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


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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.”

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