat which has not been seen in the wild but you can be sure it is coming down the pipe. The idea is that you download an app onto your smart TV and the TV is shut down until you pay “ransom”. A similar type of malware has been seen in PCs and smartphones so it is certainly not beyond the realm of reason hackers will move onto other platforms. The real problem with malware on TVs is that it is very hard to remove – after all these things have the user interface of a TV, not a smartphone.

“Many cyber-security vendors view ransomware as 2016’s biggest threat, and to help drive this point home, a Symantec security researcher demonstrated how easy it can be to infect smart TVs and how hard it can be to clean the infection afterwards. The researcher did not reveal the TV’s make and model but said it was running a modified version of Google’s Android operating system, which many brands also use for their smart TV products. To infect his TV, Symantec’s Candid Wueest used a common ransomware family that targets Android devices. This ransomware shows an annoying ransom note every few seconds, overlaying the message on top of the screen, making the device inoperable.”

18)      3D printing can recreate your vascular system for pre-op practice

This is another very cool medical application of 3D printing, or dangerous weaknesses in blood vessel walls. Where possible, surgeons try to use a catheter to place a medical device to reinforce the vessel so it doesn’t burst. The challenge is that surgeons have to navigate a complex 3 dimensional maze to find the right spot for the reinforcing device and you can’t exactly do “trial and error” to get the thing in place. This approach allows the surgeons to practice and even determine if this is the correct approach. I can’t help but wonder if eventually they’ll steer the catheter based on the 3D model and a robot will replicate the movements in the patient.

“Aneurysms, which are tiny blood-filled bulges in the wall of a blood vessel, are responsible for nearly 500,000 deaths a year worldwide when they burst before being treated. Part of the problem in treating them, particularly brain aneurysms, is that they’re located among a complex maze of vessels that can be difficult to navigate even with the most modern technology. With that in mind, physicians and researchers in Buffalo have worked with 3D printer maker Stratasys to develop a method of printing out a patient’s complete vascular system in just 24 hours in order to practice navigating it prior to actual surgery.”

19)      A Shocking Way to Fix the Brain

Even the recent history of medicine is full of treatments which sounded very promising but which turned out to be less effective and more dangerous than initially though. This is especially the case when looking at treatments for psychological and neurological conditions. Of course the same could have been said about cancer treatment a couple decades ago. The challenge is that the brain is very complex and many conditions are probably unique to the particular patient even if they manifest similar to other patients. The good news is that tools to figure out what exactly is wrong and devices to stimulate the brain are improving, so there is room for optimism.

“In an initial surgery, Eskandar drills two dime-size holes in the top of the patient’s skull and sinks 42-centimeter-long electrodes about seven centimeters deep into the gray matter of the brain. In a second surgery, usually a couple of days later, he creates a pocket under the skin in the chest or abdomen, implants a device incorporating a battery and pulse generator into this newly created space, and runs a wire up to the skull, connecting it with the electrodes. When turned on, the device emits an electrical current that stimulates the neural fibers carrying information from primitive brain areas associated with motivation to the frontal lobe. In 50 percent of Eskandar’s cases, a miracle follows: the obsessions and compulsions fade and then disappear.”

20)      Peering Back into the Cosmos

This is an update on the James Webb Space Telescope which is scheduled for launch in late 2018. It is a highly advanced replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope which led to numerous scientific discoveries. It is much more sensitive due to a 25 square meter main mirror, a huge sun shield, and more advanced sensors. The mirror is an amazing engineering accomplishment because at launch it is folded like origami in order to fit into the launch vehicle. Really cool stuff.

“As our sense-extending technologies continually project the far elusive reaches of the universe into the confines of our cognition, we find ourselves constantly defining the word observable. NASA’s long-awaited Hubble successor, the James Webb Telescope, is finally taking shape as it promises to give us an unprecedented glimpse into the history of our early universe. Just today at the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, the James Webb Telescope got the first of its 18 hexagonal flight mirrors installed. Set to launch in 2018 and to orbit at 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth, it will peer back in space and time to give us a look into the young exploding stars that ignited in the early universe. The magnificent instrument will also look for planet-forming disks of dust in our galaxy and search for potential life abodes beyond the solar system. As it revolutionizes our understanding of the universe, this next generation observatory will certainly become the next giant leap in observational astronomy!”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 20th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 20th 2015


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

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

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

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

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

Brian Piccioni

Click to Subscribe


1)          Don’t Fall For It: “Free Phones” Cost $360, and “$199 Phones” Cost $1040

This article looks at the fully of financing a mobile phone and uses many of the analogies I’ve used in the past. The commentary falls short on a number of levels: there is no physical law which says you have to replace your phone every two years so the payback off a purchased phone extends as long as you keep that phone. The discounts available to owners of phones are much greater than implied in the article and you have complete freedom to, for example, buy a SIM card when you travel to parts of the world with a competitive mobile market, stop or change your service whenever you want, etc. I doubt consumer behaviour will change any time soon but if it does it will rewrite the mobile phone marketplace.

“That “free phone” may be free on its own, but it will get you locked into a two-year-long contract. You’re not really getting a free phone — you’re getting a phone and two years of cell phone service paid for at $X a month for 24 months. If you want to terminate your contract, you’re forced to pay a cancellation fee — after all, the carrier has to recover the cost of that “free phone.” In other industries, this sort of advertising would be laughed at. How would you feel if someone offered you a “free television” that required you sign a two-year cable-TV contract that costs an extra $30 per month? You’d be trapped in a contract and end up paying $720 for that “free” $500 television over the course of your two-year contract. That’s what’s happening with cell phone contracts.”

2)          Facebook Shifts Switch to 100G

The Open Compute Project threatens to move margins in the cloud infrastructure business from those enjoyed by Cisco (over 65%) to those enjoyed by Foxconn (less than 5%). Of course, I don’t expect Open Compute will get into “big iron” Internet gear but companies like Cisco and Juniper sell a lot more than that. Mind you, a 100 Gbps Ethernet switch is not exactly low tech either.

“Facebook announced it is working on a 100 Gbit/second top-of-rack Ethernet switch for its next-generation data centers. The news is another example of how big Internet companies are designing their own systems, chomping at the heels of leading-edge computing and semiconductor technology. The Wedge 100 is a 32 x 100G switch said to use Broadcom’s latest Tomahawk switch chip with a 3.2 Tbit/s aggregate maximum throughput. As with all its designs, Facebook will make the hardware open source for others to make and use. It is expected to run a variant of open source Linux-based software called FBOSS Facebook currently uses on a 40G switch.”

3)          How A Driverless Car Sees The World (Not Always Clearly!)

This is an interesting demo of how LIDAR works, but it leaves out an important detail you can’t really show in a video: the important function of LIDAR is ranging information. In other words, LIDAR is not very good for making a picture but it is really good at telling you how far away an object it, which is pretty important for guidance.

“Much has been made about how the driverless car of the future will look to the world. A new video published online as part of the New York Times Magazine’s Future Issue shows how the world will look to a driverless car. The short answer? Not as clear as you’d hope.”

4)          How Cisco is trying to keep NSA spies out of its gear

The Snowden revelations revealed the enthusiastic cooperation of large US tech companies in NSA global surveillance. As noted in item 5 this would not have come as a shock to anybody except honest people and companies. Cisco, Microsoft, Apple, and other have played the victim card and performed some interesting theater in an attempt to convince customers they are now trustworthy. This is an excellent example of that theater: source code can be hard to unravel and, in any event, backdoors rarely are commented with “this is the backdoor”. Even if you had the source code, you would have no idea what machine code the compiler would produce unless you somehow had access to that and complete understanding how it works. Furthermore, your security would last exactly as long as the next “security update” – a term which now has an Orwellian connotation.

“”I worry about manipulation, espionage and disruption,” said Edna Conway, chief security officer of Cisco’s global value chain, in a recent interview. “We worry about tainted solutions, counterfeit solutions and the misuse of intellectual property.” Cisco became perhaps an unintended casualty from secret documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. A now infamous photo showed NSA employees around a box labeled Cisco during a so-called “interdiction” operation, one of the spy agency’s most productive programs. Interdictions involve snatching high-tech equipment in transit and secretly modifying it before it arrives at a customer’s door.”

5)          Signs Point to Unencrypted Communications Between Terror Suspects

The natural reflex of police and national security fanatics after a terror attack is to press for more pernicious surveillance. People are afraid and its makes them vulnerable to stupid decisions such allowing that to happen. Time was citizens would look at the pervasive surveillance in places like East Germany and the USSR with disgust, but now they embrace a loss of basic rights for the illusion of security. I’ve never heard a police officer advocate in favor of search warrant against dirty tricks – the mindset of the Stasi or NSA are pretty much the same. Setting aside for a moment that any self-respect terrorist knows how to bypass surveillance it appears that, in this case, known Jihadists were communicating in plain text over a clear channel. So it isn’t lack of surveillance but an intelligence failure which led to the attacks.

“European media outlets are reporting that the location of a raid conducted on a suspected safe house Wednesday morning was extracted from a cellphone, apparently belonging to one of the attackers, found in the trash outside the Bataclan concert hall massacre. Le Monde reported that investigators were able to access the data on the phone, including a detailed map of the concert hall and an SMS messaging saying “we’re off; we’re starting.” Police were also able to trace the phone’s movements.”

6)          Measuring the Impact of the Snowden Leaks on the Use of Encryption by Online Jihadists

As mentioned in item 5, security advisors use every terror attack to further erode our privacy. This article looks at the reality of Internet security from a terrorist perspective: long story short they aren’t as stupid as people paint them out to be. Backdoors and weak encryption advocated by the police and NSA may be wonderful for them but it is questionable whether terrorists will adopt “legal” encryption as they have used home brew versions since long before the Snowden disclosures. Either way, completely unbreakable and undetectable codes are Hardy Boy’s level stuff and encryption with NSA style backdoors, etc., only work on codes needed for large amounts of data.

“Asrar al-Mujahideen (Secrets of the Mujahideen) was first introduced by the administrators of a now-defunct top-tier Al-Qaida web forum known as “al-Ekhlaas” in late 2007. The software itself encrypts messages and files between users and is promoted as a trusted and secure avenue for terrorist groups, like AQAP, to receive messages from supporters, as well as for homegrown plotters to communicate with one another. The Asrar al-Mujahideen software was so well-trusted that a number of top Al-Qaida franchises officially endorsed it, including not only AQAP, but also Shabaab al-Mujahideen in Somalia. After the “al-Ekhlaas” web forum suddenly collapsed, a prominent online jihadi media unit known as the “Global Islamic Media Front” (GIMF) took the initiative and began retooling and enhancing the original Asrar al-Mujahideen software in an effort to enhance its encryption capabilities.”

7)          EU clamps down on bitcoin, anonymous payments to curb terrorism funding

Clamping down on terrorist financing is probably a good thing, especially since money laundering is an important part of criminal operations as well. The nature of Bitcoin makes it excellent for money laundering and an easy target. Of course, when large banks actually set up money laundering operations (,,, and many, many other) and receiver token fines in punishment it is hard to believe that going after Bitcoin and pre-paid credit cards is going to have much on an impact.

“European Union countries plan a crackdown on virtual currencies and anonymous payments made online and via pre-paid cards in a bid to tackle terrorism financing after the Paris attacks, a draft document seen by Reuters said. EU interior and justice ministers will gather in Brussels on Friday for a crisis meeting called after the Paris carnage of last weekend. They will urge the European Commission, the EU executive arm, to propose measures to “strengthen controls of non-banking payment methods such as electronic/anonymous payments and virtual currencies and transfers of gold, precious metals, by pre-paid cards,” draft conclusions of the meeting said.”

8)          Cloud Computing – The Game Changer

This is a rather superficial look at some of the projections regarding cloud computing. I don’t think Internet of Things will drive much in the way of traffic since that is mostly narrowband traffic and, in any event IoT is a ticking time bomb for Internet security. There are a lot of reasons people and companies should not hand over control of their data to the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, or Google, but it seems its going to happen regardless.

“In October, Cisco released its Global Cloud Index (GCI) report for 2014-2019, projecting a near 3-fold growth of global data center traffic, with predictions that this traffic will reach 8.6 zettabytes (cloud data center traffic) and 10.4 zettabytes (total data center traffic) per year in 2019 and 80% of it will come from the Cloud. It’s predicted that the Middle East and Africa will show the highest Cloud traffic growth at 41% CAGR, followed closely by Eastern Europe (38% CAGR), and North America (33% CAGR). Cloud computing has already revolutionized the way we live and do business, but it’s evident the evolution has just begun.”

9)          Can SolarCity Corp Survive Without Net Energy Metering Policy?

Long story short, despite what the article suggests, massive subsidies, net metering, and other government efforts to promote solar power are the only thing which keeps it going. Solar power is a political tool to make voters believe governments are doing something when more obvious (and effective) options are available. Solar advocates who claim subsidies and special treatment are not required should put their money where their mouth is and advocate that the subsides be stopped.

“The implementation of a 30% Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) has made things easier for the solar industry. The NEM policies when in place allowed the output of distributed solar systems to be sold at the retail electricity rate, well above what other generators receive. Such subsidies prompt companies to raise funds through equity financing while the ITC attracts tax equity investors willing to put up much of the upfront capital. The ITC is expected to drop from 30% to 10% in 2017. The state’s decision to reduce ITC has been partially accepted in the solar industry, which assures investors that solar companies can thrive without a 30% ITC. The discontinuation of NEM policy has picked up in California after Hawaii. If any amendments take place in the policy it will affect SolarCity’s revenues, and further move to states i.e. Arizona. SolarCity and other energy companies however believe that NEM is needed for the very survival of the industry in California and all other US states.”

10)      Android adware can install itself even when users explicitly reject it

I can’t help but wonder what the point of this sort of app is: like any adware garbage (including those by many name brand companies during installation of unrelated applications) all it does is cause frustration. It is not clear to me that this adware takes advantage of an already compromised phone but that seems to be the case.

“The hijacking happens after a user has installed a trojanized app that masquerades as an official app available in Google Play and then is made available in third-party markets. During the installation, apps from an adware family known as Shedun try to trick people into granting the app control over the Android Accessibility Service, which is designed to provide vision-impaired users alternative ways to interact with their mobile devices. Ironically enough, Shedun apps try to gain such control by displaying dialogs such as this one, which promises to help weed out intrusive advertisements.”

11)      The iPad Pro’s chip is not a big deal

Last week we carried an item which showed the power of Apple marketing was such that articles were written suggesting the company’s most recent system on a chip was some of stunning breakthrough in performance. Like articles which claim iPhone cameras are “as good as” a real camera these rely on the ignorance of the author and reader for best effect. As this item shows, our criticism was well-placed.

“The iPad Pro is here, and it comes with a lot of promises. The most-repeated is that its A9X chip is a desktop-class processor that fits inside a tablet. Initial benchmark results confirm that this is by far the most powerful chip Apple has ever put inside an iPad, leading some to suggest that Apple’s A9X is now at the same level as Intel’s laptop chips. This could change the PC and laptop industry forever, apparently, with popular Apple commentators suggesting that “the future belongs to ARM, and Apple’s A-series SoC’s are leading the way.” To put it lightly, that’s a bit premature.”

12)      A Botnet Has Been Stealing Billions Through Digital Ads Aimed at Fake Audiences

I don’t feel so bad when the companies who paint the Internet with annoying and misleading ads get scammed, however, this is probably a major issue if you happen to be Google or Facebook, especially now that the scam has come to light. After all if you make money from ads you don’t really care whether the “impression” you are selling is real or a bot – either way, the check clears. The folks spending the money might have a different perspective but if they were paying attention they might have already concluded their ads aren’t of any value since bots don’t buy things.

“According to a recent report from ad-fraud prevention firm Pixalate, a sophisticated botnet has been leeching money from digital advertisers by serving up real ads to faked, highly-prized audiences. The botnet, nicknamed Xindi after some Star Trek bad guys, has, by Pixalate’s calculations, rung up something like 78 billion ad impressions so far. According to George Slefo of Adweek, Xindi “could cost advertisers nearly $3 billion by the end of 2016.” The ingenious thing about the Xindi botnet is who it targeted. The infection was aimed at Fortune 500 companies, university computer networks, and other groups whose users are usually very sought-after by advertisers. Because the advertisers thought that they were reaching such a valuable audience, they were willing to pay much more, $200 per thousand impressions for some, which compounded the cost of the fraud and made things much more lucrative for the fraudsters.”

13)      Hasbro Thinks Robot Pets Make Great Companions for Lonely Old People

This is a little bit silly and kind of sad. I think there would be many advantages to a robot cat however this is more like a doll for adults. Robot pets seem to have made an impact in the Japanese market but lots of things from Japan do not seem to translate well.

“Named Joy For All, the new robot pet line is pitched as a way to keep the elderly company. The robotic cats come in three color patterns, have “realistic” fur and make kitty noises and “familiar, cat-like actions” — which presumably don’t include climbing the curtains or leaving “gifts” on the front steps. Billed as companion animals for seniors rather than toys, Hasbro’s site refers to the animatronic animals as “companion pets.” The retail price is $99.99.”

14)      Oracle insider: We’re not walking the cloud talk

A host of large companies (Microsoft, Google, IBM, and Oracle) are trying hard to catch up with Amazon in market share for cloud services. I believe most of the gains are likely to come from putting smaller datacenter players out of business, either way I figure neither IBM or Oracle stands a chance in this market as both are used to dealing with large, captive customers with few options. Oracle’s stock has been on a bit of a tear recently as analysts in particular have drunk the Kool-Aid and accepted the company’s party line that cloud sales are doing well. The reality seems to be somewhat different.

“Last week, I wrote a post entitled “Yes, Oracle is finally serious about the cloud.” Cloud was clearly the theme of Oracle OpenWorld, as a flurry of SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS announcements indicated. In my interview with Amit Chaudhry, vice president of public cloud, he stated that cloud computing was “very, very serious business” for Oracle and the company planned to fight “tooth and nail” against Amazon Web Services. I got pushback in response to last week’s post from an unexpected quarter: inside Oracle itself. This individual, who asked to remain anonymous but has been with the company for nearly a decade, opened with a zinger: “We’ll be serious about the cloud when Safra [Catz, co-CEO of Oracle] lets us hire some developers to work on it.” I checked the identity of this source and can confirm this person is well placed and not in a low-ranking position.”

15)      GoFundMe Gone Wild

This is a rather lighthearted look at the spread or crowd funding. For those who are not aware, crowdfunding uses websites like GoFundMe whereby people promoting purported worthy causes essentially beg for money. Not surprisingly, the worthiness of a cause is somewhat elastic and people milk the system for all it is worth. In other words it operates pretty much like any registered charity except with full disclosure.

““I woke up to four new people today asking me for money on four different donation platforms,” one friend said. “One was my ex-babysitter announcing her wedding and where I could send cash. No invitation to the wedding. Just cash.” “I’m a believer in giving to real charities: medical research, school drives, the Red Cross, et cetera,” said Heidi Knodle, owner of a picture framing store in San Francisco. “I’m tired of people asking for a vacation, funds for a wedding or their college tuition.” The crime writer Mark Ebner, whose mailboxes have been increasingly filled with monetary requests, has a theory about it all. “I think online begging has become the new economy.””

16)      When crowdfunding projects go wrong

Like GoFundMe, Kickstarter and Indiegogo had great promise as a mechanism for financing legitimate projects and yet have devolved into a cesspool of scams and other get rich quick schemes. After all, if you take a percentage off the top what do you care whether solar roadways has even the slightest chance of success? The sad reality of engineering is that a relatively high percentage of development projects undertaken by competent engineers with lots of experience in bring products to market ultimately see the light of day. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that poorly funded amateurs have an even less impressive track record.

“What happens when a crowdfunded project goes wrong? And do those who back ideas on platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo have any rights when they do not deliver on their promises? That is what the more than 12,000 people who backed the Zano mini-drone project are asking as their hopes recede of ever getting a working product.”

17)      China’s Tsinghua Unigroup to invest $47 billion to build chip empire

The government of China appears to have decided it wants to move upmarket in the semiconductor space and actually have significant IP. The good news for them is that most all smaller semiconductor companies are on the auction block, but the bad news is most of those companies are significantly overvalued. Tech acquisitions rarely end well and it is hard to believe creative engineers would flourish if their employer was acquired by Chinese state interests once removed. Of course, if you are a shareholder of a target company you could care less.

“China’s Tsinghua Unigroup Ltd plans to invest 300 billion yuan ($47 billion) over the next five years in a bid to become the world’s third-biggest chipmaker, the chairman of the state-backed technology conglomerate said on Monday. Chairman Zhao Weiguo also told Reuters in an interview in Beijing that the company controlled by Tsinghua University, which counts President Xi Jinping among its alumni, was in talks with a U.S.-based company involved in the chip industry. A deal could be finalized as early as the end of this month, he said. He declined to give more details but said buying a majority stake was unlikely as it was too “sensitive” for the U.S. government.”

18) Has A Bunker Full Of Gold, Silver, And Food In Case Of Financial Collapse

I had a good chuckle when I read this. There is no reason to believe the CEO of a company is any less loopy than the average man of the street so this is probably not the only one preparing for the apocalypse. It takes a special sort of imagination to think of a world where society has collapsed and we have reverted to using gold and silver as currency and yet would still be a going concern. You have to wonder what the board of directors is doing if they believe allocating shareholder wealth towards a survivalist fantasy is a good idea.

“When the global financial system collapses, don’t fret: you’ll still be able to shop on We’re not quite sure how that will happen, but the company’s early adoption of Bitcoin as a method of payment could be one clue. What you need to know, though, is that the company will keep paying its employees thanks to its bunker of silver, gold, and food. No, CEO Patrick Byrne is not kidding when he says that the company is prepared for banks to shut down. It happened in 1933, and almost happened during the economic meltdown of 2008. What would you do without access to your bank accounts for a week? Today, when some people rarely even carry cash, we might be in a lot of trouble collectively as a society when it comes to paying for things like fuel and food if banking systems were down for even a week or two.”

19)      USC Eye Institute Patient Becomes First Blind Patient to Have Two Retinal Implants – One in Each Eye – Helping Restore Sight

This is still rudimentary vision but it probably makes a big difference to the quality of life for patients. Chances are the retinal implant devices themselves will be significantly improved over time and the quality of vision will improve significantly.

“The Argus II helps patients recognize large letters, locate the position of objects and more. It restores some visual capabilities for patients whose blindness is caused by Retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an inherited retinal degenerative disease that affects about 100,000 people nationwide. The system includes a small video camera mounted on a pair of eyeglasses, a video processing unit that transforms images from the camera into wirelessly-transmitted electronic signals, and an implanted retinal prosthesis (artificial retina) to stimulate visual neurons. The receiver sends signals to the retina that travel through the optic nerve to the brain, where they can be interpreted as a visual picture.”

20)      ‘Super natural killer cells’ destroy lymph node tumors

Cancer treatments have moved a long way in the past couple decades. Many of the most promising research activities are in the realm of immunotherapy where the immune system is modified or stimulated to actively seek out malignant cells and destroy them. This article is pretty light on the details and it is quite clear it has not been tested in humans yet. Still it is pretty cool stuff.

“For tumor cells, the lymph nodes are a staging area and play a key role in advancing metastasis throughout the body. In the study, the biomedical engineers killed the cancerous tumor cells within days, by injecting liposomes armed with TRAIL (Tumor necrosis factor Related Apoptosis-Inducing Ligand) that attach to “natural killer” cells (a type of white blood cell) residing in the lymph nodes. These natural killer cells became the “super natural killer cells” that find the cancerous cells and induce apoptosis, where the cancer cells self-destruct and disintegrate, preventing the lymphatic spread of cancer any further, said King.”


The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 13th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 13th 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)          Belgium Tells Facebook to Stop Storing Personal Data From Non-Users

Facebook faces a challenge: its user base is probably approaching saturation in the developed world where it gets most of its revenue from. Based on this and other articles it appears the solution is to appropriate personal data from non-users. The legal position here is pretty straightforward: if you haven’t joined Facebook, the company can’t hide behind and all-encompassing EULA. Belgium is a small country and the fine itself is small relative to Facebook’s profits, however, the legal theory almost certainly applies to all developed countries, and probably many others as well. Time will tell if regulators – or even class action lawyers – will act on this egregious violation of privacy.

“Facebook Inc. lost a fight with Belgium’s privacy watchdog after a court ordered it to stop storing personal data from people who don’t have an account with the social network. Facebook faces a fine of 250,000 euros ($269,000) a day if it doesn’t comply with the ruling, the court said in an e-mailed statement Monday. Belgium’s privacy watchdog had sued Menlo Park, California-based Facebook for failing to respond to its demands to bring its privacy policy in line with local laws. Facebook’s “disrespectful” treatment of users’ personal data, without their knowledge, “needs tackling,” Willem Debeuckelaere, president of the Belgian commission, said in May.”

2)          Microsoft unveils German data plan to tackle US internet spying

The “Patriot Act” explicitly required US companies to provide US law enforcement with all data they held regardless of where they held it. The Snowden revelations showed that large US tech companies decided to go much further and offered their enthusiastic support of non-legal data collection, back doors, and so on. None of this is new and it almost certainly predates the 9/11 terror attacks used to justify it. Sadly, many companies are feeling the pinch and US firms are treated with the deep suspicion they deserve. Whether or not the data is located in Germany or Timbuktu you can rest assured NSA (and, by extension Chinese and Russian intelligence through their spies within NSA) has access to it either though the collaboration of domestic (i.e. German or Mali) intelligence or other backdoors.

“Microsoft threw down a challenge to the US tech industry on Wednesday as it came up with a radical new regime to try to protect the data of some of its biggest European customers from US government over-reach. The arrangement, which will ringfence European data with a new legal set-up designed put it beyond US courts and the country’s national security establishment, in one of the most drastic corporate responses yet to the American internet spying scandal. Technology analysts called it a “watershed moment”, describing the manoeuvre as the first time a major US tech group had accepted its inability to protect customer data from the US government. The plan exposed the flaws in other recent attempts by US tech companies to ease European fears by simply opening more data centres in Europe, because these were still exposed to US intrusion, they added.”

3)          Google Just Open Sourced TensorFlow, Its Artificial Intelligence Engine

Google is participating in the gold rush for cloud services. Chances are there will be a fairly small number of companies which will dominate the space and nobody will be in a position to dislodge those leaders due to their scale. In that light, open sourcing TensorFlow is not generosity since you need access to the underlying hardware and software platform to really make it work. No doubt any application developed with the technology will only work, or work well, on Google’s cloud platform.

“The Google Photos search engine isn’t perfect. But its accuracy is enormously impressive—so impressive that O’Reilly couldn’t understand why Google didn’t sell access to its AI engine via the Internet, cloud-computing style, letting others drive their apps with the same machine learning. That could be Google’s real money-maker, he said. After all, Google also uses this AI engine to recognize spoken words, translate from one language to another, improve Internet search results, and more. The rest of the world could turn this tech towards so many other tasks, from ad targeting to computer security. Well, this morning, Google took O’Reilly’s idea further than even he expected. It’s not selling access to its deep learning engine. It’s open sourcing that engine, freely sharing the underlying code with the world at large. This software is called TensorFlow, and in literally giving the technology away, Google believes it can accelerate the evolution of AI.”

4)          Autonomous cars aren’t nearly as clever as you think, says Toyota exec

This is a good sanity check to all the articles you read regarding how self-driving cars (or robots for that matter) are going to revolutionize the world as we know it, probably sometime in the next few years. Automotive technology involves big stakes and it takes a long time for any new system to become main-stream. As the article mentions, self-driving tests are done in carefully contrived circumstances for a reason: the systems are very limited and can only work within defined boundaries. Reality (bad maps, lousy GPS reception, extreme weather, and so on) tends to be a lot messier than the streets of Mountain View.

“Pratt explained what researchers already know but perhaps others don’t: Autonomous cars look great in controlled environments but soon fail when faced with tasks that human drivers find simple. Drivers, for example, can pretty much get behind the wheel of a car and drive it wherever it may be, he said. Autonomous vehicles use GPS and laser imaging sensors to figure out where they are by matching data against a complex map that goes beyond simple roads and includes details down to lane markings. The cars rely on all that data to drive, so they quickly hit problems in areas that haven’t been mapped in advance.”

5)          Mountain View: Google self-driving car pulled over for ‘driving too slowly’

It has to happen: a cop decided to pull over a self-driving car though it is not clear there was an offense. If there was a violation it raises the question of who is responsible: the manufacturer of the car or the passenger? Some traffic citations are pretty subjective, as is obstructing the flow of traffic so it is not always going to be cut and dried that there is fault. One thing with self-driving cars is that their systems are bound to keep an accurate record of every part of their journey so evidence should not be hard to come by.

“When one of Google’s self-driving vehicles is pulled over, who gets the ticket? The passenger or the car? The question was asked across the Internet on Thursday, after a police officer stopped one of the gumball-machine-shaped vehicles on El Camino Real. In a blog post, the Mountain View Police Department said the officer noticed traffic backing up behind a slow-moving car in the eastbound No. 3 lane, near Rengstorff Avenue. The vehicle was traveling at 24 mph in a 35 mph zone.”

6)          Cars Talk to Cars on the Autobahn

One automotive technology which would be pretty quick to implement is Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) communications. The idea here is that, for example, the car up ahead – even if out of sight – must be slowing down or taking evasive action. Rather than relying on vision – even machine vision – to deal with an obstacle, pothole, etc., the cars behind could be informed of what is going on through a shaking steering wheel or warning tone. V2I is similar, except that speed limits, construction zones, or even icy conditions might be signaled to the car or even enforced through its control systems.

“When my car can talk to your car, and yours can talk to the next, they’ll all be able to substitute shared data for the one thing robots lack: intuition. Such talkativeness will allow cars to space themselves out, make room for merging vehicles, and vary their speed without setting off bothersome ripple effects in the traffic behind. Best of all, it will let robocars drive (or appear to drive) a bit more boldly: A well-informed car can pass a semi with such confidence that a human observer might almost mistake it for foolhardiness.”

7)          Cord-nevers could be bigger threat to TV than cord-cutters

My generation grew up in the habit of gathering around a TV and watching whatever was on. Some families (not mine) had two TVs and lucky kids got their own TV. That situation has changed over the past 5 years or so: young folk with access to broadband Internet watch TV or movies on their computers and never developed the habit of sitting around the family TV, except perhaps during special events. This is probably a behavior which is permanent and not exclusively associated with the youth however shifting demographics suggests it will be a bigger part of viewing behavior. The challenge broadcasters face is that there is more and more choice and this is especially the case for cable networks who, with a few exceptions, have concentrated the lowest common denominator. Ultimately the power will shift from the traditional broadcast to the content producer as a result.

“Viewers continue to flee traditional television. Canada’s top TV providers have lost almost seven times more customers so far this year compared with the same period in 2014, according to research from the consulting firm Boon Dog Professional Services. The Ottawa-based company looked at Canada’s seven publicly traded TV providers, including Rogers, Bell and Shaw. It found that, in total, they lost 153,000 subscribers up to this point in their 2015 fiscal year. Boon Dog estimates about 11.4 million people still watch TV via conventional means such as cable, so cord-cutting numbers remain a drop in the bucket, for now. But the industry may be in bigger trouble than we think. There are other looming threats. The first is the growing number of cord-nevers — people who have never subscribed to traditional television. There’s also the cordless-contemplators — people determined to cut the cord, but who haven’t quite pulled the plug yet.”

8)          Dynamic adverts for the 21st century

Putting product placement into a video stream is a lot more complicated than it sounds. A football field is a relatively static and defined thing whereas a TV or movie set is a lot more complicated and the camera angles are likely to be more variable. A simple “green screen” approach probably won’t work so you need some pretty heavy video processing to replace an object on the fly unless it happens to be in the background like a name plate or something. Nevertheless, product placement, like those pop up ads you see all the time now, is nothing something you can ignore or skip through with a PVR so this is the way things are headed.

“This form of advertising, known as product placement, can be quite subtle. A character may open a fridge, for example, and you as a viewer don’t realize that different companies have paid for the various items that appear on the shelves. Or a character may be walking down a street, and you don’t register that someone has paid for a particular advertising poster to be mounted on the wall. And when the character gets into a car… well, I think you get my drift. The reason I’m waffling on about this here is that I’m currently visiting the UK and I’ve just seen the most amazing demonstration of next-generation advertising technology. This is similar to the yellow and blue lines being superimposed on an American football game on TV, except that it involves integrating products into TV shows and movies.”

9)          Magic Quadrant or Gartner ‘Graft’?

“Graft” is such a strong term. Gartner and all other industry researchers know what side of the bread the butter is on: most of their major subscribers are industry people and, unsurprisingly, most of the coverage and bullishness is associated with the companies who cooperate with, and buy, industry research. Nobody in an industry wants to hear that industry is dying so the coverage is almost always bullish and almost always wrong. It is understandable that small companies feel left out because they don’t get the accolades the big companies have bought and paid for but I rather doubt a lawsuit is the answer. Thanks to Nick Tang for this item.

“”If you are a major client, you get time with the Gartner analysts. But we are a very small client. The ombudsman told us we should increase our efforts to engage with the analysts but those analysts then declined our offer of a briefing at the TM Forum Live event in Nice this year [the major annual industry event for the revenue and customer management market]. They agreed to meet in the end, but only showed up for ten minutes. We wouldn’t say that the process is corrupt — I don’t think you can just buy your way into the quadrant — but we would say the process is very flawed. The way they collect the information is flawed — our biggest customers are in China but the Gartner analysts don’t engage with them in their language to collect information and anecdotes … Gartner denied a request from us to have their questionnaire translated into Chinese. And even though there is a review process of the information in the report before it’s published, there are still factual inaccuracies published.””

10)      A decade into a project to digitize U.S. immigration forms, just 1 is online

This story is one of many which illustrates how large government (and even non-profit) organizations are milked by large IT consulting firms. It is not abundantly obvious why any government needs to hire IBM, HP, CGI or any other consulting firm to mismanage a project most high school computer science students would be able to do in their spare time. The thing is, the large consultancies have learned how to take advantage of the ineptitude of government managers to line their own pockets. The incredible thing is despite debacle after debacle, the exact same mistakes are made, there are no penalties, and the same firms are allowed to bid on the contracts.

“Heaving under mountains of paperwork, the government has spent more than $1 billion trying to replace its antiquated approach to managing immigration with a system of digitized records, online applications and a full suite of nearly 100 electronic forms. A decade in, all that officials have to show for the effort is a single form that’s now available for online applications and a single type of fee that immigrants pay electronically. The 94 other forms can be filed only with paper.”

11)      Benchmarks put iPad Pro’s A9X chip roughly on par with Intel’s 2013 Core i5

I’ve remarked in the past about how Apple’s marketing power results in fawning coverage of the company’s products. I must have seen 20 or 30 articles about the iPad Pro (a somewhat larger version of the company’s tablet) and all heaped slavish praise on it. This one stood out for the same reason articles praising iPhone camera’s stand out: people should not write about things they do not fundamentally understand. Whatever the merits of Apple’s latest ARM processor, benchmarks have to be understood within context. Comparing benchmark results on an iPad, which has a rudimentary, purpose-built operating system with a Macbook or Surface Pro, which have a fully evolved, general purpose operating system, is a test of the operating system, not the processor.

“As you can see, the A9X scored 3,233 on Geekbench’s single-core tests versus 1,831 for the iPad Air 2 and 2,537 for the iPhone 6S. “The A9X can’t quite get up to the level of a modern U-series Core i5 based on Broadwell or Skylake, but it’s roughly on the same level as a Core i5 from 2013 or so and it’s well ahead of Core M,” Ars writes. As for the graphics, the OpenGL version of the GFXBench benchmark shows the A9X beating not only all previous iOS devices but also Intel’s Iris Pro 5200 graphics powering the 15-inch MacBook Pro and the Intel HD 520 in the Surface Pro 4.”

12)      Robots threaten 15m UK jobs, says Bank of England’s chief economist

I wish I had access to web pages from the early 1900s so I could quote economists talking about how horseless carriages would cost millions of blacksmith jobs, or how steam tractors would decimate employment in the agricultural sector. To start with, we have pretty few actual white collar robots, and use of robots has been pervasive on the factory floor since the development of the assembly line. It all depends on what you call a robot: a combine is a robot agricultural worker and a numerically controlled milling machine is a robot mill operator. It takes time for the technology to be developed and deployed. Economies adapt. Get over it.

“The Bank of England has warned that up to 15m jobs in Britain are at risk of being lost to an age of robots where increasingly sophisticated machines do work that was previously the preserve of humans. Andy Haldane, the bank’s chief economist, said automation posed a risk to almost half those employed in the UK and that a “third machine age” would hollow out the labour market, widening the gap between rich and poor. The results of a Bank of England study, Haldane added, suggested that administrative, clerical and production tasks were most at threat. In a speech to the umbrella organisation for Britain’s trade unions, the TUC, he asked if the Luddites – reputed to have smashed machines during the Industrial Revolution – had been proved right two centuries on.”

13)      It’s way too Easy to Hack the Hospital

We hear a lot about the Internet of Things (IoT) which is just hooking stuff up to computers that you don’t think of as being hooked up to computers. None of this is really new: factories and hospitals have been doing this for years. As this article demonstrates, a problem arises when neither people who neither know nor care about computer security start hooking things up to the network. They not only expose the gizmo to hackers (in this case pretty much anybody who wants to gain access) they open their networks to hackers as well. Sorry about the stupid layout and annoying animations on this page: somebody needs to take Bloomberg’s web editor out back for summary execution. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this article.

“Like the printers, copiers, and office telephones used across all industries, many medical devices today are networked, running standard operating systems and living on the Internet just as laptops and smartphones do. Like the rest of the Internet of Things—devices that range from cars to garden sprinklers—they communicate with servers, and many can be controlled remotely. As quickly became apparent to Rios and the others, hospital administrators have a lot of reasons to fear hackers. For a full week, the group spent their days looking for backdoors into magnetic resonance imaging scanners, ultrasound equipment, ventilators, electroconvulsive therapy machines, and dozens of other contraptions. The teams gathered each evening inside the hospital to trade casualty reports. “Every day, it was like every device on the menu got crushed,” Rios says. “It was all bad. Really, really bad.” The teams didn’t have time to dive deeply into the vulnerabilities they found, partly because they found so many—defenseless operating systems, generic passwords that couldn’t be changed, and so on.”

14)      Germany Proposes Drone Registration

The major difference between little drones and big drones is cost and the fact that a big drone can do a lot of damage and injury. Unfortunately, all you need is a credit card to get a large, heavy drone, and as would be expected that means a small number of people are doing very stupid things with them. The US, Ireland, and now Germany have announced plans to license drones based on their weight class, which makes some sense since the bigger they are the more dangerous they are. They should also require all drones to respect “keep out” areas and probably broadcast a ID as well.

“Anyone else see a trend brewing? The United States and Ireland both announced plans to implement a drone registration system, and now Germany is heading in that same direction. Citing a lack of regulations and growing public safety concerns, the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure proposed all drones – commercial and hobbyist – that weigh more than 0.5 kg (1.1 lb) need to have a license plate that could help identify the operator. You can read the proposal here (text reads in German, so you might need to translate).”

15)      Audi to use 3D printed metal parts in production cars

Unfortunately, this article is pretty short on details and it actually suggests they might use 3D printing in production cars. Production cars in the context of Audi doesn’t necessarily mean high volume cars either since some Audis are extremely expensive, low volume, albeit production, cars. It will be a long time before 3D printing can come anywhere near the cost of mass production casting and machining. It is true that you can do things with 3D printing which you can’t do with casting and machining but this just means they won’t do those things in high volume products.

“Staying true to their slogan Vorsprung durch Technik (Advancement through Technology), German carmaker Audi is reportedly experimenting with making complex parts out of metal 3D printing technology, and plans to eventually fit them to production cars. While the use of 3D printing in auto manufacturing is not new—we recently reported on Ford’s use of additive manufacturing techniques to produce prototypes for some of its vehicles—advancements in the highly coveted area of metal 3D printing mean that in the near future, big-name car companies will be able to use 3D printed pieces as end-use parts. In particular, the metal 3D printing process Audi has been experimenting with is ideal for manufacturing geometrically complex parts that would be time-consuming and expensive to produce through traditional means such as casting. The 3D printed components, made from a fine metallic powder comprised of steel and aluminium beads less than half the thickness of human hair, are also denser than cast items.”

16)      BlackBerry Priv review: Android fixes the OS, but the hardware can’t compete

There was some interest when Blackberry announced it would come out with an Android phone but a lot of that fizzled once the price point was announced. You can’t expect to charge premium prices when your market share is a rounding error. Even less so when you can’t be bothered to roll out hardware with a recent version of Android – even my 2 year old Nexus 5 runs Android 6. This review is pretty brutal, but also spot on. Blackberry is in a death spiral and it is just a matter of time before they announce a “strategic review”.

“With the Priv, the company finally joins the mobile operating system duopoly by jumping into bed with the only major app ecosystem available to third parties: Android. The Priv runs an old version of Android: 5.1.1 Lollipop, the first of many disappointments the Priv will throw our way. Being a BlackBerry, the Priv of course has a hardware keyboard, but the keyboard isn’t any good. It’s so flat and tiny that it’s awful to type on; we greatly preferred the packed-in software keyboard. Still, the biggest disappointment is the price: a whopping $700. It’s not an unheard of sum for a mobile phone, but build quality issues and a long list of compromises just aren’t worth $700.”

17)      FCC revises guidelines, swears it will not ban third-party router firmware

The FCC caused a great deal of excitement in the enthusiast community when it announced proposed rules which would limit installation of 3rd party software on wireless routers. The idea is not necessarily a bad one: the FCC is charged with maintaining the integrity of radio spectrum and the radio behavior of a WiFi router can be significantly impacted by the software it is running. Since 3rd party software isn’t vetted in any way bad code can lead to havoc. The language is now softened but the problem remains.

“A few months ago, the FCC issued a set of security requirements meant to ensure that routers stayed within their assigned spectrum bands and didn’t cause problems for other hardware operating nearby. The rules caused significant concern in the router modding and security communities, however, because they specifically called out DD-WRT as a software package that should be blocked from install, and required manufacturers to submit an action plan detailing how they would prevent the use of unauthorized firmware. While the FCC’s goal — preventing unauthorized spectrum usage — wasn’t something many people had a problem with, the fear was that manufacturers would take the opportunity to kill third-party firmware support altogether, rather than trying to sandbox spectrum adjustments to meet FCC guidelines.”

18)      Shocking new way to get the salt out

I can’t say I understand how this technique works but this article and the associated coverage seem to suggest is has the potential for being an energy efficient method to desalinate water. This could be significant, provided the technology proves to be durable and can be scaled up, which the article seems to suggest is achievable. One problem unfortunately is that much of the need for desalination is in the developing world where access to electricity is often a challenge.

“As the availability of clean, potable water becomes an increasingly urgent issue in many parts of the world, researchers are searching for new ways to treat salty, brackish or contaminated water to make it usable. Now a team at MIT has come up with an innovative approach that, unlike most traditional desalination systems, does not separate ions or water molecules with filters, which can become clogged, or boiling, which consumes great amounts of energy. Instead, the system uses an electrically driven shockwave within a stream of flowing water, which pushes salty water to one side of the flow and fresh water to the other, allowing easy separation of the two streams. The new approach is described in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, in a paper by professor of chemical engineering and mathematics Martin Bazant, graduate student Sven Schlumpberger, undergraduate Nancy Lu, and former postdoc Matthew Suss.”

19)      How This Battery Cut Microsoft Datacenter Costs By A Quarter

Traditional data centers use the same sort of battery back-up scheme used in the telephone world: banks of big, heavy, but cheap, lead acid batteries. If you have a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) for your PC you have a similar arrangement, except the battery is a somewhat smaller but more expensive sealed lead acid battery). This arrangement might have made sense in the olden days but power failures today are typically much shorter in duration and many data centers have a backup generator which kicks in a few moments after power is lost. What Microsoft has done is essentially insert a small, albeit appropriately sized battery into its power supply design which allows the power supply and whatever it is powering to bridge the short term loss of power. According to the article, the net result of this small change filters through the datacenter and becomes quite significant.

“The new power supply, which Microsoft calls the Local Energy Storage (LES) unit, was designed as part of the Open Cloud Server hyperscale system that the company donated to the Open Compute Project last year and updated last October with some significant tweaks. In the spirit of openness that might seem a bit strange coming from Microsoft, the new LES specification is being opened up through the Open Compute community as well. It is significant to note that the Open Compute designs put forth by Facebook three years ago had already moved batteries into the Open Rack design to gain efficiencies. And Google said way back in April 2009, in a rare look at its internal datacenters, that it had not only been using containerized datacenters to boost efficiency since 2005, but had put 12 volt battery packs on its servers so they could ride out failures on local, rather than centralized, stored power. That was a decade ago, just to show you how far ahead Google can sometimes be compared to its rivals. Supermicro and others offer power supplies with battery backups built in, too.”

20)      520-million-year-old arthropod brains turn paleontology on its head

The fossils of the Burgess Shale include some pretty complex animals, including what are almost certainly active predators. An active predator, unlike, say, a jellyfish, requires some intelligence to hunt down its prey which then brings up the question of how complex a brain could be so soon after the emergence of the first complex animals about 620 to 550 million years ago. It turns out that brains can fossilize and now scientists have multiple examples of the brains of an early arthropod and they were pretty complex indeed – almost as much as a modern crustacean. Now, shrimp – even big shrimp – aren’t exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer, but it is pretty remarkable that brains got that complicated that quickly.

“Science has long dictated that brains don’t fossilize, so when Nicholas Strausfeld co-authored the first ever report of a fossilized brain in a 2012 edition of Nature, it was met with “a lot of flack.” “It was questioned by many paleontologists, who thought – and in fact some claimed in print – that maybe it was just an artifact or a one-off, implausible fossilization event,” said Strausfeld, a Regents’ professor in UA’s Department of Neuroscience. His latest paper in Current Biology addresses these doubts head-on, with definitive evidence that, indeed, brains do fossilize. In the paper, Strausfeld and his collaborators, including Xiaoya Ma of Yunnan Key Laboratory for Palaeobiology at China’s Yunnan University and Gregory Edgecombe of the Natural History Museum in London, analyze seven newly discovered fossils of the same species to find, in each, traces of what was undoubtedly a brain.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 6th 2015

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 6th 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)          The trust machine

There is a lot of discussion of Bitcoin and people conflate Bitcoin (what neo libertarians dream about replacing the gold standard) and the underlying blockchain technology. This article looks at some of the applications for blockchain, in particular in financial services and records. Adoption of blockchain does not legitimize bitcoin as a currency – it is simply a mathematical function with interesting characteristics which can be adopted for specific needs. It is also open source so the idea of start-up companies profiting (other than as consultants) is questionable.

“One idea, for example, is to make cheap, tamper-proof public databases—land registries, say, (Honduras and Greece are interested); or registers of the ownership of luxury goods or works of art. Documents can be notarised by embedding information about them into a public blockchain—and you will no longer need a notary to vouch for them. Financial-services firms are contemplating using blockchains as a record of who owns what instead of having a series of internal ledgers. A trusted private ledger removes the need for reconciling each transaction with a counterparty, it is fast and it minimises errors. Santander reckons that it could save banks up to $20 billion a year by 2022. Twenty-five banks have just joined a blockchain startup, called R3 CEV, to develop common standards, and NASDAQ is about to start using the technology to record trading in securities of private companies.”

2)          2 Billion Jobs to Disappear by 2030

I have in the past mentioned futurologists, or folks who opine on the future for a living. It can be a lucrative occupation provided you get a lot of media coverage, thus making you an important futurologist. The way to get coverage is to say the most outrageous, off the wall, unsubstantiated thing that pops into your head: if you are a futurologist people will assume you are a prophet but if you aren’t people will just assume you are an ill-informed idiot with no internal mechanism to tell you to shut up. To put things in perspective, 2030 is 15 years from now and since most of the jobs which would purportedly be displaced are in the developed world, that predicts about 100% unemployment in the developed world 15 years out.

“The day was filled with an energizing mix of musicians, inspiration, and big thinkers. During the breaks, audience members were eager to hear more and peppered the speakers with countless questions. They were also extremely eager to hear more about the future. When I brought up the idea of 2 billion jobs disappearing (roughly 50% of all the jobs on the planet) it wasn’t intended as a doom and gloom outlook. Rather, it was intended as a wakeup call, letting the world know how quickly things are about to change, and letting academia know that much of the battle ahead will be taking place at their doorstep. Here is a brief overview of five industries – where the jobs will be going away and the jobs that will likely replace at least some of them – over the coming decades.”

3)          Intel offers more insight on its 3D memory

This summer Intel and Micron announced 3D Crosspoint memory. Since then there has been a lot of speculation concerning what it is, how it will perform, and what it will cost. This article fills in some of the blanks but not the most important one: cost. The only comment regarding cost appears to be speculation on behalf of the author. Intel and Micron figure 3D Crosspoint will cost between DRAM and flash, a price range spanning two orders of magnitude, and they don’t mention when cost targets will be met. This is an extremely important consideration for the technology’s success: if it is closer to DRAM in price it’ll only be used in supercomputers but if it closer to flash it will become main stream. There may not be any room for its use in between. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“Krzanich did a demo on a pair of matching servers running two Oracle benchmarks. One server had Intel’s P3700 NAND PCI Express SSD, which is no slouch of a drive. It can perform up to 250,000 IOPS per second. The other was a prototype Optane SSD. The Optane SSD outperformed the P3700 by 4.4 times in IOPS with 6.4 times less latency. In a second, undisclosed test, Optane was 7.13 times faster than the current tech with 8.11x the latency performance. It doesn’t help your cause when you don’t disclose the hardware or software used in the test, though.”

4)          PC Support Reps Tell Users to Uninstall Windows 10

The article is probably spot-on, but it says more about the abysmal competence of PC support reps than Windows 10. There are lots of obsolete and buggy drivers out there and some of the bugs only surface in Windows 10. Unfortunately, most support staff for most products are essentially running scripts and they have the reasoning capacity and technical knowledge of a mud wasp (mud wasps are entirely hard wired). If their script doesn’t solve your problem, or as importantly, get you off the line they’ll direct you to a solution that will. Fortunately, online communities are not on a script and are a far more reliable source of solutions than any PC support rep.

“Microsoft may be gung-ho about upgrading your PC to Windows 10, but some of the company’s partners aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the new OS, at least if you ask their tech-support reps. While going undercover for our annual Tech Support Showdown — in which we test each laptop vendor’s phone, social and Web support — we spoke with several agents who either actively discouraged us from upgrading to Windows 10 or failed to understand core features of the new OS. Phone-support reps from Dell and HP told us they discourage users from upgrading to Windows 10. An HP rep even tried to help us roll back to Windows 8.1 during one of our support calls. A Lenovo rep had nothing negative to say about Windows 10, but was confused about how Cortana works.”

5)          The Mt. Gox Bitcoin Debacle: An Update

One of the purported benefits of blockchain technology is the maintenance of a complete ledger of transactions (see item 1). I find it strange therefore that Bitcoin is associated with a massive amount of fraud. You expect fraud and market manipulation in any unregulated market but if the ledger is so good why do we almost never hear of any stolen bitcoin being returned to its owner? As expected, the Mt. Gox theft was not some sophisticated “hack” but simply comingling money from the business and customers and just stealing it. So much for security.

“More than 18 months after the MtGox bitcoin exchange filed for bankruptcy in February 2014, little is still known about what happened to the 850,000 missing bitcoins. The now defunct Tokyo-based company claimed hacker malleability attacks—illicit alterations of transaction ID numbers—were responsible for the disappearance. MtGox users who traded the virtually currency for fiat money suspected fraud. Whatever the reasons, the fallout appears to have been a financial calamity for Bitcoin investors: the value of a bitcoin dropping from a peak of over $1,000 prior to the exchange’s collapse to around $232 today.”

6)          Gene editing saves girl dying from leukaemia in world first

Gene editing is moving at a rapid pace (see item 7) and it has tremendous potential for medical application. It is a bit early to suggest this child was “cured” of leukemia however even a few months with a decent quality of life is something at such an early age. Hopefully the cancer is gone or has been “reset” so that if it does recur it can be managed. This is an impressive result but one has to be cautious with cancer breakthroughs as they often do not translate to wider application. Sometimes people just get better.

“For the first time ever, a person’s life has been saved by gene editing. One-year-old Layla was dying from leukaemia after all conventional treatments failed. “We didn’t want to give up on our daughter, though, so we asked the doctors to try anything,” her mother Lisa said in a statement released by Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, where Layla (pictured above) was treated. And they did. Layla’s doctors got permission to use an experimental form of gene therapy using genetically engineered immune cells from a donor. Within a month these cells had killed off all the cancerous cells in her bone marrow.”

7)          CRISPR Gene Editing to Be Tested on People by 2017, Says Editas

We’ve mentioned CRISPR before: it is a recently discovered, low cost, high precision, technique to allow gene editing which may have as profound an impact on human health as vaccines. CRISPR may allow correction of genetic defects but its real impact may be in cancer therapy where immune cells may be developed which specifically target cancer cells as in item 6. It is still early days and we can expect a lot of disappointments and dead patients, but the potential is amazing.

“CRISPR technology was invented just three years ago but is so precise and cheap to use it has quickly spread through biology laboratories. Already, scientists have used it to generate genetically engineered monkeys, and the technique has stirred debate over whether modified humans are next. Editas is one of several startups, including Intellia Therapeutics and CRISPR Therapeutics, that have plans to use the technique to correct DNA disorders that affect children and adults. Bosley said that because CRISPR can “repair broken genes” it holds promise for treating several thousand inherited disorders caused by gene mistakes, most of which, like Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis, have no cure.”

8)          User data plundering by Android and iOS apps is as rampant as you suspected

Many of the most avid users of iPhones, Android, Facebook, etc, were outraged by revelations the NSA was spying on them while at the same time their own smartphones were providing even more sensitive information to corporations. We might pretend Apple, Google, or Facebook, are responsible with that information but many of the recipients of your personal data are simply anonymous. It seems clear to me some regulatory limits are needed, whatever the EULA of an app says.

“Apps in both Google Play and the Apple App Store frequently send users’ highly personal information to third parties, often with little or no notice, according to recently published research that studied 110 apps. The researchers analyzed 55 of the most popular apps from each market and found that a significant percentage of them regularly provided Google, Apple, and other third parties with user e-mail addresses, names, and physical locations. On average, Android apps sent potentially sensitive data to 3.1 third-party domains while the average iOS app sent it to 2.6 third-party domains. In some cases, health apps sent searches including words such as “herpes” and “interferon” to no fewer than five domains with no notification that it was happening. “The results of this study point out that the current permissions systems on iOS and Android are limited in how comprehensively they inform users about the degree of data sharing that occurs,” the authors of the study, titled Who Knows What About Me? A Survey of Behind the Scenes Personal Data Sharing to Third Parties by Mobile Apps, wrote. “Apps on Android and iOS today do not need to have permission request notifications for user inputs like PII and behavioral data.””

9)          This startup is trying to win the $600 billion industry that Uber didn’t

I generally dismiss “Uber of” business plans but this one kind of makes sense. Essentially it sets up a marketplace for short haul trucking, resulting in what economists call “price discovery” and, ideally, optimal price as well as less corruption. The idea is a good one and it’ll probably take off, however, there is nothing to prevent others from replicating the service. Nevertheless, like eBay, once you become known as the clearing house for a particular type of transaction you can sustain that position due to popularity alone.

“Convoy, a Seattle-based company that presents itself as “Uber for trucking,” launches today. The online service and app pairs shippers with available local carriers based on proper equipment, payload, capacity, and distance. Convoy gives pre-approved carriers the option to accept or decline a job based on the listed price, which eliminates haggling — a hallmark of the trucking business. But who cares about trucking? A lot of people, it turns out: the industry exceeded $600 billion in 2011, according to data from trade group American Trucking Associations (ATA). That’s a big number. And it’s been shockingly resilient to disruption, even as Uber takes over the taxi world. But the trucking infrastructure is more vast and complex. Convoy says there are 1.2 million trucking companies in the US, most of which have fewer than six trucks. Many of these companies send their drivers on hauls over short distances. A fair percentage of trucking business comes from the “spot market” — short-notice shipments that can drive the price of shipping up and down based on supply and demand.”

10)      The sky’s limit – Shifting computer power to the cloud brings many benefits—but don’t ignore the risks

Cloud computing is all the rage in technology investing nowadays. It’s probably a mixed blessing: on the one hand you have massively scalable applications which would be hard to do without public cloud, and on the other hand you have the dangers of “lock in” depending on how you manage your business. There are lots of other negatives as well: despite being touted as a huge opportunity for equipment vendors, cloud services are far more efficient and therefore require less gear. Not only that, but the hardware is largely abstracted away meaning users don’t care if the application is running on Intel, ARM, or any other CPU. Although cloud vendors have a lot more resources to maintain and secure their systems, they also represent a single point of failure and a “big prize” for hackers.

“But cloud computing makes one perennial problem worse. In the old IT world, once a firm or a consumer had decided on an operating system or database, it was difficult and costly to switch to another. In the cloud this “lock in” is even worse. Cloud providers go to great lengths to make it easy to upload data. They accumulate huge amounts of complex information, which cannot easily be moved to an alternative provider. Cloud firms also create a world of interconnected services, software and devices, which is convenient but only for as long as you don’t venture outside their universe. Being locked in to a provider is risky. Firms can start to tighten the screws by increasing prices. If a cloud provider goes bust, its customers may have trouble retrieving their data.”

11)      Google Apps vs Office 365: Comparing the Usage, Adoption & Effectiveness of Cloud IT’s Power Players

This study is a bit dated but it looks at the corporate demographics of adoption of Microsoft and Google’s respective Software as a Service (SaaS) office suites. I do not entirely understand why you would rent an office suite rather than buy one (or download Libreoffice for free) but I guess it makes the lives of IT people easier and that is pretty much the mission of most IT departments.

“The post helped illustrate the growing shift towards cloud IT, based off survey responses from 1,500 IT professionals. We’re back with the second installment of Trends in Cloud IT, which focuses on the two major players in the cloud office system space: Google Apps and Office 365. Some of the key questions this post will answer are: •How do the Google Apps and Office 365 customer bases compare to each other? How much money are companies saving as they move to Google Apps and Office 365? How are companies actually executing their move to the cloud (all at once or in phases)? Are end users actually working in the cloud or are they continuing to work in desktop versions of the software? How do Google Apps and Office 365 affect workplace productivity and collaboration?”

12)      Europe’s Other Crisis: A Digital Recession

The challenge I see is that EU business culture is decidedly anti-entrepreneurial and digital technologies tend to be entrepreneur driven. The complaint that the EU values data security is a red herring: most EU states have had ample experience with the negative effects of a national security state to be wary of US spying. Regardless the article makes some interesting points regarding the political obstacles to a modern digital economy.

“Of the 50 countries we studied in our Digital Evolution Index, 23 were European (not counting Turkey). Of these, only three, Switzerland, Ireland, and Estonia, made it to a commendable “Stand Out” category – which means that their high levels of digital development are attractive to global businesses and investors and that their digital ecosystems are positioned to nurture start ups and internet businesses that can compete globally. … Paradoxically, it is easier for people to cross borders within the EU than it is for digital goods and content to do so. Telecommunications, marketplace platforms, payment services, and postal and logistics systems are balkanized. While 44% of EU residents shopped online in 2014, a paltry 15% bought from another member state; barely up by six and a half percentage points since 2010, according to the European Commission’s (EC) “Digital Agenda Scoreboard 2015.” According to Der Standard, an Austrian newspaper, mailing a parcel from Munich to Salzburg (distance: 145km; 90 miles) costs many times more than mailing it from Munich to Berlin (distance: 585km; 364 miles).”

13)      NASA Mission Reveals Speed of Solar Wind Stripping Martian Atmosphere

This discovery directly relates to Mars but it probably generally applies to any planet without a large enough magnetic field. As this related item further explains, unlike Earth, Mars lacks a magnetic field to protect the atmosphere against solar winds Earth’s magnetic field is produced by a moving iron core and not all rocky planets have one. The magnetic field doesn’t just protect the atmosphere against erosion it also deflects charged particles and cosmic rays which are hazardous to life. Any effort to “terraform” Mars would have to deal with that important detail.

“MAVEN measurements indicate that the solar wind strips away gas at a rate of about 100 grams (equivalent to roughly 1/4 pound) every second. “Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “We’ve seen that the atmospheric erosion increases significantly during solar storms, so we think the loss rate was much higher billions of years ago when the sun was young and more active.” In addition, a series of dramatic solar storms hit Mars’ atmosphere in March 2015, and MAVEN found that the loss was accelerated. The combination of greater loss rates and increased solar storms in the past suggests that loss of atmosphere to space was likely a major process in changing the Martian climate.”

14)      Technology Device Ownership: 2015

This article has some useful statistics for gadget ownership. Not surprisingly, ownership of some devices like MP3 plays and e-readers is falling because smartphones and tablet do those tasks as well. I am a little baffled by the apparent decline of computer ownership among young adults but that might represent the effect of demographics I am unfamiliar with (finished with school, working manual labor/menial job, limited funds). The fact that 86% of young adults own a smartphone supports my thesis the market is maturing and will commoditize.

“Today, 68% of U.S. adults have a smartphone, up from 35% in 2011, and tablet computer ownership has edged up to 45% among adults, according to newly released survey data from the Pew Research Center.1 Smartphone ownership is nearing the saturation point with some groups: 86% of those ages 18-29 have a smartphone, as do 83% of those ages 30-49 and 87% of those living in households earning $75,000 and up annually. At the same time, the surveys suggest the adoption of some digital devices has slowed and even declined in recent years.”

15)      Skype co-founders build delivery bot that rides on sidewalks

Amazon has received a lot of press coverage for its crazy idea to deliver packages by drones. This is not only dangerous (any drone large enough to carry a few pounds can injure somebody see item 16) but drones have pretty short range. A little wheeled robot makes far more sense because it can carry more and travel farther safely, though I’d like to see it cope with snow. This sort of machine has been used inside buildings in factories and offices but I think it will be a long time before they catch on for outdoor use.

“While companies like Amazon and Google are betting on airborne drones for the future of delivery, two of the founders of Skype are taking a more pedestrian approach. They’ve created a company called Starship Technologies, and its eponymous robots are autonomous rovers that drive along sidewalks to carry packages at an average speed of 4mph. The aim is to deliver “two grocery bags” worth of goods (weighing up to 20lbs) in 5-30 minutes for “10-15 times less than the cost of current last-mile delivery alternatives.” Starship’s robots are said to be “99-percent” autonomous, which means that although they’ll drive themselves, human oversight will be present at all times, ready to take control if the robot gets confused. The goods inside Starship’s “cargo bay” are securely locked while it’s making deliveries, and can only be opened with the recipient’s mobile phone. We assume that’s through a specific application, as you’ll also be able to track the robot’s progress as it makes your delivery.”

16)      Report: Task Force to Propose Free Registration for All Drones Over 9 Ounces

Reports the FAA would require drone registration caused panic in the drone enthusiast community. Unfortunately that’s what you get when idiots do stupid things with toys. The 9 ounce limit is probably because any drone weighing less than that is considered “harmless” so it seems like a valid cut off. According to this specification comparison most cheap (less than $200) drones are pretty light and weigh only a couple ounces.

“The 25-member drone registration task force will, according to the Wall Street Journal, recommend mandatory drone registration be “simple and free” and be required for all drones that weigh more than nine ounces. The Wall Street Journal, which cites “three people familiar with the matter,” also reports that the task force will recommend users register by entering their name and address into a government-run website or mobile application.”

17)      Australia to trial cloud passports in world-first move

I have a Nexus card and it is quite similar to what is being called a cloud passport in this article. The idea makes some sense, provided you are only traveling to places that have the infrastructure to cope with such a thing, the machines aren’t offline, and so on. I found it interesting that, since about 12 million Australians have passports, a loss rate of 38,718 means about 1.6% of all passports are lost or stolen over their 5 year life. That seems high.

“Under a cloud passport, a traveller’s identity and biometrics data would be stored in a cloud, so passengers would no longer need to carry their passports and risk having them lost or stolen. DFAT says 38,718 passports were registered as lost or stolen in 2014-15, consistent with the 38,689 reported missing the previous year. Australia and New Zealand are now in discussions about trialling cloud passports. Ms Bishop acknowledged there were security requirements that would have to be met in order to store biometrics in the cloud, but told Fairfax Media: “We think it will go global.” The minister revealed the idea at the InnovationXchange headquarters in Canberra. InnovationXchange is a brainchild of the minister, dreamed up to disrupt the traditional ways bureaucrats distribute the aid budget, which the Coalition has severely cut since coming to office.”

18)      Eye Drops Could Clear Up Cataracts Using Newly Identified Chemical

Cataracts are a problem for the elderly and typically require surgery to fix. This is obviously not an option in the developing world due to cost. This discovery suggests that it may be possible to essentially dissolve the damaged protein through the use of eye drops, and that would likely be more cost effective depending on how they price the solution. The fact that dogs get cataracts, and can’t afford malpractice lawyers, suggests mutts will be treated before humans. It is interesting they mention possible extension of the approach to diseases like Alzheimer’s is intriguing but the brain/blood barrier would probably be a problem.

“A chemical that could potentially be used in eye drops to reverse cataracts, the leading cause of blindness, has been identified by a team of scientists from UC San Francisco (UCSF), the University of Michigan (U-M), and Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL). Identified as a “priority eye disease” by the World Health Organization, cataracts — caused when the lenses of the eyes lose their transparency — affect more than 20 million people worldwide. Although cataracts can be successfully removed with surgery, this approach is expensive, and most individuals blinded by severe cataracts in developing countries go untreated. Reported November 5 in Science, the newly identified compound is the first that is soluble enough to potentially form the basis of a practical eye-drop medication for cataracts.”

19)      Facebook won’t let you type this

Given the relatively modest cost of a social network and the stupendous profitability of Facebook I’m surprised nobody has thought of this before. Of course the pyramid scheme angle is the reason there is so much spam associated with Tsu, although Facebook is probably blocking it for business reasons as well. Claiming to share revenue with users is completely different from actually sharing revenue with users so it’ll be interesting to see what happens here. If they refine their approach to generate less spam they might have a shot.

“Tsu is a tiny new social network that claims to share its advertising revenue with its users. Unlike most social media sites, including Facebook, which keep 100% of the profit from the ads displayed on your page, Tsu only keeps 10%. You keep 45%. The chain of friends that invited you to Tsu split the rest. That means there’s a financial incentive to post on Tsu, invite people to Tsu, and direct people to your Tsu page. There’s even incentive to send people to the Tsu pages of the folks who you brought into the Tsu network. Your Facebook feed could easily be flooded with links.”

20)      Open source textbooks not flunking out

Any parent with a kid in school knows the textbook business is a huge scam and any taxpayer indirectly funding textbooks for public schools should feel the same way. There is very little new stuff necessitating a $200 textbook even in 3rd or 4th year university and there is virtually nothing taught in public school which is not in the public domain. It will be too late for me, but I’d like to see universities and public schools adopt open source textbooks for the vast savings it would produce. As this study shows, students using open source books do as well or better than those who pay through the nose for them.

“Finally, a bit of good news on the college costs front: A study out of Brigham Young University finds that free open source textbooks do the job pretty darn well. The study of nearly 17,000 students at 9 colleges found that open source textbooks (or open educational resources — OERs in academic lingo) found that students learn the same amount or more from the free books across many subjects. (Here’s a sampling of the sorts of texts available, via a University of Minnesota site.) What’s more, 85% of students and instructors said open textbooks were actually better than the commercial ones. The research focused its results based on measurements such as course completion, final grade, final grade of C- or higher, enrollment intensity, and enrollment intensity in the following semester.”