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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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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 http://www.welt.de, 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!”