The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 27th 2016

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 27th 2016


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)          Apple is (still) wrong, and tech needs to grow up.

Apple’s refusal to comply with a court order and help the FBI investigate a known terrorist dominated tech news over the past couple of weeks. I believe Apple’s posturing is largely a commercial move since all large US tech companies have collaborated with the egregious invasion of privacy by the NSA so I assume there is a back door to Apple’s encryption. Regardless, Apple is now refusing to budge and, better yet, promising to implement security which they claim will prevent even them from accessing user data. One has to wonder what sort of society you have when governments sweep private data without a warrant and with the collusion of large tech companies and large tech companies refuse to comply with a legal search warrant.

“Apple has deliberately framed the debate as a technical matter of the company being forced to “break” its encryption, and provide “backdoors” to government, both as scare tactics and in an attempt to turn the issue into a referendum on encryption itself. Perhaps the company really does, or does not, see it this way; either way, it’s fairly irrelevant. I do not recall the American public ever deciding to outsource to a wildly profitable for-profit public company — the world’s most valuable, by the way — the right to decide on our behalf what the boundaries should be between law enforcement’s ability to investigate crimes and the citizenry’s expectations of privacy. Those are public policy decisions made by the voters’ representatives, not by industry.”

2)          Software Helps Gene Editing Tool CRISPR Live Up to Its Hype

CRISPR is probably one of the greatest advances in medicine and biochemistry in several decades. It is a fast moving field and tools are being developed to accelerate its use. This article discusses newly developed software makes the development of targets much easier. It’s truly remarkable how quickly scientists have shifted so many fields of study over to this powerful genetic engineering tool.

“As good as CRISPR is compared to its predecessors, the tool doesn’t always work, says Jacob Corn, scientific director at the Innovative Genomics Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley. “We don’t really understand why that is,” he says. That’s where software comes in. Algorithms can help researchers design their CRISPR tools in a way that is statistically more likely to succeed. CRISPR systems are equipped with two main features: a short strand of programmable genetic code (called a guide RNA) and a protein (usually an enzyme called Cas9) that acts as a pair of molecular scissors. Once the complex is introduced into a cell, the guide RNA ushers Cas9 to a precise location in an organism’s DNA sequence (or genome), sticks to it like Velcro, and lets the Cas9 snip the DNA. The cell’s own machinery then repairs the cut, chewing up a bit of DNA or adding some in the process, thus disrupting the gene. Researchers can also intentionally introduce a piece of new genetic code to the site.”

3)          Boston Dynamics reveal incredible walking robot that can stack shelves and get up when pushed over

This is an impressive video which was released concurrent with a PBS Nova episode “Rise of the Robots” which aired this week which shows how far robotics has come in the past couple years and how far they have to go. As impressive as this demo is, it is worth noting the robot weighs several hundred pounds and is shown lifting 10 pounds. Also, there is no real intelligence involved: the thing is as dumb as a bug. Still, a bipedal robot which can stay upright and which can get up when it falls is pretty impressive, especially since they needed tethers until a couple years ago.

“Boston Dynamics has improved the design of its humanoid Atlas robot, with an even more impressive design. The robot appears quite dynamic in both the indoors and outdoors. Atlas uses sensors in the body and legs for balance, and LIDAR and stereo sensors in its head for navigation and avoiding obstacles. Atlas is seen picking up boxes and stacking them, navigating through the forest and opening doors. Its creators as you can see, confidently attack the robot to test its recovery abilities. They tease the robot by moving the box away from it and pushing it over flat on its robot behind.”

4)          Electric Car War Sends Lithium Prices Sky High

It looks like there is one commodity whose price isn’t going down: lithium carbonate. 2021 is only 5 years away and it usually takes quite a while for new commodity sources to come on stream so it is hard to imagine 100,000 tons will come on stream in time. I suggest investors (or lithium speculators) be very cautious with respect to this theme: demand for lithium carbonate is based on forecasts for EV battery demand. EV demand will be affected by fossil fuel demand, subsidies (which are more likely to go away than to increase), and pricing of EVs. Since EV pricing will be determined by battery prices, and most battery price models make unsubstantiated assumptions about price declines, I wouldn’t bet the farm on lithium carbonate commodities demand being as high as forecast. If nothing else you can’t make the batteries if you don’t have the commodity.

“And when the wave of megafactories starts pumping out batteries—with the first slated to come online as soon as next year–we could need up to 100,000 tons of new lithium carbonate by 2021. It’s an amount of lithium we just don’t have right now. The war is definitely on, and lithium prices are the immediate and long-term beneficiary. It all depends on batteries, so it all depends on lithium.”

5)          EU urges industry to speed the arrival of self-driving cars

Everybody wants to do whatever they can to accelerate the development of self-driving cars. This is a good thing since governments often bend over backwards to impede technological progress or implement all kinds of regulations which ensure profit for the few at the expense of the many. We are still a couple of decades away from truly self-driving cars but the systems being developed to support the technology will like save many lives well before fully autonomous vehicles are on the roads.

“Europe should be the first to deploy connected and automated driving, said Günther Oettinger, EU commissioner for digital economy and society, as he unveiled plans for an EU-wide rollout of the supporting technologies to representatives of the car and telecoms industries at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona this week. Oettinger called on the industry to lay plans for “a cross-border virtual network” supporting the adoption of driverless cars. While admitting the commission has not figured out all the technical, financial and legislative details, Oettinger insisted on moving swiftly. “It needs further underpinning […], but my aim is to go forward and to deploy fast,” he said.”

6)          Controlling vehicle features of Nissan LEAFs across the globe via vulnerable APIs

This is more of a demonstration of how bad Internet of Things security is than an article about Electric Vehicles. Long story short, auto companies, consumer electronics companies, etc, are not security experts and as a result any gadget which can connect to the Internet can probably be hacked without too much trouble. Heck – even products made by security experts have holes in them. The difference with IoT holes is that they are really, really, big.

“One of the guys was a bit inspired by what we’d done and just happened to own one of these – the world’s best-selling electric car, a Nissan LEAF: What the workshop attendee ultimately discovered was that not only could he connect to his LEAF over the internet and control features independently of how Nissan had designed the app, he could control other people’s LEAFs. I subsequently discovered that friend and fellow security researcher Scott Helme also has a LEAF so we recorded the following video to demonstrate the problem. I’m putting this up front here to clearly put into context what this risk enables someone to do then I’ll delve into the details over the remainder of the post.

7)          They came for phones, but VR swept them off their feet

I recall being “swept off my feet” at a Consumer Electronics show watching a video game console demonstration. It later turned out that the demonstration was not of an actual video game but rather was essentially a movie which had been rendered offsite and not in real time. It remains to be seen if VR lives up to the hype and whether pricy headsets and high costs of required computer upgrades will enable broad adoption.

“For a trade show that’s supposed to be about phones and other mobile devices, this week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona served up VR nearly nonstop. Samsung’s booth featured a virtual reality roller coaster ride, complete with moving seats. Next door, the SK Telecom booth offered a VR submarine experience. HTC unveiled the pricing and look of its Vive VR system. And in countless booths you could see headsets from VR wunderkind Oculus, a unit of Facebook. To be sure, there are still plenty of challenges to overcome. The early experiences are expensive. You may even have to buy a pricey PC to go with your pricey headset. The quality of the graphics isn’t consistent and can be downright headache-inducing with the wrong equipment. There’s also a question of how much VR content will be available.”

8)          Phones Top Crash Risk Factors for Cars

For the most part the issue is one of distracted driving and, unfortunately, a smartphone offers plenty of opportunity for distraction. The good news is, even if your car doesn’t have Bluetooth you can pick up a car radio with integrated hands-free for $100 or less. Google Voice and Siri allows for remarkably voice control of your phone and allows you to dial, send texts or even ask for navigation hands free. This still might be distracting but far less so than actually fiddling with your handset while driving.

“Drivers constantly reaching for their phones may be the single factor most responsible for car crash increases in recent years. Such distracted driving behavior was caught repeatedly on video in the largest study of car crash risk ever conducted using real-world driving data. The damning data came from a US $70-million study designed by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and funded by the U.S. Transportation Research Board. That research collected more than 55 million kilometers of real-world driving data from cars rigged with video cameras and other sensors. Such a big data study involving more than 3,500 drivers provided the first large-scale opportunity to study driver behaviors contributing to car crashes. For example, researchers found that driver distractions doubled the overall crash risk and occurred during 52 percent of observed driving time.”

9)          This is the flexible, foldable future of smartphone displays

The pictures are neat but as is often the case what matters here are parameters they don’t mention such as display response time, durability, power consumption and so on. I figure the Holy Grail of flexible displays will be when they can be produced on a web press and be essentially disposable. Nonetheless, this technology may have applications in some sizeable niches.

“Flexible displays are yet to fully realise their potential in our mobile devices, but one British firm has a range of screens it’s hoping will soon change that. We’ve already seen flexible displays in a handful of products, with the likes of the LG G Flex and Samsung Gear Fit dabbling with the bendable form factor, but you can’t fold them in half or wrap them round your arm. Heading over to the FlexEnable stand at MWC 2016, we were shown some exciting screen technology from the Cambridge-based firm. It’s created a range of full colour screens which can be folded, rolled and flexed with ease. While its LCD solution can be bent round a coffee up, its transistor solution can be rolled around a HB pencil.”

10)      Samsung scores legal win over Apple in patent feud

Every now and then some sanity enters patent cases. In this case, the last stop before the US Supreme Court stated the obvious: Apple’s “Slide to unlock” feature should never have been granted a patent due to its obviousness. No doubt Apple will try to appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court as it has been misusing the US patent system as an anti-competitive tool for years now.

“The U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals dismantled a San Jose jury’s findings in the second trial between the two rivals, essentially concluding the technology at the heart of Apple’s lawsuit was so obvious that Samsung could not be punished for incorporating it into its smartphones. The appeals court added salt to Apple’s wound by upholding a $158,000 judgment against the Cupertino company for infringing a Samsung tech patent involving camera features. In addressing one of Apple’s patents for its popular slide-to-lock feature, the appeals court noted that a key argument about such technology being integral to the iPhone’s popularity does not overcome Samsung’s position that much of the information was readily available to the industry. “A reasonable jury could therefore not find a nexus between the patented feature and the commercial success of the iPhone,” the court wrote.”

11)      Samsung Doubles UFS Capacity, Performance

UFS is a replacement technology for e-MMC which is the type of flash traditionally used in mobile phones, netbooks, and so on. As the article shows this successor technology is faster than the SSD interface found on most PCs. Although this particular device is targeting smartphones it will also be useful in Ultrabooks and tablets. Long story short you are looking at a high performance replacement for a hard disk drive on a single chip.

“Samsung’s UFS memory uses its V-NAND flash memory chips and a specially designed high-performance controller to meet the requirements of high-end smartphones, particularly functions such as Ultra HD video playback and multitasking on large-screen mobile devices. It can handle up to 45,000 and 40,000 input/output operations per second (IOPS) for random reading and writing respectively, the company said, and it is more than two times faster than the 19,000 and 14,000 IOPS of its previous generation of UFS memory. The 256GB UFS takes advantage of two lanes of data transfer to move data at up to 850MB/s for sequential reading, making it nearly twice as fast as a typical SATA-based SSD for PCs. Sequential writes of up to 260MB/s are supported, which is about three times faster than a high-performance micro SD card.”

12)      The Rise of LinkedIn Fraud (And How to Avoid Being a Victim)

The entire purpose of LinkedIn seems to be to generate spam. I always knew when my former employer was laying off because I would get a whole pile of LinkedIn messages from people who suddenly wanted to “reconnect” with me (they had no such interest while they were still employed). The solution was obvious: delete the LinkedIn account. Unsurprisingly, LinkedIn has become a mechanism for delivery of phishing spam. After all, a potential customer or employer is far more believable than a Nigerian prince.

“In the recent months I’ve started noticing something strange – too many connection requests from people I do not know. Since I’m working in the cybersecurity industry, I’m very careful with whom I add on LinkedIn. Most of these requests were what I would deem safe, but an alarming number of them started originating from obviously fake profiles. And for a good reason – I am the CEO of a company, making me a high-value target. What do these fraudsters need my information for? Most likely for phishing campaigns – they are among the most popular means to acquiring a target’s security credentials and personal data. One report revealed a large number of hackers who were speculated to be have operating out of Iran. Creating dozens of fake LinkedIn accounts by posing as corporate headhunters, they sought to snag working professionals in industries such as telecommunications and even government agencies. Once the approach and the trap is laid with successful results, the targets are enticed into giving up information such as business emails.”

13)      Media companies worried as ad blocking goes mobile

Online advertising is frequently annoying, distracting, fraudulent, and used to deliver malware. The technological response has been to block all of it, and content producers (many of which are old line media companies desperate for revenue) have begun blocking users who use adblockers. The technology is spreading to mobile devices which it makes particular sense due to the fact mobile bandwidth is expensive. Nobody in the online advertising community seems to have realized that this problem is of their own creation, preferring instead to whine about the response. Thanks to my friend and colleague Ian McWalter for this item.

“In a speech to his members, which include Google and Yahoo, Mr Rothenberg last month described Adblock Plus, maker of the most popular software for blocking ads, as “an old-fashioned extortion racket, gussied [dressed] up in the flowery but false language of contemporary consumerism”. The barbed speech is the latest sign of anxiety in the media and marketing sectors over the rapid adoption by consumers of technologies to prevent advertising from appearing on web pages. More than 200m people worldwide use ad-blocking software, which is double the number two years ago, according to estimates by PageFair, the anti-blocking service, and Adobe, the software company.”

14)      Free TV for life? It’s here, and it may even be legal

Until I read this article I was actually unaware that streaming content was not illegal under Canadian law though that will probably change. Streaming may be legal in Canada but it is illegal in the US and Android TV boxes are selling like hotcakes there. It is hard to see how any government could prevent streaming of illegal content, or prevent the sale of boxes or the distribution of Kodi. After all, the boxes and Kodi has legitimate legal uses: there are plenty of free streaming channels carrying specialty content, and there are even subscription services.

“Customers do have to pay for the device, which sells for around $100 to $200, depending on the model. But the promise of television without monthly bills is real, and it’s a fast growing business. Here’s how it works: vendors start with a basic Android TV box. The devices are similar to Apple TV, but they use the Android operating system. That means vendors can load them with special software so the gadget can access an almost unlimited amount of television shows and movies. Customers attach the loaded box to their TV and stream whatever they want, with no commercials. There are no monthly fees, just the up-front cost of the device.”

15)      For the first time ever, the ‘Big 6’ US pay-TV providers lost subs for a full year

There appears to be a generational shift in viewing habits: millennials tend not to watch TV per se but prefer to stream or torrent content on their laptops. Devices such as Android TV boxes running Kodi make it easier to do the same thing and watch content on a large screen TV. Delivery of content via the Internet provides much greater choice and it will result in disruption of the traditional cable TV market. Lucky for cable companies, many of them are also broadband suppliers.

“And, keep in mind that the fourth quarter is usually a healthy one for operators that have acquired college student, families that have moved into new homes in time for the school year and the restart of college and pro football, two of the highest audience garnering segments. For the quarter, the six – DirecTV, AT&T, Time Warner, Comcast, Dish Network and Verizon, to much fanfare — added about 125,000 subscribers. For the year, however, they dropped 781,000. A year ago, by comparison, those companies added 472,000 subs and in 2013, they added 500,000.”

16)      Here’s how much money people are making from the sharing economy

Frankly it is somewhat surprising JP Morgan would have had access to this data: I certainly don’t like the idea of my banking information being scanned by a bank, especially since it only takes a small number of data items to de-anonymize purportedly anonymous data. Nevertheless, unsurprisingly, people who participate in things like Uber or Airbnb do appear to make some money from them. There real economic impact is probably in significantly offset by the loss of revenue from things like hotels and licensed taxis.

“Working for “sharing economy” companies such as Uber and Airbnb can boost income by up to 15pc, according to an expansive analysis of earnings by JP Morgan. Americans who make money from performing tasks on labour platforms such as Uber and TaskRabbit, a marketplace for outsourcing errands, earn an average of $533 (£373) extra each month. Participants who rent assets on capital platforms such as home rental site Airbnb and eBay, can make an additional $314 every month, on average.”

17)      Man has 3D-printed vertebrae implanted in world-first surgery

3D printing stocks have been crushed as investors realized it is extremely unlikely 3D printers will become consumer items. That doesn’t mean the technology itself isn’t revolutionary. Here is an example: doctors implanted 3D printed titanium vertebrae and used a 3D printed version of the diseased tissue to practice before they implanted it. Custom printed artificial joints are probably not that far away.

“In late 2015, Ralph Mobbs, a neurosurgeon at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, met a patient who suffered from a virulent form of cancer known as chordoma. The patient, who is in his 60s, had a tumour in a particularly hard-to-get-to location, Mobbs told Mashable Australia. “At the top of the neck, there are two highly-specialised vertebrae that are involved in the flexion and rotation of the head. This tumour had occupied those two vertebrae,” he said. Without treatment, the tumour can slowly compress the brain stem and spinal chord, causing quadriplegia. “It’s a particularly horrible way to go,” Mobbs said. … In addition to constructing the titanium implant, the company also printed the doctor a number of models of the patient’s exact anatomy so he was able to practice the surgery before walking into the operating theatre.”

18)      You don’t have to put up with Windows 10’s new lock screen ads

I figured I’d throw this in in case anybody out there has been affected. It seems to only be an issue with certain lock screen settings and mine was set to “Windows spotlight” which doesn’t show annoying tips, fun facts, etc. Advertisers targeting online users have to be the most oblivious people out there.

“In a move that is unlikely to make the company many friends, Microsoft has started to push adverts on the lock screen for Windows 10. As ExtremeTech notes, it’s not like we didn’t know this was coming, but it will certainly be interesting to see the wider reaction now that lock screens are actually being adorned with ads – the first one is for Rise of the Tomb Raider, by the way. This decision will likely produce more cracks in the ice Microsoft is skating on with Windows 10, which has been getting thinner of late with all the controversy surrounding the amount of data the OS sends back to Redmond HQ (even if you adjust all the settings you can to block this, data is still being sent – at least with the Home version of the operating system). At any rate, not everyone is seeing the adverts yet, so this “feature” would appear to be still rolling out (it may even be US only at this point).”

19)      Novel Detectors: Ultrathin light-trapping birnessite could be sustainable energy source

Production of hydrogen directly from sunlight could be more efficient than, for example, production of electricity from sunlight and production of hydrogen from electricity. The challenge with hydrogen is storage: hydrogen gas is very light and compression of any gas is energy intensive. The real issue is one of cost and efficiency: does this material allow for cheaper energy than, say, natural gas, which recently hit long term low price. Thanks to Bob McWhirter of Selective Asset Management for this item.

“Splitting water (H2O) through an oxidation process into hydrogen fuel and oxygen or converting carbon dioxide (CO2) into a fuel such as methanol requires a large amount of energy. Fortunately, in nature, plants perform photosynthesis by using light to perform a set of chemical/electrical processes that convert energy to food and oxygen. But a new photosynthesis method from researchers at Florida State University (FSU; Tallahassee, FL) explores the substitution of various cations into a layered manganese oxide (MnO) material called birnessite to tune the bandgap of the resultant modified material such that it is able to absorb light and efficiently complete a water-splitting process that can generate hydrogen.1 The research has implications for low-cost methods to create hydrogen gas (H2) and oxygen gas (O2) using engineered ultrathin materials.”

20)      A Stanford grad who raised $40 million thinks he’s figured out how to get rid of Wi-Fi dead spots in your house — and it actually works

The quality of Business Insider articles is sometimes so bad it has entertainment value. Of course, this may be a paid add or “sponsored content”. Either way, we have guy who lacks even basic knowledge of how to properly set up a Wi Fi network (after all, he seems to be using an actual antique for a router), heaping praise on a staggeringly expensive solution to a problem he could have solved any number of 6 different ways for no more than ¼ the price. It is particularly amusing that investors funded this business to the tune of $40M.

“With my old router (a standard Netgear offering) upstairs I would get about 15-25 mbps for download speeds (via Speedtest on both laptop and iPhone). The new Eero setup gave about 35-45 mbps. The differences in the living room, near my old router, were less noticeable. But the Eero setup still boosted my downloads from 35-45 mbps to 45-55 mbps. The Eero setup also improved my network’s signal strength (via Wi-Fi Analyzer on Android). Upstairs, it went from around -65 to around -42 (the closer to zero you are, the better). In the living room, where the main unit is, it went from about -44 to about -36. Rounding it out, it went from -51 to -38 in my downstairs bedroom.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 19th 2016

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 19th 2016


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)          Suddenly, the Solar Boom Is Starting to Look like a Bubble

Just to be clear, solar power is nowhere “grid parity” and probably never will be unless they continue to fudge the numbers. There is more to the cost of producing solar power than the panels and even then the rated capacity is rarely achieved, except for one day of the year at the equator on a sunny day – if the panel is new. The reason the business has boomed is simply that there are massive subsidies and related support. The transition from coal fired to natural gas fired power production – helped by the impact of fracking on natural gas prices – has done far more for CO2 emissions than all those subsidies have. Its great if you are in the solar business, much less so if you are a taxpayer.

“In December, Congress extended the federal investment tax credit for solar installations through 2022, convincing analysts to project strong growth for the solar industry in coming years. Prices for solar panels continue to decline, even as emissions reduction targets reached under the Paris climate accord drive governments to seek more power from renewable energy sources. Several recent reports have shown that the cost of solar is often comparable or nearly comparable to the average price of power on the utility grid, a threshold known as grid parity. … Last month Nevada introduced sharp cutbacks in its program for net metering—the fees paid to homeowners with rooftop solar installations for excess power they send back to the grid. California and Hawaii, two of the biggest solar markets, have introduced changes to their net metering schemes as well. Across the country, as many as 20 other states are considering such changes, which would dramatically alter the economics of rooftop solar.”

2)          Is Tesla About To Unleash A Black Swan On The Energy Industry?

No. No they are not. The article tries to suggest that the rumored specifications for a mass market EV are close, but not close enough. The reality is not nuanced: Tesla can’t manufacture a reliable, high priced vehicle at a profit despite massive subsidies. The manufacturing capacity and service infrastructure needed for a mass market vehicle are substantially greater than a niche car sold in low volumes. More to the point, there is no way taxpayers would subsidize a mass market car and the subsidies are designed to disappear in a few years. The only companies which can afford to make a mass market car are real manufacturers who can use the profits from pick-up trucks and SUVs to cover their losses on EVs.

“Today, there are over one billion ICE passenger vehicles on the roads compared to just over one million electric. Electric vehicles sales have increased almost 80% per annum since 2010 and were about 400,000 (equivalent to two weeks of VW’s current sales) of the 85 million vehicles sold globally in 2015. Driving range is important to compete with an ICE vehicle, which are fueled through a fully depreciated distribution system. For the alternative to be successful, it needs to avoid (or minimize) investments in a network of refueling infrastructure (e.g., charge stalls in store parking lots) to keep down the effective cost of operating the vehicle. Avoiding this infrastructure investment is critical for electric vehicles to compete in advanced economies.”

3)          Apple CEO Tim Cook says company won’t build the FBI a backdoor for the iPhone

This was the tech story of the week. My view is that, almost certainly, Apple’s encryption has already been cracked by the NSA if for no other reason that it is impossible to believe that it is the only large US tech company not to have colluded. Therefore, Cook’s position is largely posturing for maximal commercial effect. Nevertheless, this is the phone of a known terrorist and the company is refusing to obey a court order. The case will, no doubt, be appealed, and most likely (see item 4) be upheld. We’ll see if management makes the correct choice between criminal contempt of court or continued posturing for market share.

“On Tuesday, a California judge ordered Apple to help break into an encrypted iPhone that was used by Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters. The highly technical order specified that Apple should create software that would turn off the phone’s auto-erase feature and make it easier for the FBI to brute-force the password, decrypting the data on the phone. Apple responded quickly to the request that it undermine one of its security promises to customers: that only they, and not Apple, can unlock the encrypted data on their iPhones. Apple CEO Tim Cook said the company refuses to build a “backdoor” for the iPhone in a customer letter posted to Apple’s site late Tuesday evening. He says Apple will oppose the order and accused the government of overreach.”

4)          Apple is wrong. Your iPhone is not a black box.

With all the excitement over Apple’s “principled” stand on refusing to obey a court order, this article provides a counterpoint based on – get this – the actual law concerning the question. Unsurprisingly, according to this analysis, there is nothing magical about smartphones or iPhones in particular with respect to a legal search and Apple doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Nevertheless since Apple is being asked to modify its OS in order to allow the search, it may be able to contest the order on the basis that the government can’t order you to write software.

“But bear in mind: at no period in American history has there ever been any personal information, let alone any whole class of information, that was ever considered wholly immune to government access. … In every liberal democracy, there is a balance between the need for strong civil liberties and the maintenance of safety and order. We inevitably give up some freedoms in the name of public safety: I cannot drive 100 mph on the highway, fire a howitzer in my backyard, or bring shovelfuls of tropical dirt home from overseas (at least without a lot of oversight). Forget terrorists. (But actually don’t, because that matters too.) When common criminals — drug dealers, pimps, gangs, and certainly their white collar counterparts — start using smartphones that keep all of their contacts, communications, networks and data inaccessible to law enforcement, where does that leave us as a society? The potential for public harm is obvious and irrefutable.”

5)          Apple apologizes, issues fix for Error 53 that disables iPhones and iPads

You might recall this news item from the previous two weeks. Apple thought that bricking phones which had been repaired by non-approved shops was a good idea. This is not only a stupid position it is likely criminal behavior in many countries. Apple vigorously defended its decision on the basis of protecting security and, predictably, Apple fans agreed in unison (except, of course, the poor souls who had their phones destroyed). Sanity, and, doubtless a careful reading of the law, has forced Apple to backtrack on this appallingly stupid move. Predictably, Apple fans are, in unison, proclaiming the (revised) decision to be the correct one.

“Apple has released a software update for iPhone and iPad users who found that their devices stopped working after going to third-party technicians for repairs. The problem, known as Error 53, bricks your phone if any non-Apple source tampers with the newest version of the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, installed on the iPhone 5s, 6 and 6s and some models of the iPad. Apple has said it was designed as a security feature to prevent unauthorized access to the phone. But many users called the function a means to stifle independent repair shops that might charge less for repairs than those from an official Apple store.”

6)          Seeing Beyond The Hubris Of Facebook’s Free Basics Fiasco

There is nothing unusual about a business strategy based upon a false premise, so Facebook shareholders should be happy the government of India shut them down before Facebook blew any more money on the scheme. The data in the article are a bit of an eye opener though.

“The Free Basics project originated from an idea that Zuckerberg had about connecting the next 5 billion people. He documented this in a paper titled Is Connectivity A Human Right? The paper’s thesis was that data access is more expensive than smartphones. He wrote that in the U.S. “an iPhone with a typical two-year data plan costs about $2,000, where about $500–600 of that is the phone and ~$1,500 is the data”. Therefore, the key was to make Internet access affordable by making it more efficient to deliver data and improving the efficiency of apps to less data. What Zuckerberg and his U.S. team didn’t understand was that in India you can buy computer tablets and smartphones for as little as $50, and that 100MB of data—which is more than a Free Basics user will consume in a month—costs much less than a dollar. So the entire basis of the paper was flawed. And then there was a complete lack of understanding of the language, and of the cultural issues, and of the distrust of foreign corporations bearing gifts.”

7)          Here’s Why CBS Is The Future Of Television No One Saw Coming (Except Les Moonves)

The broadcast and cable TV businesses are undergoing a significant transformation as more and more consumers are dropping cable subscriptions and moving to streaming. Most of the articles on the subject are about failure but this one looks at CBS’s approach and why it should be successful.

“The result was CBS All Access, the $6-a-month service that does indeed include the ability to watch CBS live, thanks to deals with 125 local affiliates. (Not every market in America has this option yet, but DeBevoise says they’re closing in on 90 percent coverage.) It’s also ad-supported, which means it not only puts $6 per month per subscriber in CBS Corp.’s pocket, but also brings in some advertising dollars as well — about $4 a month per customer. “We believe in the ad-supported model, but we also believe in finding new business models as well,” CBS’ head of ad sales, Jo Ann Ross, says. “Now, if somebody wants to buy a digital package that’s going to amplify what they do on the channel, we’re able to facilitate that.””

8)          FCC Cable Box Vote: Here’s What New Rules Could Mean For Google, Comcast And Your TV

This might be a big deal, and not just for cable companies. The cable box is a bit like the old telephones people used to be forced to rent: expensive, clunky, obsolete, and designed for the vendor not the consumer. It should cost no more than $50 to purchase a cable box and there is a good chance that a competitive market will see prices drop well below that. More significantly, cable box functionality might be combined with other tech products such as TVs, Rokus, etc..

“Buried somewhere in your cable bill is a not-so-noticeable fee of $7.43. That’s how money much the Federal Communications Commission says the average American household pays each month to rent a piece of equipment that most people hate: the set-top box. And now, its days may be numbered. The commission on Thursday morning voted to start the process of formulating regulations that would require pay-TV companies to enable their video streams to pass through any set-top box, not just ones leased from the operator. “This issue is not really complex,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. “Congress has explicitly instructed us to assure that there are competitive information devices, be it a box or an app.””

9)          Eternal 5D data storage could record the history of humankind

Most recording media – whether paper, film, magnetic, etc., deteriorate over time and for some media the technology to access the data gets lost. Try reading an 8” hard sectored floppy disk one day. This technology has an extremely long life expectancy, but the issue will be whether anybody knows how to read the discs, let alone has access to a reader, even 100 years from now.

“Using nanostructured glass, scientists from the University’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) have developed the recording and retrieval processes of five dimensional (5D) digital data by femtosecond laser writing. The storage allows unprecedented properties including 360 TB/disc data capacity, thermal stability up to 1,000°C and virtually unlimited lifetime at room temperature (13.8 billion years at 190°C ) opening a new era of eternal data archiving. As a very stable and safe form of portable memory, the technology could be highly useful for organisations with big archives, such as national archives, museums and libraries, to preserve their information and records.”

10)      IBM has just open-sourced 44,000 lines of blockchain code on GitHub

There are all kinds of start-ups working on Bitcoin related technologies. Blockchain is an open source technology and it is unclear whether you can assert Intellectual Property rights on mathematics. Besides, since blockchain requires a distributed ledger it is hard to imagine a few hundred thousand independent computer owners running code to support a proprietary standard. Long story short, IBM’s decision is the only one which makes sense.

“Whether transparent, decentralized database technologies like blockchain become a tool for the masses or the few is still yet to be decided. In fact, a UN paper that looks at what blockchain is and what it could do just went live last week. But if you’re as excited as the tech giants are to start putting stuff like this to work, IBM has just announced it’s open-sourcing a whole load of code on GitHub. A blockchain is an online, public ledger where you can log just about any kind of transaction, rather than it being controlled by a central institution. Although much of the theory is yet to be tested, many believe it could transform everything from financial exchanges to legal contracts.”

11)      Apple Pay will help China’s mammoth state banks crush Alibaba offline

Not all Apple news was about refusing to decrypt a terrorist’s phone. This was given a lot of play but it is not particularly important. In order for a pay system to work you need the devices to be in the hands of a significant number of consumers and while iPhones may be a great status symbol they are far from a mass market item in China.

“How many Chinese consumers, exactly, will be able to sign on to Apple Pay is something of a mystery though it is likely to be in the tens of millions. The company doesn’t break out total iPhone users in China, or total sales of iPhones there, although analysts estimate Chinese buyers bought three to four million iPhone 6S’s in the first weekend of sales. iPhones were the most-sold smartphone brand in urban China in 2015, with a 27% market share, a quarterly report from Kantar shows, and half of the iPhones in China will be Apple Pay-compatible by Q2 2016, according to research from TechPinions‘ Ben Bajarin. UnionPay has many other partners besides Apple. It announced a similar deal with Samsung Pay in December, and is also in talks with domestic smartphone brands including Xiaomi, Huawei, ZTE and Lenovo on mobile payment services, Chinese financial media outlet Caixin reported, citing unidentified sources.”

12)      Uber losing $1 billion a year to compete in China

Somehow Uber has become the prototype of a “unicorn” tech company with a massive valuation, disruptive business model, and so on. The thing is, while they may disrupt the taxi business, they have no sustainable competitive advantage: they run a car service with an integrated dispatch and billing platform. This is not rocket science and car services are not an inherently profitable business. Regardless, the company is “investing” (i.e. burning through) vast quantities of cash in order to buy market share. That share will persist as long as they are willing to pay money for it. Watch for the company to crash and burn.

“Uber Technologies Inc is burning through more than a billion dollars a year in China as it wages a fierce price war against local rival Didi Kuaidi, its chief executive said. The company’s Chinese business boosted its valuation last month to more than $8 billion after raising more than $1 billion in its latest funding round, but the U.S. ride-hailing app is not yet profitable in mainland China because of the intense competition. “We’re profitable in the USA, but we’re losing over $1 billion a year in China,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told Canadian technology platform Betakit. “We have a fierce competitor that’s unprofitable in every city they exist in, but they’re buying up market share. I wish the world wasn’t that way.””

13)      Hospital paid 17K ransom to hackers of its computer network

Ransomware is a relatively new form of hack which encrypts user data and demands a payment (typically in cyber currency) to decrypt the data. It is a bit surprising that the ransom in this case is such a trifling amount, given the size of the institution. Perhaps the hospital will allocate some resources to cyber security and secure backups in the future.

“A Los Angeles hospital paid a ransom of about $17,000 to hackers who infiltrated and disabled its computer network because paying was in the best interest of the hospital and the most efficient way to solve the problem, the medical center’s chief executive said Wednesday. Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center paid the demanded ransom of 40 bitcoins — currently worth $16,664 dollars — after the network infiltration that began Feb. 5, CEO Allen Stefanek said in a statement. The FBI is investigating the attack, often called “ransomware,” where hackers encrypt a computer network’s data to hold it “hostage,” providing a digital decryption key to unlock it for a price. “The quickest and most efficient way to restore our systems and administrative functions was to pay the ransom and obtain the decryption key,” Stefanek said. “In the best interest of restoring normal operations, we did this.””

14)      Hard-coded password exposes up to 46,000 video surveillance DVRs to hacking

This was of great interest to me as my home surveillance system a Lorex. I tried logging in using these credentials and failed. Perhaps the particular weakness only applies to non-IP security systems rather than the state of the art system I have. Still it shows that security exists more in the imagination than in many products.

“”If these credentials are supplied, full access is granted to the web interface,” the RBS researchers said a report scheduled to be published Wednesday. RaySharp claims on its website that it ships over 60,000 DVRs globally every month, but what makes things worse is that it’s not only RaySharp branded products that are affected. The Chinese company also creates digital video recorders and firmware for other companies which then sell those devices around the world under their own brands. The RBS researchers confirmed that at least some of the DVR products from König, Swann Communications, COP-USA, KGUARD Security, Defender (a brand of Circus World Displays) and LOREX Technology, a division of FLIR Systems, contain the same hard-coded root password.”

15)      Over 100 banks hit by sophisticated cyberattack

This seems to be an expanded report on the hack which we reported on recently. At the time it seemed the victims were confined to Russia and one could conclude that perhaps Russian banking systems were not up to par. It turns out that the attack was not confined to Russia and it appears likely that it isn’t just Russian banking systems which are not up to snuff. Either way, a few hundred million in cash is a pretty good payday.

“A sophisticated global cyberattack struck more than 100 banks in 30 countries stealing hundreds of millions of dollars, The New York Times reported Saturday. Citing a soon to be released report from computer security company Kaspersky Lab, the newspaper said the attack involved malicious software that gave hackers long-term access to banking systems. A group of Russians, Chinese and Europeans was able to siphon off around $300 million in one of the world’s largest bank robberies, the report said. The money was transferred to bank accounts around the world in small-value amounts to avoid detection.”

16)      Iranian app helps users avoid morality police

The app is essentially an Iranian version of Waze except targeting “morality police” instead of traffic cops. Last I heard the app had been taken off line but it would be pretty easy to replace it, even with messaging applications. Hopefully Iranian youth will make the “morality police” an even greater parody than they currently are.

“Gershad, a new smartphone application rapidly gaining popularity in Iran, helps users avoid checkpoints set up by Iranian morality police. The app, which is trending on social media (although download statistics are not currently available), allows users to tag the location of morality police checkpoints on a map and share the locations with other users. The morality police enforce Islamic dress and behavior codes with random checkpoints which can be difficult to avoid. Gershad helps users to avoid encounters with morality police by publishing locations of checkpoints.”

17)      Build your own action figures with the new ThingMaker 3D printer

I remain pretty skeptical there is a consumer market for 3D printers. Besides price, what makes this one interesting is that it is to be sold by Mattel and apparently supported by Autodesk. Mind you, Mattel’s track record with respect to selling technology, is not without blemishes.

“The ThingMaker won’t ship until this fall, but the app is already available and can provide plenty of entertainment value in the meantime. You’re given a selection of stock figures (and creatures) to choose from, but once you hit the edit screen any part can be swapped out thanks to the ball-and-socket construction that all the pieces follow. Your samurai warrior doesn’t need a pair of fairy wings but they certainly couldn’t hurt, right? And there’s nothing to stop you from giving your fighter a dinosaur arm. The app doesn’t judge. Pick whatever color you want, and even the texture. When you’re done designing you can pose your creations and set them against stock backgrounds like a desert, ancient ruins or an underwater scene with a sunken ship.”

18)      Tapping the Brakes on the Virtual-Reality Hype Machine

2016 is supposed to be the year VR headsets become mainstream and, as this article show, the hype might be getting ahead of itself. It remains to be seen if the devices live up to expectations, let alone whether there are enough high performance PCs out there capable of running the required software. Frankly, the gizmos make me nauseous but I may be in the minority.

“Unity Technologies hosted the event, and during the keynote, the company’s CEO, John Riccitiello, said something remarkable. He said there is too much hype around AR/VR today. He said that unrealistic expectations threaten the enormous long-term potential he sees for the technologies and the market. I couldn’t agree more. Riccitiello went on to cite a January 2015 forecast that showed a VR-hardware installed base of nearly 40 million units by the end of 2016. I’m not going to cast stones regarding that forecast, as it is more than a year old. Also, as anyone who has attempted to predict a market where devices haven’t started shipping yet knows, it’s a messy business of slipped launched dates and broken assumptions. Suffice to say, this number is simply too high.”

19)      Potentially deadly drug interactions found mining FDA complaint bin

There is good reason to be skeptical of a lot of proposed “big data” type applications but this particular one makes sense. It is interesting to consider whether anonymized prescription data and medical records might be mined to find far more dangerous interactions. After all, not all such problems would result in a complaint even when the outcome was very bad for the patient.

“To get around the problem, a team of researchers (working with journalists at The Chicago Tribune) created a computer model to create side-effect profiles for prescription drugs. Then, they mined a massive database of drug-reaction complaints sent to the Food and Drug Administration, as well as 380,000 electronic health records. The results of the analysis so far suggest that four drug combinations—including the combination of the common antibiotic, ceftriaxone, with the over-the-counter heartburn medication, Prevacid (lansoprazole)—may cause a potentially fatal heart rhythm. The findings were published Wednesday in the journal Drug Safety.”

20)      Mitsubishi’s Display Projects ‘Passable’ Image in Midair

It’s a bit of a trick but a clever one. The image is formed by having special optic on either side so you can, in fact walk between them. I am sure the quality of the image will improve but it is questionable whether this will ever be more than novelty.

“Mitsubishi Electric Corp developed a display capable of projecting a 56-inch image (886 (W) x 1,120mm (H)) in midair and exhibited it at a meeting that it organized to announce its R&D results Feb 17, 2016. Viewers can freely pass through an image (video) that the display projects in midair. Mitsubishi Electric expects that the new display will be used for digital signage, amusements, guide signs, etc. The company has been developing the display in the aim of commercializing it in or after fiscal 2020.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 12th 2016

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 12th 2016


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)          U.S. can’t ban encryption because it’s a global phenomenon, Harvard study finds

This pretty much states the obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs stating. We live in a world where you can do a Google search for malware and launch a DDoS attack without even knowing what a DDoS attack actually is. It is, frankly, stupid to assume that laws in the US, EU, or anywhere else are going to prevent ready access to encryption technology. As I’ve written before, the promoters of such nonsense are shooting themselves in the foot: the NSA is going to penetrate systems whether they are legally allowed to do so or not, and blathering on about it just makes people suspicious of US technology.

“After a two-year campaign from the FBI, U.S. intelligence officials, and powerful politicians calling for backdoor access into Americans’ encrypted data, a new Harvard study argues that encryption is a worldwide technology that the United States cannot regulate and control on its own. The study, titled “A Worldwide Survey of Encryption Products,” aimed to catalog all the encryption products available online today. Researchers identified 546 encryption products from developers outside the U.S., a number representing two-thirds of the 865 that are available worldwide. The point of the research is clear: There’s a whole world of cryptography outside the United States. Any U.S. law that mandates so-called “backdoors” in encryption technology—Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is currently writing a bill that may do just that—will just push the business outside American borders.”

2)          New Software Can Actually Edit Actors’ Facial Expressions

This is really impressive technology which demonstrates how far image processing has come. Essentially the software allows a special effects technician to blend facial expressions from multiple shots, and to even vary that blending as desired. The video does a much better job at explaining it than I ever could. I don’t know how significant this will be for the post-production world, but it is still very impressive work.

“Shooting a scene in a movie can necessitate dozens of takes, sometimes more. In Gone Girl, director David Fincher was said to average 50 takes per scene. For The Social Network actors Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg acted the opening scene 99 times (directed by Fincher again; apparently he’s notorious for this). Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining involved 127 takes of the infamous scene where Wendy backs up the stairs swinging a baseball bat at Jack, widely considered the most takes per scene of any film in history. A new software, from Disney Research in conjunction with the University of Surrey, may help cut down on the number of takes necessary, thereby saving time and money. FaceDirector blends images from several takes, making it possible to edit precise emotions onto actors’ faces.”

3)          Flash memory’s density surpasses hard drives for first time

This only speaks to the number of bits per unit volume but it is pretty impressive. The density, speed, and power efficiency of SSDs is much better than HDDs but the real problem is price: SSDs are much more expensive. Nonetheless, I have predicted than as the price of 256GB SSDs approach $50, there will be a whole transition from HDDs to SSDs which will devastate the HDD industry. This should happen in the next 12 to 18 months and after than it’ll all be downhill as SSD pricing gets closer to HDD pricing.

“At last year’s ISSCC, Samsung white papers indicated that its 3D NAND flash products had reached 1.19Tbits per square inch (Tbpsi) and said in 2016 they would reach 1.69Tbpsi. This year, Micron revealed it had demonstrated areal densities in its laboratories of up to 2.77Tbpsi for its 3D NAND. … Because of 3D NAND’s greater density, manufacturers such as Micron and Intel are opening new plants or are revamping older NAND facilities to increase their 3D production, which is driving prices down. According to a recent report by DRAMeXchange, a division of market research firm TrendForce, the plummeting prices of SSDs have also driven their recent adoption in laptops. This year, SSDs will be used in around one-quarter of laptops. Next year, SSDs are expected to be in 31% of new consumer laptops, and by 2017 they’ll be in 41%, according to DRAMeXchange senior manager Alan Chen.”

4)          Tesla Will Get Trampled by the Mass Market

Tesla reported weak financial results the other day but, as usual, the CEO was able to get investors to ignore the targets he missed and focused on the future (he’ll worry about those targets when he misses them). I find Tesla’s financial statements amusing: they are one of the only companies I’ve seen with “non-GAAP” revenue. Mind you they are nothing compared to Solar City’s financials. In any event, this article does a good job pointing out that the transition from selling heavily subsidized, unreliable, and expensive status symbols to somewhat less expensive cars will be challenging. Unlike real car companies like GM, why can afford to sell a small number of cars at a loss, Tesla will need ever greater amounts of capital just to stay in business.

“Even with an ambitious goal of building 500,000 cars a year by 2020, Tesla would only have a fraction of the scale enjoyed by its competitors in terms of global products and platforms. And a huge amount of each unit’s cost would still be tied up in expensive batteries, where savings are going to be very difficult. Tesla will have to cut costs to the bone to reach the targeted price for Model 3, meaning all the features that surprised and delighted consumers in the Model S — long range, rapid acceleration, a high-tech interior and innovative design– will be lost.”

5)          Rooftop Solar Providers Face a Cloudier Future

I think people are confusing cause and effect: solar has never been cost effective way of generating power and it is unlikely it ever will be (that is a 10,000 word essay in itself). The transition from coal generation to natural gas has had a massive favorable impact on CO2 emissions and saves money to boot. The political will to subsidize a fundamentally non-viable scheme (solar) is weakening, and since that is the only reason these companies existed, they are now in deep trouble. Since few of the companies were profitable they relied on gullible investors to keep things going. Reality bites.

“Solar panels have been around for decades, but the businesses and methods that have propelled their fast spread across rooftops in the last five or six years are still new and untested. Many of the assumptions that underpin the financial models are far from certain, analysts and experts say, and as market conditions, public policies and technologies evolve, the risks are becoming more evident. Cheap natural gas doesn’t help, making it harder for rooftop solar energy to compete in markets with low electric rates. SolarCity’s troubles have attracted strong interest from short-sellers, who make money by wagering that a stock price will fall. Prominent among them is James S. Chanos, the hedge fund manager who, more than a decade ago, was one of the first to question Enron and make millions betting against it.”

6)          Metel Bank Robbers Borrowing from APT Attacks

There seems to be no limit to the imagination of criminals. Here we have a very carefully planned and executed hack which netted $1B in cash money from ATMs in Russia. In many ways it’s a pity this sort of skill couldn’t be put to better use, but then again I doubt it would pay as well.

“Today at the Security Analyst Summit, researchers from Kaspersky Lab Global Research & Analysis Team unveiled details on two new criminal operations that have borrowed heavily from targeted nation-state attacks, and also shared an update on a resurgent Carbanak gang, which last year, it was reported, had allegedly stolen upwards of $1 billion from more than 100 financial companies. The heaviest hitter among the newly discovered gangs is an ongoing campaign, mostly confined to Russia, known as Metel. This gang targets machines that have access to money transactions, such as call center and support machines, and once they are compromised, the attackers use that access to automate the rollback of ATM transactions. As the attackers empty ATM after ATM—Metel was found inside 30 organizations—the balances on the stolen accounts remained untouched.”

7)          Power Grid Honeypot Puts Face on Attacks

We carried an item on the hacking of Ukrainian power plants a few weeks ago along with a follow up which noted that the damage wasn’t actually caused as much by the hacking as plain old vandalism. This article talks about some of the challenges associated with a real hack of the grid. It turns out it’s a lot easier to say than to do. Still, state actors or even insiders would have the resources.

““The grid is designed for self-preservation at all costs,” Chowdhury said. “Knocking down one substation can be remediated within seconds. It would take a massive amount of resources to attack high-voltage substations to disrupt the bulk grid.” Chowdhury cautioned, however, that there are state actors who do target grids and critical infrastructure with a measure of success. The motivation for the honeypot his group built was to understand attackers’ behaviors once they and wormed their way onto a critical industrial network. The honeypot is a virtualized environment designed to mimic an EMS, a SCADA device that controls the grid. Access to an EMS could give a hacker complete access to an electric grid. Lures varied according to geographies and were tailored in some cases to particular APT groups known to chase power grid intrusions. Chowdhury said the honeypot’s file systems were loaded with dummy transmission diagrams, mundane engineering documents, AutoCAD documents, data related to locations and transmission information.”


8)          Trane thermostat is a hot spot for viruses on home networks

I’ve written about the vulnerabilities of Internet of Things devices in the past: they are typically companies who lack the network security expertise of a Microsoft or Apple. In fact, many are made by nameless subcontractors and simply branded by familiar companies. The issue is not so much somebody might fiddle with your thermostat setting but they might instead install malware which snarfs up confidential information, etc.. As more and more of these types of low priced, insecure products are installed, more people will be victimized.

“The Talos team sent Trane a warning in April, then another in June, and yet again in August and September. Nothing was heard from the firm. In April 2015, one year after the first alert, Trane fixed the hardcoded password issue with a new release of the ComfortLink’s firmware. Cisco then tipped off US CERT about the remaining issues. Trane eventually addressed the flaws in its code in January 2016, but didn’t tell its customers that new firmware is available. The security fixes aren’t installed automatically, either: you need to download the update to an SD card, and then plug said card into the thermostat to perform the installation.”

9)          Apple under pressure as lawyers pledge action over ‘Error 53’ codes

This problem mention in last week’s Geek’s Reading List: Apple decided the best course of action if you get your phone repaired elsewhere was to unilaterally destroy your phone. As this article notes (and as we suggested last week) this is probably criminal and is almost certainly grounds for a significant lawsuit. Affected Apple owners are understandably outraged while the predictable chorus of Apple fanatics are justifying the move as reasonable within the context of security. This is yet another reason to avoid Apple products in general.

“At least one firm of US lawyers said it hopes to bring a class action against the technology giant on behalf of victims whose £500 phones have been rendered worthless by an Apple software upgrade. In the UK, a barrister told the Guardian that Apple’s “reckless” policy of effectively killing people’s iPhones following the software upgrade could potentially be viewed as an offence under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. The act makes it an offence to intentionally destroy the property of another.”

10)      Apple takes its eye off the ball: Why Apple fans are really coming to hate Apple software

I swore off Apple products a while back and refuse to install abominations like iTunes on any of my computers. This article looks at some of the complaints Apple users have regarding the how the quality of the company’s software products seems to be slipping. I obviously have no idea how accurate the article is, but investors might be interested in the implications of a deteriorating franchise – especially when the company has a reputation for high quality products at high prices.

“There always have been two great virtues in Apple’s policy of keeping the development of hardware and core software in-house: their seamless integration with each other and their quality. Lately, however, these virtues have started to disappear. The last few weeks have seen an explosion of discontent with the quality of the core apps of Apple’s iPhones, iPads and Mac computers — not only its OS X and iOS operating systems, but programs and services such as iTunes, Music, iCloud and Photos. Not only do the programs work poorly for many users, but they don’t link Apple devices together as reliably as they should. These complaints aren’t coming merely from users but several widely followed tech commentators who used to fit reliably in the category of Apple fans.”

11)      New Device Could Help Get Paralyzed People Back on Their Feet

This looks like a potentially impressive development but it is hard to assess how real that potential is. It is one thing to develop a gizmo which can be installed in the brain and yet another to get it to work and interpret the results. Above all, I’d be concerned about the potential for stroke. Nonetheless, you can’t help but wish them well.

“The brain machine interface consists of a stent-based electrode (stentrode), which is implanted within a blood vessel in the brain, and records the type of neural activity that has been shown in pre-clinical trials to move limbs through an exoskeleton or to control bionic limbs. The new device is the size of a small paperclip and will be implanted in the first in-human trial at The Royal Melbourne Hospital in 2017. The participants will be selected from the Austin Health Victorian Spinal Cord Unit. The results published today in Nature Biotechnology show the device is capable of recording high-quality signals emitted from the brain’s motor cortex, without the need for open brain surgery.”

12)      HBO Now slow to catch on with ‘cord-cutters’

The predictions of subscriber growth might have been lofty, but HBO probably has a challenge in terms of pricing. The service is not available in Canada, but in the US it is $15/month, about double Netflix, and that is simply too high for the content. HBO has some of the best content on TV, especially in its own series, however Netflix is gaining on them. The problem is that HBO can’t undercut the pricing it charges cable providers without disrupting that industry so it is in a bit of a bind.

“People seem to love HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “Girls.” But maybe not that much if they have to pay to watch them. HBO Now, the premium channel’s online-only subscription service, was expected to be a big hit with people who are cutting back on cable subscriptions, but adoption of the new service for now looks to be underwhelming. The channel’s CEO mentioned on a call with analysts Wednesday that HBO Now has brought in about 800,000 subscribers so far, well below the lofty predictions for the service.”

13)      Moore’s law really is dead this time

If so then what? Whether Moore’s Law is slowing now or not we are running into limits imposed by behaviour of devices on quantum scale. Regardless, the semiconductor industry has been growing at GDP +/- a few percent for about a decade now because the end markets are mostly mature and that has little to do with Moore’s Law. The real challenge for the industry is that no new sizeable markets are emerging to make up the difference. Perhaps robotics and self-driving cars might, but until then expect industry news to be dominated my mergers and acquisitions.

“But even these new techniques were up against a wall. The photolithography process used to transfer the chip patterns to the silicon wafer has been under considerable pressure: currently, light with a 193 nanometre wavelength is used to create chips with features just 14 nanometres. The oversized light wavelength is not insurmountable but adds extra complexity and cost to the manufacturing process. It has long been hoped that extreme UV, with a 13.5nm wavelength, will ease this constraint, but production-ready EUV technology has proven difficult to engineer. Even with EUV, it’s unclear just how much further scaling is even possible; at 2nm, transistors would be just 10 atoms wide, and it’s unlikely that they’d operate reliably at such a small scale. Even if these problems were resolved, the specter of power usage and dissipation looms large: as the transistors are packed ever tighter, dissipating the energy that they use becomes ever harder.”

14)      Researchers Discover a Cheap Method of Breaking Bitcoin Wallet Passwords

This is a little about Bitcoin, a bit more about encryption, and a lot about how cheap cloud services are. Back in the olden days, intelligence agencies had exclusive access to super computers because the things were so darned expensive. That meant a secure cypher was secure unless you had a smart cryptography team and a super computer. Now you can rent the equivalent of a supercomputer for next to nothing. Of course, you still need the smart guy but there are plenty of PhDs in encryption graduating every year.

“Unfortunately, this is not a safe method to create Bitcoin private keys, which White Ops security researcher Ryan Castellucci proved last summer at the DEFCON 23 security conference in Las Vegas, USA. Expanding on his work, two researchers from the University College London have targeted the secp256k1 elliptic curve algorithm used in Bitcoin’s internal make-up. … The researcher also revealed that, by using a run-of-the-mill Amazon EC2 account, an attacker would be able to check over 500,000 Bitcoin passwords per second. For each US dollar spent on renting the EC2 server, an attacker would be able to check 17.9 billion password strings. To check a trillion passwords, it would cost the attacker only $55.86 (€49.63).”

15)      New 1-Terabit internet satellites will deliver high-speed internet to remote areas

Broadband from geostationary satellites has a lot for problems: it is slow (a typical ping time is 600 milliseconds) and easily disrupted by weather. Plus there are typically data caps and limited speeds. Nonetheless, it is a good way to deploy coverage to specific and large parts of the planet without wasting infrastructure spending on parts you don’t cover as is the case with proposed satellite constellations. Significant advances in capacity mean the price of satellite broadband should drop and broadband caps and speeds should increase over the near future, making it a practical solution for more people in rural or underdeveloped areas.

“US-based satellite company ViaSat is teaming up with Boeing to create and deliver three new satellites that will deliver high-speed internet to remote areas around the world. The partnership was announced yesterday, months before the company is scheduled to launch its previous generation satellite, ViaSat-2, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The new ViaSat-3 satellites will be capable of much more. Each satellite will carry with it a total network capacity of 1 Tbps (yes, Terabit per second), about triple what ViaSat-2 is capable of. That will allow ViaSat to deliver 100 Mbps service to remote residential properties in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The company claims that work is already underway on the first two satellites, and that Boeing is already preparing them for launches by the end of 2019.”

16)      Terahertz wireless technology could bring fiber-optic speeds out of a fiber

This sure sounds impressive as they are using wireless technology to move data at a rate similar to fiber optic. The devil, as always, is in the details not provided, namely the conditions under which this was done. The higher the frequency of radio, the more it behaves like light, and you can bet some pretty fancy waveguides and antennas were needed to do this. There is a good chance the environment was carefully controlled and was likely extremely short range.

“Now THz wireless technology is armed with very wide bandwidths and QAM-capability. The use of QAM was a key to achieving 100 gigabits per second at 300 GHz,” said Prof. Minoru Fujishima, Graduate School of Advanced Sciences of Matter, Hiroshima University. “Today, we usually talk about wireless data-rates in megabits per second or gigabits per second. But I foresee we’ll soon be talking about terabits per second. That’s what THz wireless technology offers. Such extreme speeds are currently confined in optical fibers. I want to bring fiber-optic speeds out into the air, and we have taken an important step toward that goal,” he added.”

17)      iOS Date & Time Bug Bricks 64 bit Apple Devices

This is a pretty obscure bug and it is not surprising that Apple didn’t find it however it is pretty amazing somebody did. I’m not dumping on Apple in this article, but I’m putting this here to let people know NOT to replicate these steps in case they read about a “neat trick” in an email or web page. Yeah, people will happily do that.

“Users have recently uncovered a rare bug that can brick an iPod, iPhone, or iPad. The bug is known to effect iOS devices that contain A7, A8, A9, and A9X chipsets. All versions of the OS are affected. Trolls around the web are attempting to trick unsuspecting individuals into replicating this process, utilizing fake infographics and other tools to their advantage. If anyone tells you to complete the steps listed below, don’t listen to them!”

18)      Billion-dollar mistake: How inferior IT killed Target Canada

It is hard to believe this degree of incompetence was exclusively confined to Target’s IT. It’s not like you go down a path and keep going on auto-pilot: there are basic responsibilities associated with running a business, especially a publicly traded one, and it seems pretty clear the people running Target at all levels are prime examples of the “Peter Principal”. How much incompetence does it take not to realize that your shelves are empty and you need to do something about it?

“But Target Canada couldn’t keep track of their products. At first, there was too little coming into the distribution centers. Therefore, store shelves were left bare. Canadian customers who visited these first Targets found ghost towns in the form of large, cavernous stores with barely anything on the shelves. It was like a real-life Fallout 3 Super-Duper Mart. Later, the distribution centers became overwhelmed. The company managed to order goods, so they came into the distribution centers. But because they couldn’t properly compute shelving locations (that conflict between imperial units and the metric system), items backed up so much in the distribution centers that Target Canada management had to offload stock to additional area warehouses. So they had way too much stock in storage and not enough on the shelves.”

19)      Artificial Intelligence May Hold Key to Radiology’s Future

AI is probably going to be a major factor in the analysis of medical tests and imaging in the future. That doesn’t mean there won’t be doctors because the results of a test have to be evaluated within the context of a number of other factors and false positives can be as problematic as false negatives. Nonetheless, AI will probably have an important role as a failsafe to make sure nothing has been missed by the person making the decision.

“In one study, published in the Public Library of Science, 1 a collective intelligence of radiologists reduced false positives and false negatives when interpreting mammograms. This swarm AI overcame “one of the fundamental limitations to decision accuracy that individual radiologists face,” the authors concluded. The study demonstrated that this swarm intelligence could improve mammography screening and has the potential to improve many other types of medical decision-making, “including many areas of diagnostic imaging.” In another study, a dozen radiologists increased their ability to diagnose skeletal abnormalities correctly. The researchers concluded at the ninth international conference on swarm intelligence in 2014 that the “algorithm’s accuracy in distinguishing normal versus abnormal patients was significantly higher than the radiologists’ mean accuracy.””

20)      Deep Learning Makes Driverless Cars Better at Spotting Pedestrians

I suspect self-driving cars will use a combination of imaging technologies ranging from radar to LIDAR, to simple video to work their magic. This article has another cool video which demonstrates the technology in action. I don’t think the frame rate is that important, especially for driving. There are doubtless other applications such as security monitoring, which can probably use this as well.

“Today’s car crash-avoidance systems and experimental driverless cars rely on radar and other sensors to detect pedestrians on the road. The next improvement may come from engineers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), who have developed a pedestrian detection system that can perform in close to real-time based on visual cues alone. This video-only detection could make systems for spotting pedestrians both cheaper and more effective.”

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 5th 2016

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 5th 2016


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)          ‘Error 53’ fury mounts as Apple software update threatens to kill your iPhone 6

I swore off Apple products once I realized I was in an abusive relationship with a vendor. Apparently Apple has pushed out a software update which “bricks” iPhone 6s repaired by “unauthorized” parties. This is probably a violation of the law in a lot of places but I guess Apple figures it is the law. Regardless, class action lawyers are probably excited about the looming settlement. Apple’s justification that it is due to “security reasons” is laughable – it is like GM destroying your car “for safety reasons” because you installed non-GM brakes. I don’t understand why people put up with this.

“Thousands of iPhone 6 users claim they have been left holding almost worthless phones because Apple’s latest operating system permanently disables the handset if it detects that a repair has been carried out by a non-Apple technician. Relatively few people outside the tech world are aware of the so-called “error 53” problem, but if it happens to you you’ll know about it. And according to one specialist journalist, it “will kill your iPhone”. The issue appears to affect handsets where the home button, which has touch ID fingerprint recognition built-in, has been repaired by a “non-official” company or individual. It has also reportedly affected customers whose phone has been damaged but who have been able to carry on using it without the need for a repair.”

2)          SwiftKey’s sale and the unsustainable state of the mobile app market

In case you missed the news Microsoft, following the tradition of all tech companies with cash, elected to give $250 million of that cash to the shareholders of SwiftKey, rather than their own shareholders who would probably waste it on alcohol or food or something. This article laments that fact that applications are cheap, and somehow implying that prices need to go up. As such it represents a journalists understanding of technology and basic capitalism: the apps are cheap because they are for the most part trivial and optional. Few people would have installed this app if they had to pay for it and fewer still would have paid enough to make the company profitable. The entire raison d’etre of most app companies is not to make money from their apps but to pray that some fool at a larger company thinks buying them is a good idea. In other words, SwiftKey’s strategy actually worked out for them.

“This system we have of paying a few lousy shekels for complex mobile apps? Apps we use and rely on every day, in many cases, and for which we expect to receive eternal upgrades and support? Yeah — that’s gotta go. I know, I know: The very thought of paying more than three bucks for a piece of software these days is tough to swallow, no matter how much value we may get out of the thing. But as this week’s sale of SwiftKey to Microsoft underscores, that sort of penny-pinching mentality makes it tough for mobile app developers to survive on their own in the long term. And sooner or later, that’s going to turn into a serious problem for us as consumers.”

3)          Harnessing artificial intelligence to build an army of virtual analysts

Cybersecurity is shifting away from protecting systems from hackers to detecting intrusions once the firewalls, etc., have been breached. Since there are always ways to get in (including basic cons) you need to detect when malevolent activity is taking place and stop it. AI (real AI, not killer robots) seems to be an approach with significant long term potential although it is mostly useable in the corporate environment.

“Enterprises of all types and sizes are continually probed and targeted by cyber attackers. It doesn’t matter whether they are after the company’s or their customers’ information, or are trying to find ways in so that they can commit fraud, what matters is that many are succeeding. So far, the security industry’s attempts to stop them have not been enough, but maybe this situation will finally change. PatternEx, a startup that gathered a team of AI researcher from MIT CSAIL as well as security and distributed systems experts, is poised to shake up things in the user and entity behavior analytics market.”

4)          Elon Musk personally bans blogger from buying a Tesla Model X

Normally you’d expect the CEO of a $22B publicly traded company not to treat a customer with contempt and behave like a petulant 10-year old. It turns out that publicly criticising Tesla for a botched product release is sufficient to gain the attention of the CEO which then takes the bizarre step of making things worse by cancelling the guy’s order. I’d never invest in a Musk related company, but if I did I’d wonder if this is how the guy treats customers how does he treat employees?

“Elon Musk is known for doing things differently – indeed, it’s been a major reason why both he and his companies have been so successful. But fingers crossed this method of thinking outside the square doesn’t succeed: Musk has allegedly banned a blogger from buying one of his cars for criticising the South African billionaire. It wasn’t a personal attack, or some anonymous keyboard warrior making ‘Yo Mama’ jokes at Musk’s expense. Venture capital investor Stewart Alsop merely wrote a post on Medium having a go at Musk over tardiness at a Tesla event. Admittedly, the post had the inflammatory title ‘Dear @ElonMusk: You should be ashamed of yourself’, but its content was all legitimate.”

5)          In Coal-Powered China, Electric Car Surge Fuels Fear of Worsening Smog

We read a lot about things like “renewable energy” in China but the fact is most of the power is generated from coal. Not just coal, but very dirty coal. This is a major source of China air pollution and related health issues. As the article notes, EVs are not an answer to this problem but something which may exacerbate it. Internal combustion engines are clean relative to coal generation plants, and having those plants run overtime to charge EVs makes the situation worse. The same holds for EVs anywhere: they are only as clean as the power used to recharge them.

“The government has been promoting electric vehicles to cut the smog that frequently envelops Chinese cities, helping sales quadruple last year and making China the biggest market, the finance minister said at the conference. Less than 1 percent of passenger cars are now new energy, but the pace of growth raises their potential to worsen smog. A series of studies by Tsinghua University, whose alumni includes the incumbent president, showed electric vehicles charged in China produce two to five times as much particulate matter and chemicals that contribute to smog versus gas-engine cars. Hybrid vehicles fare little better. “International experience shows that cleaning up the air doesn’t need to rely on electric vehicles,” said Los Angeles-based An Feng, director of the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation. “Clean up the power plants.””

6)          Africa’s Tech Gold Rush

The barriers to entry to the development of technology products have never been lower than it is today. Besides a vast array of open source development tools for software and hardware, there is a global distribution system which allows people to sell their wares or buy needed components to and from anywhere. This isn’t going to translate to a Kenyan Apple or Nigerian Microsoft, but it might. For every multi-billion dollar Silicon Valley tech company there are thousands of small ones employing people and making money. There is no reason some of those can’t be based in Africa.

“Africa is on the verge of something big. This seems to be a quiet, cautious consensus in some investment communities. The past year has been peppered with stories of tech startup hubs emerging across the continent, from Lagos to Kigali to Agadir. The model of American tech entrepreneurship looks to be slowly sparking a renaissance in the Silicon Sahara. As the gaze of America’s VCs begins to settle on African entrepreneurs, many open questions are left unanswered. Will Africa play host to the tech world’s next gold rush? Can these markets stay stable enough to grow the next billion-dollar Internet companies? Does Africa have what it takes to emulate Silicon Valley? The answer is a resounding “Yes.” Big things are ahead for African tech.”

7)          GE is phasing out CFL bulbs so that LED can take off

When I started writing about LED lighting about 10 years ago I had no idea costs were going to drop as quickly as they have, nor would I have predicted a major vendor was going to get out of the CFL business this soon. LED lights are not just energy efficient, they last a very long time (unlike CFLs) and the quality of light is better as well.

“That means this switch to LEDs is primarily about focusing on a single energy-efficient technology. GE’s real hope is that, in doing so, it can expand the market for LED bulbs. GE’s lighting head, John Strainic, says that across the industry, CFL bulbs hit about a 30 percent marketshare in 2007 thanks to big pushes from Walmart and Oprah — “I remember it very well,” he says, “because … I couldn’t find enough CFLs to ship to customers” — but the technology’s growth stopped there. In part, he says, that’s because consumers don’t like CFL’s slow start-up time. “It’s kinda been the product that everybody loves to hate.” LEDs solve that issue, so they may be able to capture a bigger market.”

8)          Copy and CudaDrive Services will be Discontinued

This is yet another example of why you want to avoid using cloud services to store data, except as a backup. Barracuda decided it would be nice to offer cloud storage, now they have changed their mind, throwing customers who were foolish enough to rely on the service into panic. I’d be surprised if their servers have the capacity to allow people to download their data in time, and even if they did people with capped broadband probably won’t be able to. If you use the cloud for data storage, make sure to have 100% of it on a local backup.

“We are announcing today that the Copy and CudaDrive services will be discontinued on May 1, 2016. Copy and CudaDrive have provided easy-to-use cloud file services and sharing functionality to millions of users the past 4+ years. However, as our business focus has shifted, we had to make the difficult decision to discontinue the Copy and CudaDrive services and allocate those resources elsewhere. For more information on this decision, please view the blog post from Rod Mathews, our GM of Storage. We know this comes as disappointing news to our users, but rest assured that we will do everything we can to take care of each of you in the manner for which Barracuda is known.”

9)          Crypto flaw was so glaring it may be intentional eavesdropping backdoor

The interesting thing here is not the flaw, which may or may not have been intentional, it is the fact it went unnoticed for about a year. In other words, quality control was so lax that somebody (potentially a hacker) was able to cripple security on this software and the “glaring” flaw wasn’t even noticed until recently. Whether or not this was intentional it shows how easy it can be to insert a backdoor and potentially profit for months without discovery.

“A post published to the Hacker News forum suggested that the non-prime parameter was the result of a code update published in January 2015. The update credited someone named Zhigang Wang for reporting the underlying problem and sending a patch. Posts attributed to Wang suggested that he worked for Oracle at the time that the fix was introduced. So far, no one has stepped forward to explain how an error of this magnitude was made and why it wasn’t spotted by developers maintaining the Socat code base. An e-mail sent to a former address used by Wang wasn’t immediately returned. This post will be updated if a response comes later.”

10)      Use Malwarebytes antivirus? Then you should see what Google has found

Treat this as a sort of public service announcement. The good news is, Google has people looking out for this sort of thing, the bad news is one of the most popular anti-malware tools has security flaws. Of course it is hard to determine how likely these are to be an actual issue for most users. Now if Google could only scan its ads for scams and malware …

“Be warned that if you use Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, a popular piece of software for combating malware, there are some major vulnerabilities in the program – and these won’t be fixed for some time yet. The security flaws were first discovered by researcher Tavis Ormandy, who is part of Google’s Project Zero team that searches out exploits. Ormandy informed Malwarebytes of the vulnerabilities back in November, but now more than three months has passed, the details have been made public (which is Project Zero’s policy).”–1314349

11)      5 major cyber security reports you must read

This item lists a number of reports relating to cybersecurity approaches and concerns. T might be of interest to some readers. Hey – it’s a slow week.

“Given the ever changing nature of the cyber security industry, and the threats posed by attackers, researchers are constantly producing in depth reports that look into the evolving threat landscape. Here CBR rounds up some of the key findings of 2016.”

12)      EasyJet to trial hydrogen fuel cells

Greenwashing is when a company makes announcements or does things which purport to help the environment but are really just PR. The idea here is to (somehow) recapture the energy associated with braking and (somehow) make that into hydrogen which is (somehow) compressed and stored and (somehow) fed to the wheels during taxiing. Now, call me a skeptic, but most airplanes have neither electric generators nor motors on their wheels, probably for good reason, it is very hard to produce hydrogen from water using a short burst of electric power, and it is complicated and wasteful to compress and store said hydrogen, and the water to hydrogen to compressed hydrogen to electric motor efficiency would be well below 5%. Other than those details this makes perfect sense.

“Low-cost airline easyJet is discussing plans to install hydrogen batteries as part of a proposed zero emission fuel system, which would power its aircraft during taxiing. The budget service revealed designs for a hybrid plane this week, and said that it would begin trialling the technology later this year. The system will involve embedding a hydrogen fuel cell on board the aeroplanes, with the energy captured from the brakes on landing able to power the jet on the ground. This technique is similar to the high-end kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS) used in Formula One cars, which store recovered energy to later use for acceleration.”

13)      Bitcoin Mining Boom Prompts Utility to Seek Power Rate Hike

Bitcoin mining is the process of solving bitcoin hashes to make a new Bitcoin. This is a very computationally intensive process and the price of Bitcoin tends to trend to the cost of the electricity used to mine the Bitcoin. This means that this frivolous activity is either done surreptitiously (i.e. using other people’s electricity) or happens in places where power is cheap. The utility in this case is being prudent in that they correctly assume that few Bitcoin mining operations will be around long enough to pay back their investment in the infrastructure they are being asked to supply. They should probably just demand payment upfront.

“The bitcoin mining boom has prompted a backlash in Washington state, where a local power board has proposed a rate hike for high-density power users. The Chelan County Public Utility District (PUD), which serves the Wenatchee area, wants to raise the rate for “high density load” customers from 3.4 cents per kilowatt hour to just above 5 cents. Bitcoin mining operations and their landlords are protesting the rate hike, which targets users with a power density above 250 watts per square foot. That’s extreme density for a data center, but not uncommon in bitcoin mining, which requires power-hungry custom chips.”

14)      European Commission Targets ‘Bitcoin Anonymity’ For Regulation

There are many deficiencies associated with Bitcoin and some of those are associated with its potential for money laundering. Mostly for PR reasons some legitimate businesses have begun to accept Bitcoin as payment, which opens the door further since you can use a two-step process to convert Bitcoin to merchandize then sell that merchandize for cash. This initiative will not, in any way, have an impact on Bitcon related money laundering but like many other technology related laws it probably sounds like a good idea and that is all that matters.

“The only time Bitcoin is truly anonymous is when people use Tor to create the addresses and then transact from them, also over Tor. The moment someone’s identity is tied to a certain “anonymous address,” they become exposed. The European Union’s solution is not to ban Tor (at least not yet), but to force Bitcoin users to reveal their identity the moment they try to exchange Bitcoin for real currencies. Most, if not all, of the major digital currency exchanges in the EU are already heavily regulated and demand photo IDs and proof of address before they enable your account, so it’s not clear at whom this regulation is targeted.”,31123.html

15)      Startup announces development of flexiramics—ceramics with paper-like properties

Materials technologies seem to an interesting place to be in. This ceramic material looks like a non-woven textile and yet has all the characteristics of a ceramic. There is no mention of how much is costs to make or whether it has been tested for safety – after all, asbestos is a non-woven mineral as well. The selected application is a peculiar one as well, however it might have been selected as a high valued added niche.

“Traditionally, ceramics have been made by forming clay into shapes and then heating it—the result being a hard, brittle, glass-like material. In more recent years, scientists have broadened the definition to include a class of materials that are defined by the bonds that hold their molecules together. Most often they are highly crystalline, making them heat resistant , e.g. the Space Shuttle heat shields, or as material used in electronics for parts that call for very low conductivity. That has generally meant that ceramics can be strong, but they can also shatter if dropped or abused. They also tend to not react to other materials making them useful in a wide variety of products. Now, Eurekite claims to have developed a ceramic that retains the positive attributes of ceramics yet is flexible, which explains its name.”

16)      Google engineer finds USB Type-C cable that’s so bad it fried his Chromebook Pixel

Let that be a lesson to you all – just not the one that has been reported. No doubt the cable is a cheap knock off made without basic quality control. Such is the problem with a lot of products made in China. The real problem is not with the cable but with the devices he tested it on. These should not have been destroyed no matter how bad the cable was. USB in particular is supposed to be resilient to all kinds of abuse, short circuits, and so on and clearly that gear wasn’t. So what the bad cable did was show how bad the equipment was designed, not the other way around.

“Upon further analysis, Leung found that the cable had killed the Chromebook’s embedded controller, a chip that manages tasks such as keyboard initialisation, USB charging, and reading temperature sensors. Unfortunately this meant that the laptop could no longer boot up: because Chrome OS’s Verified Boot tech could no longer verify the embedded controller, it would only boot into recovery mode. (As far as Verified Boot is concerned, the controller might’ve been compromised in some way.) To find out what sort of devilry had fried his gear, Leung then analysed the cable with a breakout board and a multimeter. What he found was really quite shocking: “it appears that they completely miswired the cable. The GND pin on the Type-A plug is tied to the Vbus pins on the Type-C plug. The Vbus pin on the Type-A plug is tied to GND on the Type-C plug.””

17)      Ready or not, here comes Windows 10

The constant cajoling to upgrade to Windows 10 is causing a lot of anger in some circles and I can understand why. I’m a big fan of Windows 10 but people shouldn’t be forced to upgrade if they don’t want to. The business motives for Microsoft are pretty clear though: the fewer people on older operating systems and the more people on Windows 10, the lower the cost of support will be. Expect that Microsoft will announce “end of support” for pre-Windows 10 operating systems as soon as it has the numbers to do so. Since Windows 10 is a sort of “rolling” OS rather than a version, all Windows 10 users will end up with the same version and support costs will drop significantly. This is about Microsoft’s profit margins, not a the user experience.

“As announced last October, the free Windows 10 update has been promoted from an “optional” update to being a “recommended” one. This means that with the default Windows Update settings, the new operating system will be downloaded automatically, and its installer will be started. The operating system will not actually install itself unattended; Microsoft says that users will be able to reject the upgrade or reschedule it for a time that’s more convenient. The company has also described a variety of registry settings that suppress the upgrade. In common with most Windows Update deployments, the change from “optional” to “recommended” will be phased in, so Windows 7 and 8.1 users may not see the change immediately.”

18)      Today’s Hero Made an AI That Annoys Telemarketers For As Long As Possible

This guy deserves credit for a remarkable achievement. If I could figure out a way to automatically forward telemarketers to his phone number I’d do it. Perhaps somebody can make a telemarketer phone number database and an app which checks incoming numbers with the spoofed numbers these weasels use to bother us. Then the app could forward incoming calls to this service and waste their time. Tis to dream.

“Hanging up on annoying telemarketers is the easiest way to deal with them, but that just sends their autodialers onto the next unfortunate victim. Roger Anderson decided that telemarketers deserved a crueler fate, so he programmed an artificially intelligent bot that keeps them on the line for as long as possible. … After the initial “hello?, hello?,” Anderson’s sophisticated algorithm makes telemarketers think there’s an actual person on the line with random affirmations like “yes, uh huh, right.” It can even detect when a telemarketer is getting suspicious, triggering a completely inane response that usually convinces them otherwise. It’s absolutely brilliant when it works flawlessly.”

19)      Microsoft Looks to Submerge Datacenters Beneath the Ocean Waves

It is true that data centers require a lot of cooling, but the answer is probably not to sink the data center in the deep ocean. A pipe carrying water from the ocean to a chiller might be a better idea. Better yet would be to use the waste heat to pre-heat water for use in surrounding buildings. I have to wonder what the cost of a service call to a deep water data center would be.

“In 2014, Villanova Univ. researchers reported that datacenters were major source of energy waste. In fact, more than 2% of the U.S.’s total electricity usage can be attributed to datacenters. And almost half of that power was solely used for cooling the datacenters’ electronics. To remedy the problem, Microsoft is looking to the world’s oceans. “Project Natick” is attempting to pinpoint the pros and cons of manufacturing datacenters meant to operate below the ocean waves.”

20)      Veggie Factory: World’s First Vertical Farm Run Entirely By Robots

Time was Japan was a leader in all kinds of things. That is mostly in the past, except they do seem to have a strong push for robotics and automation, probably because of looming chronic labor shortages associated with very bad demographics. This article is interesting but the application probably isn’t going to be main stream. Vertical farms may be OK when there isn’t farmland but they are relatively speaking an environmental nightmare. This one might be slightly less of a nightmare but I doubt it would be cost effective outside of Japan.

“Taking vertical urban indoor farming efficiency to the next level, a new automated plant coming to Japan will be staffed entirely by robots and produce 30,000 heads of lettuce daily. The so-called Vegetable Factory is a project of Spread, a Japanese company already operating vertical farms. Located in Kyoto, its small army of bots will various seed, water, trim and harvest the lettuce. Spread’s new automation technology will not only produce more lettuce, it will also reduce labor costs by 50%, cut energy use by 30%, and recycle 98% of water needed to grow the crops.”