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.”

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