The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 25th 2016

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 25th 2016

Hello,

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

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

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

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

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.

Brian Piccioni

 

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1)          On a charge As Tesla becomes more like a regular carmaker, it faces a bumpier ride

Manufacturing an EV is not as difficult as making a traditional automobile with an internal combustion engine. The key is batteries, which are expensive and short lived. Nonetheless, politicians have decided EVs are a good idea (at least for political purposes) and heaped all manner of subsidies on EVs, including things like lower taxes, free charging, and so on. It will be interesting to see whether Tesla can move into the main stream market where customers are actually more demanding. If they are successful, barriers to entry are low so major vendors will step up and, in either event, The issue may be moot as volume sales cannot coexist with massive sales and investors are bound to lose interest in a money losing venture.

“Tesla has hitherto thrived in a niche. Other carmakers crammed bulky and expensive batteries into petite “city” cars. Tesla put a bigger power-pack into large and expensive ones (prices start at $70,000), more readily absorbing the cost of the battery. This also gives the cars a decent range of more than 250 miles (400km) between charges, and lightning acceleration. In 2015, after just over ten years in business, Tesla’s sales surpassed 50,000 cars. By 2020 it hopes to sell 500,000 a year, mostly Model 3s. These will cost as little as $35,000 (before the generous subsidies many governments dish out). But it is entering a part of the market where competition is intense and profit margins slimmer.”

http://www.economist.com/news/business/21695012-tesla-becomes-more-regular-carmaker-it-faces-bumpier-ride-charge

2)          Apple is boring now

There were two big news items related to Apple this week: one was its product launch event and the other was news the FBI had found a 3rd party willing to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone. The launch even only went well if you locked at it through the rose colored glasses of an Apple fanatic – most of the tech industry coverage was less than overwhelming. This article summarized the banality of the mid-year launch.

“Apple now sells 55 different Apple Watch bands and watches made out of five different materials, in two sizes. (That’s not to mention the myriad Hermès and Edition versions it also sells.) Apple sells iPads in five sizes and three colors, and has five iPhones in three sizes and four colors. It has laptops with 11, 12, 13 and 15-inch screens, some of which are available in multiple colors.”

http://qz.com/644889/apple-is-boring-now/

3)          The Uber Model, It Turns Out, Doesn’t Translate

I’m not really sure the Uber model translates to Uber. After all, reports have the company losing money like it’s going out of style and – let’s face it – running a car service should not be a highly profitable business. Regardless, this article hints at something else, namely that investors are losing patience which money losing “unicorns” especially since they can’t fob them off on an unsuspecting public through an IPO in the current market environment.

“Other than Uber, the hypersuccessful granddaddy of on-demand apps, many of these companies have come under stress. Across a variety of on-demand apps, prices are rising, service is declining, business models are shifting, and in some cases, companies are closing down. Here is what we are witnessing: the end of the on-demand dream. That dream was about price and convenience. Like Luxe, many of these companies marketed themselves as clever hacks of the existing order. They weren’t just less headache than old-world services, but because they were using phones to eliminate inefficiencies, they argued that they could be cheaper, too — so cheap that as they grew, they could offer luxury-level service at mass-market prices.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/24/technology/the-uber-model-it-turns-out-doesnt-translate.html

4)          Once a Darling, Spanish Solar Company Abengoa Faces Reckoning

As I’ve said in the past, claims of a revolution associated with “alternative energy” would be more credible if not for the bankruptcies, massive subsidies, and outright hysteria when subsidy programs are altered. Very little reduction in CO2 emissions has been due to solar, etc., which actual make up a tiny fraction of overall energy production. The transition away from coal to natural gas (which is cheap mainly due to fracking) has been far more significant. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“Clean-energy technologies will play a crucial role as countries try to meet the ambitious targets set by the United Nations climate accord last December. But many of the technologies underpinning renewables are proving economically unsustainable in the short term, particularly with oil prices declining and governments reducing incentives. The financial reality is forcing companies globally to adjust. A big British utility, SSE, is rethinking its wind farms, as the country cuts subsidies. SolarCity and other American renewable companies left Nevada after the state withdrew its support of rooftop systems.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/18/business/international/once-a-darling-spanish-solar-company-abengoa-faces-reckoning.html

5)          Silicon Valley’s Tech Employees Are Getting Nervous

Silicon Valley has an extremely competitive market for high tech workers, who are notoriously fickle with respect to who they work for, as they should be. After all, while CEOs may be on a mission, the workers are there for the money. The past few years has seen wage rates steadily climb as large profitable firms such as Apple and Google bid against well-funded start-ups for the relatively modest talent pool. Alas, the easy money days seem to be coming to an end in the world of start-up as “down rounds” of financing are becoming more common.

“The tech labor market appears to be sizing up, as tech employees hunker down amid the cooling environment in Silicon Valley. They’re strategically planning their moves from company to company, according to The Wall Street Journal, avoiding start-ups that plan to raise more funding soon and asking recruiters questions about lowered stock prices and compensation in cash instead of equity. “I used to look at equity and think every company was going to be the next Facebook. Now when I see equity I’m like, ‘That’s nice but I want it in actual money,’” one designer told the Journal. Others are looking for “safe” jobs with tech companies sturdy enough to withstand the fallout from an imploding tech bubble. The mood still isn’t exactly austere— last year, the average salary in the San Jose and San Francisco metro areas was $197,411 —but the party in Silicon Valley seems to be ending, and tech employees aren’t oblivious to it. Gone are the days of hyperbolic language in tech recruitment and cheerleading when companies raise new rounds of funding or attain “unicorn” status.”

http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/03/silicon-valleys-tech-employees-are-getting-nervous

6)          Dear Apple, there’s nothing ‘really sad’ about using a 5-year-old PC

One of the “new” products to come out of the recent Apple even is simply a smaller iPad Pro. It is baffling why Apple continues to position iPads against PC since the comparison is entirely inapt: unlike Microsoft Surface, which run a full up operating system, iPads run a mobile OS and so, for a lot more than you pay for any cheap Android tablet you get about the same functionality. Admittedly, Apple doesn’t target the average person with its marketing but they really stepped in with this one.

“While presenting the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro today, Phil Schiller, Apple’s vice president of worldwide marketing, said that most of the people who buy an iPad Pro are coming from a Windows PC. He then elaborated with this “amazing statistic” on why PC users are switching to the iPad Pro, which was met with chuckles and applause from the audience: ‘There are over 600 million PCs in use today that are over five years old. This is really sad, it really is.” He’s wrong.”

http://thenextweb.com/opinion/2016/03/21/apple-hypocritical-insensitive-pc-users-old-pc/

7)          The next big thing in phones may not be a phone

The challenge for the mobile phone industry is something I call “feature saturation” which is when new features add declining marginal value to users. Almost any LTE smartphone has as much functionality as any user needs. Higher display resolutions, better cameras, and so on are nice but not enough to encourage the average consumer to upgrade an otherwise perfectly functional phone. The end of 2 year contracts in the US has also created an opportunity for consumers to hang on to their existing phone rather than paying full price for a new on. Apple’s problem is singular in that it sells its products at a remarkable premium relative to competitive product with near identical features. A discount phone, such as the “new” iPhone SE may result in a brief upgrade cycle but you can still buy better phones at lower prices elsewhere. Apple revenue and margins will come down.

“Nearly a decade after the iPhone broke the mould for mobile phones the question being asked is whether the evolution of the smartphone has finally come to an end, as even Apple now treats older, smaller 4-inch screens as something new. Industry experts believe innovation in smartphones is giving way to phone functions popping up as software or services in all manner of new devices from cars to fridges to watches and jewellery rather than remaining with handheld devices. And analysts and product designers said fresh breakthroughs are running up against the practical limits of what’s possible in current smartphone hardware in terms of screen size, battery life and network capacity.”

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-apple-products-innovation-idUSKCN0WO1UB

8)          10 more OEMs pledge to make auto-braking standard in new cars

A few months ago a group of auto manufacturers announced they intended to introduce auto-braking on their vehicles but the commitment was otherwise rather vague. More recently they committed to 2022 as a launch date and now we have substantially the entire auto-industry on board. Advanced safety features such as auto-brake but also lane change assist should significantly reduce collision rates and the severity of the collisions which occur. This will happen long before “self-driving” vehicles are commercially available.

“The number of car makers committed to making automatic emergency braking (AEB) a standard feature on all new cars has doubled this week. On Thursday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced that 20 manufacturers are now on board with the plan, which will see AEB systems installed throughout their model ranges by 2022. In September of last year, we reported that 10 OEMs had already made the pledge. In the past, government mandates were needed to spread advanced driver safety aids like airbags or electronic stability control systems beyond the luxury cars in which they first appeared. In this case, the auto industry has gotten ahead of possible NHTSA regulation and looks set to implement AEB itself.”

http://arstechnica.com/cars/2016/03/10-more-oems-pledge-to-make-auto-braking-standard-in-new-cars/

9)          Vice Media Traffic Plummets, Underscoring Risky Web Strategy

I rarely go to their web page, but HBO’s Vice TV is one of the few places you’ll see actual journalism, let alone investigative journalism, practiced. This article is not so much about Vice as it about the strange world of manipulating web traffic.

“Vice has been one of the more aggressive practitioners of traffic assignment in recent years, with Vice.com actually accounting for less than half of the traffic total the company has represented as “Vice Media” on Comscore. The addition of select publishers has driven some of Vice’s biggest audience gains in recent years, allowing the company to position itself as the kind of high-growth media darling that has helped CEO Shane Smith attract millions of dollars in well-heeled investors like Disney, A&E Networks and 21st Century Fox. But the strategy apparently backfired last month when the biggest booster of Vice Media’s traffic, Distractify.com, suddenly experienced a meltdown after months of fairly consistent growth. Distractify went into free fall in February vs. the prior month, dropping a whopping 68%, from 15.7 million to just under 5 million.”

http://variety.com/2016/digital/news/vice-media-traffic-plummets-underscoring-risky-web-strategy-1201733673/

10)      FBI says it might be able to break into seized iPhone, judge cancels order to aid decryption

Some weeks ago the FBI got a court order to force Apple to help it unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists. Whatever the backstory, Apple refused and elected transform the case into a fight for freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of cat videos. It is improbable that Apple is the only large US tech company which does not collude with the US national security establishment so I figure this is all marketing. In either event, nothing is uncrackable, especially if you’ve got the device in your hands.

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation said Monday that it might be able to break into the seized iPhone at the center of an encryption battle with Apple. That is why it wants a federal judge overseeing the litigation to vacate Tuesday’s hearing on whether Apple should assist the authorities in bypassing the four-digit passcode on the iPhone used by San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook, according to court documents filed Monday. “On Sunday, March 20, 2016, an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method for unlocking Farook’s iPhone. Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook’s iPhone,” the government said.”

http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/03/fbi-says-it-might-be-able-to-break-into-seized-iphone-wants-hearing-vacated/

11)      Apple Policy on Bugs May Explain Why Hackers Would Help F.B.I.

The article really doesn’t explain why hackers would not help the FBI if Apple’s bug bounty were any different, except that, perhaps, hackers already know how to hack the phone and don’t tell Apple because Apple won’t pay them for the information. A bug bounty should mean there is a financial incentive for anybody (even somebody who didn’t discover the bug but buys it off the open market) to bring it to the attention of Microsoft or Google but there is no incentive to do the same for Apple.

“Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla and many other tech companies all pay outside hackers who turn over bugs in their products and systems. Uber began a new bug bounty program on Tuesday. Google has paid outside hackers more than $6 million since it announced a bug bounty program in 2010, and the company last week doubled its top reward to $100,000 for anyone who can break into its Chromebook. Apple, which has had relatively strong security over the years, has been open about how security is a never-ending cat-and-mouse game and how it is unwilling to engage in a financial arms race to pay for code exploits. The company has yet to give hackers anything more than a gold star. When hackers do turn over serious flaws in its products, they may see their name listed on the company’s website — but that is it. That is a far cry from what hackers can expect if they sell an Apple flaw on the thriving underground market where a growing number of companies and government agencies are willing to pay hackers handsomely.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/23/technology/apple-policy-on-bugs-may-explain-why-hackers-might-help-fbi.html?_r=1

12)      French Police Report On Paris Attacks Shows No Evidence Of Encryption… So NY Times Invents Evidence Itself

After the recent terror attacks in Belgium I saw a couple of security experts on TV railing against, among other things, the use of “technology” (in particular encryption) in these attacks. While encryption may be convenient for a terrorist is can just complicate things, especially when you can get cheap mobile phones to coordinate the assault and then get rid of the phone. Security officials seem to confuse planning an attack with the invasion of Normandy: you don’t need to coordinate thousands of people to pull one off. Even if encryption were an issue it is relatively trivial to adopt codes which are highly secure but easy to use for a small group of people.

“But, amazingly, the NY Times takes evidence of a lack of encryption… to mean there must be encryption: “According to the police report and interviews with officials, none of the attackers’ emails or other electronic communications have been found, prompting the authorities to conclude that the group used encryption. What kind of encryption remains unknown, and is among the details that Mr. Abdeslam’s capture could help reveal.” But… that’s not how encryption works. If they’re using encrypted emails, the emails don’t disappear. You still can see that they exist, and the metadata of who sent messages to whom remains. It’s just that you can’t read the contents of the emails. This is bogeyman thinking about encryption, where people think it does something it doesn’t actually do. Sure, it’s possible that the attackers used some sort of secretive way to communicate, but then the issue isn’t encryption, but rather that they figured out how to hide the method by which they communicated. Or, you know, they just talked about stuff in person.”

https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20160321/00392533965/french-police-report-paris-attacks-shows-no-evidence-encryption-so-ny-times-invents-evidence-itself.shtml

13)      Ford CTO outlines main hurdles on the road to offering self-driving cars

One problem with a discussion of autonomous vehicles is that there is a yawning gap between what the auto industry is talking about and what consumers think they are talking about. It is not a coincidence that AV trials are done in places with excellent infrastructure and good weather. At best, 5 years from now “semi-autonomous” vehicles will allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel, under ideal conditions, in well maintained roads. Better maps might help, but maps become obsolete very quickly – that boy who is not a fire hydrant might be a garbage can or a cardboard box. Full autonomy will require vision systems which can see in all weather conditions and software which can figure out where a car should be on a roadway with no lane markings.

“From Level 4 in a protected environment to a car that can go from one city center to another city how much more time do you need, another five years? I think it depends. The reason we say a geo-fenced area, and let’s put the weather aside for now, is for some of the advanced aspects. We really need exact positioning of the vehicle and to have the vehicle reference itself to a known map. That makes some of the sensing a little bit easier. If you know that an image, based on previous mapping, is a fire hydrant then you don’t need to consider whether it is a fire hydrant or a small boy. The reason we need a geo-fenced area is because that type of laser mapping is very intensive. It can be done for a big urban environment, but it is an intensive effort. If you were to provide laser mapping for a highway connecting two cities as you mentioned, then even Level 4 would be capable of that. But if you want to go out on a dirt road or somewhere not previously mapped and expect the vehicle to be able to deal with all the possibilities that could happen – a cow running across the road for example – that’s a challenge for Level 5.”

http://europe.autonews.com/article/20160322/ANE/160319880/ford-cto-outlines-main-hurdles-on-the-road-to-offering-self-driving

14)      Rolls-Royce Reveals Vision of Shore-based Control Centers for Unmanned Cargo Ships

Autonomous operation of ships is likely to occur well before autonomous cars. Like large trucks (see item 15) an autonomous ship might be cheaper to operate and the relatively low precision of GPS is more than enough for maritime application. Nonetheless, while the video is really cool it is highly speculative.

“Rolls-Royce on Tuesday offered another glimpse into the future of unmanned shipping, revealing for the first time its vision for a land-based control center for the operation of autonomous ‘drone’ cargo ships. In photos and film released Tuesday, Rolls-Royce offers a vision in which a small crew of 7 to 14 people monitor and control the operation of a fleet of vessels across the world using interactive smart screens, voice recognition systems, holograms and surveillance drones to monitor what is happening both on board and around the ship.”

https://gcaptain.com/rolls-royce-reveals-details-on-shore-based-control-rooms-for-operation-of-unmanned-cargo-ships/

15)      Daimler connected trucks highway pilot for autonomous platoon driving

There is good reason to suspect autonomous capability will be launched on heavy trucks before it enters the consumer market. Heavy trucks are expensive so self-driving technology will be a smaller percentage of the cost of the vehicle. Plus, most trucking happens on relatively well marked and maintained roadways so the feature will be more useable. Finally, although it will be impossible to do away with the driver until challenges like dealing with weather and other poor conditions, the system will likely improve productivity, fuel efficiency, and safety. Here is a fairly lengthy video which is a demonstration of Daimler’s self-driving technology for heavy trucks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVtd33JEsN0

16)      The creators of the first ‘synthetic life’ made a cell with just enough genes to survive

It is worth noting that “life” isn’t a result of just the genome because you need all the machinery of the cell to read and use that genetic code. Still, this is a remarkable experiment, especially since they have no idea what the function of so many of those genes is. That in itself is an important puzzle to solve

“It’s not science fiction — or even a recent breakthrough. Scientists created the first synthetic bacterium back in 2010 using this method. But in a new study published Thursday in Science, they’ve taken this proof of concept a step further. Their latest single-cell creation has what they’re calling a “minimal genome.” They’ve created an organism that has just 473 genes, the smallest known genome of any living organism. With fewer, it wouldn’t be able to sustain itself. Their hope is that bringing a genome down to its minimum components will help scientists figure out the most basic building blocks of life. As it stands, even this minimal genome has many genes with unknown purposes.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/03/24/the-creators-of-the-first-synthetic-life-made-a-cell-with-just-enough-genes-to-survive/

17)      How the Dodgers’ $8.3B TV deal turned into an unmitigated disaster

I don’t pay any attention to spots at all, except to get annoyed at the coverage (basically free advertising) it receives. Admission to sporting events has increased to stratospheric levels as have broadcast rights, as this article outlines. Los Angeles (which Google tells me is where the Dodgers are based) is a large market and it seems the team has priced itself out of the broadcast market. The figures referenced in the article are interesting, especially with respect to only 66% of young adults having cable TV service and that proportion will likely drop over time as younger demographics are used to streaming. Content providers have to make their content affordable and available via streaming if they expect to retain an audience.

“While those 83 percent of those 50 and older have cable or satellite and same goes for 73 percent ages 30 to 49, less than two-thirds of adults 18 to 29 have cable or satellite service, according to the Pew study. A large portion of the younger generation – the one baseball so desperately covets – is outright rejecting the model by which the sport distributes its most valuable product: day-after-day game coverage. And thus the sabre-rattling Wednesday. Time Warner offering a one-year deal to other providers at a 30 percent discount from its previous asking price was enough to prompt commissioner Rob Manfred to release a statement: “The distribution dispute involving DirecTV, AT&T, COX and Verizon has gone on too long. The Dodgers’ massive fan base deserves to be able to watch Dodger games regardless of their choice of provider. The situation is particularly acute given that this is Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully’s final season. Time Warner has made a significant economic move that I hope will be accepted by the providers.””

http://sports.yahoo.com/news/how-the-dodgers—8-3b-tv-deal-turned-into-an-unmitigated-disaster-203627465-mlb.html

18)      Cable Still Has Plenty of Ways to Stay Ahead of Bandwidth Curve

This article looks at emerging cable modem standards and the potential impact on the amount of bandwidth which can be delivered over existing infrastructure. Unfortunately, the uncompetitive market structure in much of North America means there is little incentive for carriers to improve their infrastructure since a large portion of consumers has no choice of broadband supplier.

“While the obvious answer to this dilemma is to boost the spectrum range, there are many other tools in the toolbox to keep cable ahead of the curve before it comes to that. Among them are DOCSIS 3.1, which is expected to be 50% more bandwidth-efficient than DOCSIS 3.0, new distributed access architectures, new codecs like H.265/HEVC, the possibility of a proposed “Full Duplex” technique that could enable cable to offer symmetrical speeds on DOCSIS, higher density equipment, and new “virtual” architectures. And, longer term, it’s possible that MSOs could raise the ceiling well above 860 MHz or even 1 GHz. One of the proposals Arris is working on is pushing spectrum to 2 GHz or even 6 GHz or higher – enough to enable DOCSIS plant to support capacities of 50 Gbps or more.”

http://www.multichannel.com/blog/bauminator/tools-trade/403468

19)      How a simple SIM card makes farmers more efficient—and possibly saves lives

Telecommunications technology can make a big difference to the efficient operation of an economy – a fact ignored by North American policy makers. Like many things a little bit of technology can bring you along way, as this item shows. The idea is to give small farmers information that helps them run their operations more efficiently. Mobile phones are probably not the best way to send out voice messages about the weather, etc.: radio broadcasts could probably do the job much more cost effectively.

“Based on its initial field work with the agrarian community in India, ICRISAT made further tweaks. The organization determined that farmers would respond most keenly to these alerts if they heard them from other farmers. The GreenSIM setup now dictates that message text is verbally translated to the local languages of farmers, who record and e-mail the files to ICRISAT. “Agriculture is really an industry that’s based on trust. If I was to give you a seed, you’d have to trust me that it had these certain characteristics, that, based on my own experience, I’m telling you what it’ll be like when you grow it in your field,” ICRISAT General Director David Bergvinson told Ars. “It’s the same as getting information associated with agriculture. Farmers tend to trust other farmers more than they do extension agents, agri-dealers, or scientists.” The approach has shown potential. Vimalamma Jawadi, a farmer from the Telangana village of Janampet, said her profits have increased from 5,000 to 20,000 rupees ($80 to $310) since she began to use the GreenSIM in 2012. Previously, she had raised only one crop. After GreenSIM messages alerted her to the benefits of crop rotation, however, she incorporated rice, corn, millet, and peanuts into her three-acre plot, increasing her chances of a successful harvest.”

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2016/03/how-a-simple-sim-card-helps-farmers-navigate-changing-climates-and-markets/

20)      Angola’s Wikipedia Pirates Are Exposing the Problems With Digital Colonialism

The title might be a bit of an overstatement, but I suspect that “digital colonialism” is a spot on description of Facebook Free Basics ultimate intent – after all, it has been banned in a number of countries. This article shows how imaginative people can be in exploiting a communications resource: they use free Wikipedia entries to upload files and use free Facebook to direct people to those files. The root problem is the outrageous cost of broadband in Angola: in India you can get 30MB for $0.45 for 1 day or pay $1.54 for 300MB for a month (http://www.icompare.in/MobileBroadband/Devices/SIM?circle=Andhra-Pradesh)

“Wikimedia and Facebook have given Angolans free access to their websites, but not to the rest of the internet. So, naturally, Angolans have started hiding pirated movies and music in Wikipedia articles and linking to them on closed Facebook groups, creating a totally free and clandestine file sharing network in a country where mobile internet data is extremely expensive. It’s an undeniably creative use of two services that were designed to give people in the developing world some access to the internet. But now that Angolans are causing headaches for Wikipedia editors and the Wikimedia Foundation, no one is sure what to do about it.”

https://motherboard.vice.com/read/wikipedia-zero-facebook-free-basics-angola-pirates-zero-rating

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 18th 2016

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 18th 2016

Hello,

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

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

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

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

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.

Brian Piccioni

 

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1)          Automakers agree to make automatic braking a standard feature by 2022

A few months ago a group of major auto manufacturers and Tesla announced they would introduce auto-brakes as a standard in the US across their product line. Unfortunately they did not offer a timeframe for the move but now they have: 2022. Autobrake will probably lead to a significant drop in death and injury from collisions.

“Automatic emergency braking would be standard equipment on most American cars within six years under an “unprecedented” pact announced Thursday between federal regulators and the auto industry. The agreement was reached between the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and 20 automakers that represent nearly the entire U.S. auto market. The so-called AEB systems, currently an option on some vehicles, would become a standard feature on nearly every new car and light-duty truck no later than 2022.”

http://www.latimes.com/business/autos/la-fi-hy-auto-safety-20160317-story.html

2)          GDC 2016: I Tried Sony’s Playstation VR And I’m Never Leaving The House Once It Comes Out

Virtual Reality (VR) headsets have generated a lot of excitement over the past few years. One problem with units designed for PC use is that they require a very powerful PC. Sony has decided to introduce a new console with VR capability and this is the first review I have seen. One note of caution is that gamer reviews are prone to overstatement (they are, after all, in the business of selling games) and game companies are notorious for essentially faking demonstrations (i.e. playing back scenes rendered on a supercomputer and claiming they represent the game). Nonetheless, VR will likely lead to an upgrade cycle in the console and game business.

“I’ve tried VR in other forms several times. When i was a kid, I put on one of those giant helmets at the arcade and wandered around a crudely drawn castle while an evil bird ate me alive. As an adult, I tried virtual reality goggles at The Adult Entertainment Expo two years in a row (it got considerably more real the second time). I was impressed, but not enough that I’d shell out more than $400 for a machine that would allow me to play video games in a hyper-realistic setting. And while the VR presentation put me at the edge of my seat–especially when I watched two people don headsets and then slap each other silly on a virtual playground–I wasn’t expecting the Playstation VR to turn me into a drooling fanboy within five minutes. But let me tell you one thing: The PS VR is amazing and once it comes out, none of us will ever leave the house again.”

http://uproxx.com/gammasquad/sony-vr-hands-on/2/

3)          Malvertising campaign hits MSN.com, NY Times, BBC, AOL

One tends to associate malvertising (the delivery of malware via advertisements) with the shady nooks and crannies of the Internet but this shows that isn’t the case. At the same tie the online advertising industry rails against the rising use of adblockers, the industry itself doesn’t do basic quality control (in order to maximize profit) and serves up ads to be used for malware, fraud, and theft. The sites below are not responsible for this: it is the utter lack of concern by the ad networks which allow this to happen. Simple policies – like requiring advertisers to post a bond or guarantee – would eliminate the problem overnight.

“The websites in question were those of the NY Times, the BBC, Newsweek, and The Hill, as well as Microsoft’s MSN website, Aol.com, the Weather Network, the HNL, and Realtor.com. The number of monthly visitors to each of these ranges from tens of millions to over one billion (the MSN portal). The websites themselves weren’t compromised. The problem was that the the ad networks these sites use – Google, AppNexus, AOL, Rubicon – were tricked into serving the malicious ads, which would lead users to sites hosting an exploit kit.”

https://www.helpnetsecurity.com/2016/03/16/malvertising-campaign/

4)          Apple’s VP Of Software Engineering: No, We Have Never Given A Backdoor To Any Government

Well, of course he’d say that because, even if they had provided a back door the government would have prohibited him from acknowledging it. Mind you it may be the Chinese national security apparatus makes an exception for large, US, tech companies, but call me skeptical. Regardless, backdoors are rarely “insert special password here” type constructs: it doesn’t take much to compromise a strong encryption system – knowledge of the statistical nature of a random number generator or access to scratch memory is usually sufficient.

“Apple uses the same security protocols everywhere in the world. Apple has never made user data, whether stored on the iPhone or in iCloud, more technologically accessible to any country’s government. We believe any such access is too dangerous to allow. Apple has also not provided any government with its proprietary iOS source code. While governmental agencies in various countries, including the United States, perform regulatory reviews of new iPhone releases, all that Apple provides in those circumstances is an unmodified iPhone device. It is my understanding that Apple has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a “backdoor” in any of our products or services.”

https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20160315/18000933920/apples-vp-software-engineering-no-we-have-never-given-backdoor-to-any-government.shtml

5)          These technologies will blow the lid off data storage

There is really nothing new in the article but it provides a reasonably up to date summary as to what is going on in storage, in particular the solid state kind. The issue with Hard Disk Drives has never been one of whether they can continue to cost effectively increase performance. The problem there is that there is a floor price of around $50 to HDDs and SSD will soon drop below that. This will result in wholesale transition of the laptop market away from HDDs toward SSDs, leading to a collapse in revenue. HDDs will be around for a long time after that but mostly in NAS and data centers.

“Hard disk drive (HDD) and solid-state drive (SSD) makers are about to wow the storage market again. This year, Intel and Micron will introduce 3D XPoint memory, also known as Optane, which will increase performance and durability 1,000-fold over today’s NAND flash. Don’t count NAND flash out. While the Optane chip and other resistive memory technologies coming down the pike may result in storage-class memory that could replace costly DRAM for many applications, it won’t be cheap for a long while. That leaves the door open for continued NAND flash advances. Enter 3D NAND flash, which Samsung, Intel/Micron, Toshiba and others believe will continue to grow capacity and tamp down prices. Eventually, 3D NAND will even convince consumers that SSDs can be as affordable as HDDs.”

http://www.computerworld.com/article/3041947/data-storage/how-these-technologies-will-blow-the-lid-off-data-storage.html

6)          CRISPR: gene editing is just the beginning

CRISPR is one of those “once in a generation” type discoveries which is sweeping biological and medical research. Most of the articles we’ve carried address use of the technique to perform highly reliable gene editing while this article looks at other uses for the tool.

“Much of the conversation about CRISPR–Cas9 has revolved around its potential for treating disease or editing the genes of human embryos, but researchers say that the real revolution right now is in the lab. What CRISPR offers, and biologists desire, is specificity: the ability to target and study particular DNA sequences in the vast expanse of a genome. And editing DNA is just one trick that it can be used for. Scientists are hacking the tools so that they can send proteins to precise DNA targets to toggle genes on or off, and even engineer entire biological circuits — with the long-term goal of understanding cellular systems and disease.”

http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-gene-editing-is-just-the-beginning-1.19510

7)          Despite Gigabit Hype, U.S. Broadband’s Actually Getting Less Competitive Than Ever

It is hard to believe that the US and Canada had globally competitive telecommunications networks as recently as 20 years ago. Deregulation – which was meant to increase competition – had the opposite effect while unfettering carriers from also all regulatory oversight. The net result is that both countries now have expensive low quality infrastructure, a situation which will eventually have a negative impact on economic performance. One might hope governments would realise this and do something about it but the “let the market deal with it” is so firmly entrenched they can’t seem to manage.

“Despite government programs, national broadband plans, billions in subsidies and a lot of recent hype paid to gigabit services like Google Fiber, U.S. broadband is actually getting less competitive than ever before across a huge swath of the country. Companies like AT&T and Verizon have been backing away from unwanted DSL networks they simply don’t want to upgrade. In some cases this involves selling these assets to smaller telcos (who take on so much debt they can’t upgrade them either), but in many markets this involves actively trying to drive customers away via either rate hikes or outright neglect. As an end result, the nation’s biggest cable companies are enjoying a larger monopoly in many markets than ever before as they hoover up those fleeing customers. According to the latest postmortem of 2015 subscriber totals, the seventeen largest broadband providers acquired 3.1 million broadband subscribers last year.”

https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20160311/08255233870/despite-gigabit-hype-us-broadbands-actually-getting-less-competitive-than-ever.shtml

8)          Comcast failed to install Internet for 10 months then demanded $60,000 in fees

Comcast has notoriously bad customer service and, on the surface this article seems to be about that. Admittedly, demanding $60,000 to buy out a contract which Comcast defaulted on seems a bit extreme but that is the least of it. The real story is that US broadband infrastructure is so bad that a business in the heart of Silicon Valley can’t get quality service. The lesson is: don’t locate your business in place unless you know there already is good quality, low cost, Internet access. Like Romania.

“Nearly a year ago, a Silicon Valley startup called SmartCar signed up for Comcast Internet service. SmartCar founder and CEO Sahas Katta was moving the company into new office space in Mountain View, California, and there was seemingly no reason to think Comcast might not be able to offer him Internet access. But Comcast never fulfilled its promise to hook up the business, blaming the delay on construction and permitting problems. Katta discovered that neighboring businesses were making do with painfully slow and unreliable DSL Internet from AT&T, and ultimately SmartCar reluctantly signed up for AT&T as well. After hearing Comcast excuses for months, Katta finally got fed up and decided that he would find a new office building once his 12-month lease expires on April 20 of this year. Katta told Comcast he wanted to “cancel” his nonexistent service and get a refund for a $2,100 deposit he had paid. Instead, Comcast told him he’d have to pay more than $60,000 to get out of his contract with the company.”

http://arstechnica.com/business/2016/03/comcast-failed-to-install-internet-for-10-months-then-demanded-60000-in-fees/

9)          AT&T is Launching An Internet TV Service

Most people think of Netflix or Hulu when they hear about TV streaming. In fact there are companies such as Vmedia in Canada who offer full up “cable” services over Internet. AT&T seems to be planning on launching such a service, though the details are pretty sparse. In theory, you’d be able to watch specialty channels, and probably network feeds from anywhere in the US, even if you are not an AT&T broadband customer.

“AT&T is hopping into the streaming television wars. The phone company, which merged with satellite TV provider DirecTV last year, is planning to offer a pay-TV service delivered via the Internet, CNN reports. The new service, called DirecTV Now and scheduled to launch in the fourth quarter of 2016, will let users stream live TV programming as well as shows on-demand across a variety of Internet-enabled devices. It will be accessible via an app and won’t require satellites, cable boxes or annual contracts.”

http://time.com/4243933/att-internet-tv-streaming-directv-now/

10)      Adblocking: advertising ‘accounts for half of data used to read articles’

As if malvertising weren’t enough of a reason to use an adblocker, this surely is: you pay for mobile data and a significant amount of data is associated with ads. It’s not just ads of course, but the web page equivalent of bloatware, which is mostly there to provide distracting and annoying but otherwise useless elements on a web page. Bloomberg is notorious for that kind of thing.

“Advertising could account for about half of data usage for people reading articles on their smartphones, according to a study by Enders Analysis. The small-scale study looked at six unnamed “popular publishers”, both with and without an adblocker, and found that anywhere between 18% and 79% of the data downloaded was from ads. In addition, anywhere between 6% and 68% of the downloaded data was from JavaScript, which is used to deliver more interactive elements of both editorial and advertising on pages.”

http://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/mar/16/ad-blocking-advertising-half-of-data-used-articles

11)      Saving hundreds of hours with Google Compute Engine Per-Minute Billing

This article provides a real world example of how cloud services can be used to save money if you have large computer intensive problems to work on. Actually the article addresses mainly different billing models (concluding that, unsurprisingly, if you can buy a minute instead of an hour and you need less of an hour you save money) but the fact supercomputing can be done using credit card access to Google’s cloud services is key.

“To summarise, the Google Compute Engine (GCE) per minute billing saved us 697 hours, an equivalent of 29 days, a full month of VM time! Read on for details on how these figures were calculated and for my reflections on 2 years of GCP usage, starting 1,086 VMs programatically through code, completing 100s of jobs on a 24,538 lines-of-code project. Note, I will occasionally abbreviate Google Cloud Platform as GCP and Google Compute Engine as GCE.”

http://omerio.com/2016/03/16/saving-hundreds-of-hours-with-google-compute-engine-per-minute-billing/

12)      More than 100,000 legal roles to become automated

The legal profession has already been disrupted by the Internet but, apparently, much more is to come. It used to be that law firms made a ton of money billing clients for rote searches of precedents and other menial tasks done by support staff. Eventually people discovered they were paying hundreds of dollars a day for work which could be done in a few minutes in front of a search engine. That gravy train has gone and other expensive services are on the way out as well.

“Around 114,000 jobs in the legal sector are likely to become automated in the next 20 years as technology transforms the profession, a new study has found. Automation, changes in the demands from clients and the rise of millennials in the workplace will alter the types of skills sought after by law firms, according to the new study by Deloitte which predicts a tipping point for law firms by 2020. Technology has already contributed to a reduction of around 31,000 jobs in the sector including roles such as legal secretaries, the report said, as it predicted that another 39 per cent of jobs are at “high risk” of being made redundant by machines in the next two decades.”

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c8ef3f62-ea9c-11e5-888e-2eadd5fbc4a4.html#axzz439i9ZoXK

13)      More than a Billion Snapdragon-based Android Phones Vulnerable to Hacking

Another week, another important vulnerability uncovered. In some ways this shows the weakness of the Android ecosystem: Apple only has to support a dozen or so hardware platforms whereas there are thousands of different Android devices. Even if correcting the vulnerability is easy, easy becomes hard when you are talking about dozens of hardware devices at each of hundreds of vendors. There is little incentive for a small Android phone vendor to prepare and deliver an update for a 2 year old phone and few do. After all, there are devices still being sold with Android 4 installed on them and Android 6 has been out for almost a year.

“More than a Billion of Android devices are at risk of a severe vulnerability in Qualcomm Snapdragon chip that could be exploited by any malicious application to gain root access on the device. Security experts at Trend Micro are warning Android users of some severe programming blunders in Qualcomm’s kernel-level Snapdragon code that if exploited, can be used by attackers for gaining root access and taking full control of your device. Gaining root access on a device is a matter of concern, as it grants attackers access to admin level capabilities, allowing them to turn your device against you to snap your pictures, and snoop on your personal data including accounts’ passwords, emails, messages and photos.”

http://thehackernews.com/2016/03/android-root-hack.html

14)      MIT’s Not-So-Crazy Quest To Get Rid Of Stoplights

Stoplights can be a pain in the butt for drivers and pedestrians alike. This research looks at improved traffic flow algorithms and the potential benefits they might confer. What is completely missing is the question of how pedestrians would ever get across an intersection alive, or how governments would be convinced to implement such a system. Thanks to Nick Tang for this item.

“This week, a team from MIT published a study in the journal PLoS One examining a radical proposal: Get rid of the stoplights completely. Led by Senseable City Lab’s Carlo Ratti and Paolo Santi of the Ambient Mobility Lab, the paper proposes something called a “slot-based” intersection, or SI, where cars and infrastructure communicate through an algorithm that choreographs a graceful dance of vehicle platoons through an intersection. It sounds like madness at first glance, but slot-based network design has already populated other industries. A great example comes from airlines, as Ratti and Santi point out. Take Southwest—instead of letting people line up all at once to board a plane, the airline divides people into six batches, each of which boards at an explicit time.”

http://www.fastcodesign.com/3057985/innovation-by-design/mits-not-so-crazy-quest-to-get-rid-of-stoplights

15)      Vehicles ‘increasingly vulnerable’ to hacking, FBI warns

Auto manufacturers are not in the computer security business and even computer companies botch security with remarkable regularity. You don’t really need the FBI to tell you that these systems are increasingly vulnerable to hacking to know they are. So far, many of these hacks require physical access to the car, but if Item 16 is correct (it is probably optimistic) over the air attacks would probably be much easier to do.

“Manufacturers see great promise in designing vehicles with advanced networking capabilities for everything from entertainment to fleet management. But computer security experts have criticized the industry for not taking stronger steps to prevent software vulnerabilities that could have lethal consequences. The FBI said that although manufacturers are now trying to limit the communications that can happen between different on-board systems, the linkages can still provide “portals through which adversaries may be able to remotely attack the vehicle controls and systems,” the advisory said. Third-party devices intended to be plugged into a vehicle diagnostic port can also “introduce vulnerabilities by providing connectivity where it did not exist previously,” the agency said.”

http://www.pcworld.com/article/3045776/security/vehicles-increasingly-vulnerable-to-hacking-fbi-warns.html

16)      Cybersecurity and recalls will mean over-the-air updates for 203M cars by 2022

This is related to Item 15. Over the air updates may save manufacturers money but they will probably open cars up to hackers as well. Given the glacial pace of technology adoption by car vendors and the need to gain cooperation of mobile carriers, etc., I suspect 2022 is somewhat optimistic.

“Like a smartphone, cars are increasingly defined by computer hardware and software. They’re quickly becoming a consumer’s largest electronic mobile device — a fact not lost on manufacturers who are racing to make over-the-air software updates standard. By 2022, there will be 203 million vehicles on the road that can receive software over-the-air (SOTA) upgrades; among those vehicles, at least 22 million will also be able to get firmware upgrades, according to a new report by ABI Research. There will be fewer vehicles capable of wireless firmware updates because the code is more critical to the basic functionality of a computer than application software, and designers therefore make it more difficult to replace or upgrade. Changing application software, however, is a relatively straightforward and similar task, regardless of the platform.”

http://www.computerworld.com/article/3044499/emerging-technology/cybersecurity-and-recalls-will-mean-over-the-air-updates-for-203m-cars-by-2022.html

17)      Drones present minimal threat to aircraft, says study

I guess I don’t understand why airplanes of any kind should be subject to any risk, no matter how negligible, because some halfwit wants to fly his model airplane near them. Besides, airplanes are expensive and repairs are very costly. Even if nobody is killed it can cost a pile of money to repair the damage from a bird strike. Heck, multimillion dollar engines have to be rebuilt because they suck in a pebble. Plus, as even the article notes, birds are not made with metal and that can make a big difference.

“He started by turning to the FAA’s wildlife strike database, a voluntary database of incidents involving animal strikes with aircraft, and married that with an estimate of 10 billion birds in U.S. airspace. He looked at the amount of time the birds spend flying and where bird strikes happened. He also drew on an FAA database of the average weight per species. The result? “A two-kilogram drone would cause an injury once every 187 million years of continuous operation,” he said. Put another way, with a million drones in the sky flying continuously, they’d lead to an accident that would cause an injury or death once every 187 years. “It’s pretty safe by existing aviation standards,” he added. Dourado did the research with Samuel Hammond, a master’s degree fellow at the university.”

http://www.cio.com/article/3043788/drones-present-minimal-threat-to-aircraft-says-study.html

18)      iRobot’s Braava Jet Mopping Robot Is Small, Smart, and Not Round

This item has a cool video but I doubt the robot is going to do much of a job actually cleaning the floor. Spraying a bit of water and rubbing a cleaning pad may be fine when dealing with the sorts of spills they show in commercials, but probably won’t work well in real life.

“The new robot is the Braava jet, a small, shiny white robotic mop designed to clean hard floors, especially in bathrooms and kitchens. And did we say it’s square? But perhaps the biggest surprise about the Braava jet is not its shape; it’s the price: US $200. This is iRobot’s most affordable cleaning bot ever. Compare that with Roomba ($375 to $900, depending on the model), Scooba ($600), or the original Braava, a larger robot mop ($300). To use the Braava jet, you just need to add water to a reservoir on top of the robot, attach a cleaning pad, and press the “CLEAN” button. The robot cleans by spraying water in front of itself and mopping the wet spot with the pad.”

http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/home-robots/irobot-braava-jet-mopping-robot

19)      Why Dropbox dropped Amazon’s cloud

Moving away from cloud services to your own infrastructure makes sense provided you have the scale and the balance sheet to afford your own datacenters. Dropbox is a private company which can be described best as one of the few cloud storage companies which has not yet gone out of business. Ultimately the service is a commodity which will be offered by the cloud vendors which remain after the industry consolidates (most likely Amazon, Google, and Microsoft).

“There were two factors that made Akhil Gupta, vice president of Infrastructure for Dropbox, realize that the company should get out of the cloud. The first is size and growth. Dropbox has 500 million users and is storing 500 petabytes of data. “The scale that we’re operating on is one that very few other companies will get to,” Gupta says. Secondly, Gupta wanted to have end-to-end control of the infrastructure so that he could control the performance, reliability and overall user experience. “By optimizing the stack and customizing the infrastructure to our use case, we were able to provide a key differentiator in the market and a key value to our users,” Gupta says.”

http://www.cio.com/article/3045641/cloud-computing/why-dropbox-dropped-amazons-cloud.html

20)      Microsoft solves EU cloud problem

Under Orwellian laws introduced post 9/11, US cloud service providers are required to open the data they store to US law enforcement regardless of where that data is stored. This places the companies in the position of violating confidentiality laws of other countries so some maneuvering was required. Because security agencies collaborate with each other and are not inherently concerned with obeying the law themselves, this is mere theatre as German intelligence will likely provide US intelligence whatever it needs, provided, of course, backdoors, etc., inserted by the vendors who sold the equipment are not available.

“The problem is that Microsoft is US company and its country delights in spying on its allies. The EU fears that the NSA could get a court order and force Microsoft to hand over data from its European clouds and force it not to tell anyone. Microsoft has come up with a wizard wheeze by creating a product called Azure Deutschland — a German cloud region that will offer Azure services that come not directly from Microsoft, but from the German “data trustee” Deutsche Telekom.”

http://channeleye.co.uk/microsoft-solves-eu-cloud-problem/

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 11th 2016

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 11th 2016

Hello,

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

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

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

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

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.

Brian Piccioni

 

Click to Subscribe

 

 

1)          Snowden: FBI’s Claim That It Needs Apple to Unlock Phone is B.S.

Whether or not Snowden has direct knowledge of Apple’s security systems this is almost certainly true. Hacking an encrypted file is hard, but having access to a device secured by a 4 digit pin should not be that hard. iPhones and smartphones in general are not mysterious black boxes that nobody understands, they are well documented machines. If you have the machine in hand and the requisite knowledge you should be able to reverse engineer the software and rewrite it or otherwise spoof the software. Apple’s tactics are nothing more than theatre to give the illusion their phones are secure.

“NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden believes that Apple engineers are not the only ones who can unlock the San Bernadino killer’s iPhone. Snowden said yesterday that the FBI could have bypassed the phone’s auto-erase function without help, The Intercept reported. “The FBI is arguing in court that Apple has the ‘exclusive technical means'” of accessing the iPhone’s data, Snowden said via video link from Moscow at a conference organized by Common Cause. “Respectfully, that’s bullshit.” Snowden stopped short of explicitly supporting Apple, which is resisting a court order to unlock the phone for the FBI’s investigation. But he later Tweeted a link to an ACLU blog post that details how the FBI could crack the phone’s encryption.”

http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2500588,00.asp

 

2)          Good news — fintech could disrupt finance

Good news – unless you are in the banking business. While fintech has the potential to improve banking efficiency, this is a highly regulated industry and, in many ways, not a very competitive one. There is as much a chance that fintech will simply lead to more profit for the banks than lower costs for businesses and consumers.

“Why might one hope that new financial technology, or “Fintech” as it is known, will transform these businesses? The answer, especially for banking, is that they are currently not done very well. Banking seems inefficient, costly, riddled with conflicts of interest, prone to unethical behaviour, and, not least, able to generate huge crises. In a recent speech on the possibilities for a financial revolution, Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England notes that, astonishingly, the unit cost of US financial intermediation seems to be unchanged over a century (see chart). Moreover, income from finance simply rises and falls with the value of assets. That suggests a huge amount of rent-Why might one hope that new financial technology, or “Fintech” as it is known, will transform these businesses? The answer, especially for banking, is that they are currently not done very well. Banking seems inefficient, costly, riddled with conflicts of interest, prone to unethical behaviour, and, not least, able to generate huge crises. In a recent speech on the possibilities for a financial revolution, Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England notes that, astonishingly, the unit cost of US financial intermediation seems to be unchanged over a century (see chart).”

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/425cb3ca-e480-11e5-a09b-1f8b0d268c39.html?ftcamp=crm/email/follow/author/Q0ItMDAwMDkwMA==-QXV0aG9ycw==/product#axzz42OULPfy7

3)          Why I think Tesla is building throwaway cars

I figure Teslas are disposable because of the inherently short life and high cost of the battery – an issue this blogger seems to disagree with in his other posts. (Frankly I’d like to see data which shows EV batteries are long lived in direct contradiction to all we know about batteries before I’ll believe it.) His position is that Tesla simply doesn’t provide the information to enable 3rd party repairs, that the costs of repairs are quite high, even when in warranty, and so on. In the incredibly unlikely event Tesla ever becomes a real car company (about as unlikely as them being cash flow positive) these would become important issues.

“It matters because Tesla would like people to believe they’re making very long lived cars that will last nearly forever.  It’s apparently been stated in some conference or another that Tesla has a battery pack that has done the equivalent of 500k miles in a lab somewhere, and “low maintenance” is consistently listed by owners as a reason they purchased one. Right now, almost all the Model Ss driving around are under the factory warranty, and I’d wager a large number have the extended warranty (though see above for my opinion of it).  In another 4 years, the first wave will be leaving the extended warranty coverage, and then people will have to pay the full costs to maintain the car. Which, unless something changes, involves going to a Tesla Service Center and paying whatever they want, since you can’t get parts other places, and even if you do get the parts, you can’t find out how to install them.  And, at least some of them apparently involve firmware updates to make things work, which you can’t get the software to do. It’s pretty well locked down, and you simply don’t have any options.  There are no independent shops you can use either.”

http://syonyk.blogspot.ca/2016/03/is-tesla-building-throwaway-cars.html

4)          Why Solar Giant SunEdison Might Be Doomed

Hardly a day goes by where I don’t read about how solar power is “revolutionizing” the grid (meant in a positive way). In most cases these predictions are misdirection (referring to installations rather than power produced, ignoring subsidies, etc.). Frankly solar would be a lot more credible if not for its ability to destroy massive amounts of investor money despite equally massive subsidies. If SunEdison, SolarCity, and others were viable they’d be profitable – and they wouldn’t need all those subsidies.

“Shares of SunEdison were up more than 10 percent Tuesday after the cancellation of the solar giant’s disastrous acquisition of residential solar developer Vivint. The $2.2 billion deal fell apart after billionaire hedge fund manager David Tepper sued to block it—but the real cause was less Tepper’s objections and more SunEdison’s overall financial disarray. Despite the bump in stock price, the troubled company, based in Saint Peters, Missouri, is far from turning itself around. SunEdison, which has seen $10 billion in market value evaporate over the last year, has been justifiably called “the biggest corporate implosion in U.S. solar history,” as its strategy of acquiring seemingly every solar power company in sight hasn’t panned out. Under CEO Ahmad Chatila, the company has spent billions to acquire solar developers around the world, piling up nearly $12 billion in debt.”

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/600999/why-solar-giant-sunedison-might-be-doomed/

5)          Computer Science Expert: Artificial Intelligence Could Replace Half World’s Workforce In Next 30 Years

Unlike most commentators at least this guy has some direct knowledge of the field. It is hard to believe that we will have “machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task” when all we have are machines capable of doing rote tasks better than the average worker (but usually not as good as the best). Spotting a bad bun flying down a conveyor belt is the sort of thing computers are good at, but they are not great at solving problems. Many factories are already highly automated and the workers remaining are either highly specialized or retained because of their flexibility. Since there are no intelligent machine (AI is not the same as human intelligence) speculation regarding the capabilities of an intelligent machine is just that: speculation.

“Artificial-intelligence (AI) machines could put one-half of the human workforce out of their jobs within three decades, a computer scientist told colleagues at an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington. Echoing physicist Stephen Hawking’s and technology titan Bill Gates’ warnings last year, Moshe Vardi said AI could mean the end of the human race as we know it, the Guardian reported Saturday. “We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task,” said Vardi, a professor of computational engineering and the director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice University. “I believe that society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: If machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?””

http://www.ibtimes.com/computer-science-expert-artificial-intelligence-could-replace-half-worlds-workforce-2306527

6)          How robots will kill the ‘gig economy’

Concern about robots taking our jobs has reached a fever pitch. It may be true that when autonomous vehicles become available (think 20 years rather than 5 years) logistics will be transformed and that will displace labor. It will take generations to change out the fleet and it will create a need for jobs in other areas. Automation has been going on for a couple hundred years and it has never led to the sort of mass unemployment its detractors have predicted for the past couple hundred years.

“The so-called gig economy will cease to exist in 20 years, according to a new report from venture-backed start-up Thumbtack, an online marketplace that helps skilled workers find customers. The study predicts that logistics companies — from start-ups like Uber to tech giants like Amazon — will soon replace drivers and delivery workers with autonomous vehicles and drones. Highly skilled workers, such as lawyers and accountants — no longer guaranteed jobs at big firms — will be the new gig economy workers, the study finds.”

http://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/09/how-robots-will-kill-the-gig-economy.html

7)          Intel’s blisteringly fast Optane SSD tech will be compatible with MacBooks

While Apple often does adopt certain technologies early, most of its PCs are a generation or two behind the curve. Intel is in the business of making and selling chips and it wants to have as many Optane compatible products in the market as possible at launch. The assumption Apple might be an early adopter is a reasonable one however it makes no sense for Optane to be hidden behind an antediluvian SATA interface which is already much slower than traditional SSDs need.

“The first Optane products will likely be SSDs and reach enthusiasts’ PCs next year, then spread to other desktops and mobile products. Optane memory DIMMs, which can be plugged into existing memory slots, are also coming. Some Windows laptops also have NVMe storage, but most still rely on the older and slower SATA interface. Enthusiast desktop users like gamers are early adopters of new technology, and many will likely move over to Optane. Optane products will be initially based on Intel’s Skylake architecture. If Intel ships memory DIMMs, they will need to be compatible with the DDR3/4 DRAM bus that is in most PCs today.”

http://www.pcworld.com/article/3042988/storage/intel-is-lining-up-super-fast-optane-ssd-tech-for-macbooks.html

8)          Insight: How a hacker’s typo helped stop a billion dollar bank heist

Oddly enough the headline misses the $81M the hackers made away with. I may be old school but $80M of fully laundered cash is a good pay day. It is remarkable that the system for verifying large bank transfers is so micky mouse that somebody can get away with this. Isn’t even $80M worth a phone call?

“A spelling mistake in an online bank transfer instruction helped prevent a nearly $1 billion heist last month involving the Bangladesh central bank and the New York Fed, banking officials said. Unknown hackers still managed to get away with about $80 million, one of the largest known bank thefts in history. The hackers breached Bangladesh Bank’s systems and stole its credentials for payment transfers, two senior officials at the bank said. They then bombarded the Federal Reserve Bank of New York with nearly three dozen requests to move money from the Bangladesh Bank’s account there to entities in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, the officials said.”

http://www.reuters.com/article/usa-fed-bangladesh-hacking-typo-idUSKCN0WC0TJ

9)          Bank of England looks into ‘centralised’ bitcoin alternative, RSCoin

A number of governments have looked into making their own digital currency. If it worked out this could lead to s sort of universal credit card/debit card/PayPal etc. Unlike Bitcoin, which bypasses regulatory oversight, a government sanctioned cyber currency would allow the same degree of confidence in terms of financial transfers while retaining anti-money laundering rules, preventing fraud, etc..

“A recent MIT Technology report claimed that the UK’s central bank had reached out to university researchers to help it create a cryptographically secure digital currency. The resulting system has now been revealed, and is named RSCoin. The RSCoin system, developed by Sarah Meiklejohn and George Danezis, employs cryptography to obviate counterfeiting and tampering. Unlike other mechanisms, the digital ledger used by the new cryptocurrency is handled exclusively by a central body. The report explained that RSCoin will only be made accessible to central bank users in possession of a specific encryption key.”

https://thestack.com/cloud/2016/03/10/bank-of-england-looks-into-centralised-bitcoin-alternative-rscoin/

10)      Quantum Computer Comes Closer to Cracking RSA Encryption

A lot of the discussion about quantum computing centers around things like artificial intelligence but the real application will be in “difficult” problems such as encryption, which is often based on factoring large numbers. Progress is being made, albeit slowly, as this work shows. The researchers have managed to develop a 5 bit quantum computer which can factor numbers up to 15. That may sound trivial but it seems that their approach is scalable.

“Much of the world’s digital data is currently protected by public key cryptography, an encryption method that relies on a code based partly in factoring large numbers. Computers have traditionally struggled to do the calculations based on factoring, so data transferred in this way remains secure. On Tuesday, two pioneers of this method, Whitfield Diffie and Martin E. Hellman, won the 2015 Turing Award, the highest honor in computer science. The thrust of their work underpins the most widely used encryption method in the world called the RSA algorithm.”

http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/computing/hardware/encryptionbusting-quantum-computer-practices-factoring-in-scalable-fiveatom-experiment

11)      The Fire Monkey & the Telco Winter

Canada’s incompetent (and likely corrupt) regulators recently turned down the prospect of MVNOs for fear of the impact they would have of incumbent operators. After all, you can’t have the most expensive mobile rates in the world unless you look out for the interests of a bloated oligopoly. Meanwhile the Chinese government has taken steps to do the exact opposite and drive prices down. It’s almost like Chinese regulators are less incompetent or corrupt.

“Now the banquets and toasts are over, China’s Year of the Monkey is underway. Specifically, it’s the Year of the Fire Monkey which, according to tradition, is ambitious and adventurous. That might well describe the last 18 months in Chinese telecom — by local standards, at least, it’s been a lively ride. For one thing, consumers now have the choice of some 40 MVNO brands. With total subs topping 20 million, the MVNOs are starting to get some scale. In a parallel move in fixed-line broadband, the government has invited private firms to take part in trials. Consumers are getting a better deal, too, thanks to some determined jaw-boning from officials, forcing operators to cut data charges and boost access speeds.”

http://www.lightreading.com/services/mobile-services/the-fire-monkey-and-the-telco-winter/d/d-id/721597

12)      Amazon gadget hijacks owner’s heating after hearing radio report

This item struck a chord with me since we named our newest kitten “Google”. Unfortunately, when he is being called all manner of Android devices in our house now perk to attention for further voice commands. Other than that, when it works, voice command can be a safer alternative especially while driving.

“The latest group of gadget fans to discover the downside of talking to their hardware are owners of Amazon’s Echo, the all-singing, all-dancing home automation device produced by the Seattle-based retailer. Hiding inside Echo is Alexa, the (inevitably gendered) personal assistant: simply ask Alexa to perform a task, from playing your favourite song to dimming the lights in your smart home, and she will. But she’s not very picky about who’s giving the commands, as some listeners of American radio show Listen Up found to their cost. Rachel Martin, the host of the NPR-produced show, reported that a section covering the Echo managed to interact with the devices in the homes of several listeners.”

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/mar/11/amazon-gadget-echo-hijacks-owner-heating-radio-report

13)      Cord-cutting more than doubled in 2015: Pay-TV lost 385K customers, Leichtman tally finds

Cord cutting is a trend among consumers to disconnect from cable services and rely on Netflix and other streaming alternatives. Cord cutting (disconnecting from cable) and cord-nevers (never having had cable) present a challenge for video distributors who have used their monopoly positions (typically supported by regulatory barriers) to force subscribers to pay for content they have no interest in watching. This is probably a secular trend as broadband speeds increase and more streaming services become available. It isn’t all bad news for the entertainment industry either as demand for quality content will probably rise.

“Despite a preliminary tally of publicly traded pay-TV companies that revealed only moderate video subscriber attrition last year, a more comprehensive count conducted by Leichtman Research found that the industry lost a significant number of customers, nearly 385,000. An accounting conducted by FierceCable on Feb. 22 featuring seven leading publicly traded operators found video sub losses at only around 44,000 for the year. … Leichtman’s study, which accounts for 95 percent of the market, also said that the combined privately held forces of Cox Communications, Bright House Networks and Suddenlink lost 153,400 video subscribers.”

http://www.fiercecable.com/story/cord-cutting-more-doubled-2015-pay-tv-lost-385k-customers-leichtman-tally-f/2016-03-10

14)      Opera becomes first big browser maker with built-in ad-blocker

This announcement has probably caused shockwaves in the online ad industry. Opera has a 3.1% market share compared to Google Chrome’s 47.5% but the popularity of adblocking and the fact pages do seem to load a lot faster under Opera when adlocking is enabled may result in market share gains. If you want to download the browser and try it out you can get it at https://www.opera.com/developer?utm_medium=sm&utm_source=desktop_blog&utm_campaign=adblock_feature_release_news. Oddly enough, it seems you have to go to a few pages before the option of locking is enabled, and thereafter you can block or unlock on a URL by URL basis.

“Norwegian company Opera is introducing a new version of its desktop computer browser that promises to load web pages faster by incorporating ad-blocking, a move that makes reining in advertising a basic feature instead of an afterthought. Faster loading, increased privacy and security and a desire for fewer distractions are behind the growing demand for ad-blockers. However, their popularity is cutting into the growth of online marketing for site publishers and corporate brands, who rely on reaching web and mobile users to pay for their content rather than restricting access to paid subscribers. … Opera said it can cut page-loading times by as much as 90 percent by eliminating the complex dance that occurs behind the scenes in a user’s browser as various third-party ad networks deliver promotional messages to users.”

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-advertising-blocking-opera-software-idUSKCN0WC0SS

15)      Miniature fuel cell to keep drones aloft for over an hour and phones charged for a week

Revolutionary fuel cells are nothing new (though their commercialization is quite rare). When I saw this headline I figured somebody had built a tiny PEM fuel cell which could run off hydrogen and generate a small amount of power. Silly me: this is a high temperature fuel cell, meaning it operates at a temperature in line with the melting point of many aluminum alloys, so it is not something you’d see in a smartphone unless you kept your smartphone in an asbestos pouch.

“Referred to as a third-generation fuel cell, the Postech team’s device boasts a simple structure and does not have any problems with corrosion of loss of the elctrolyte. It showed a peak power density of around 560 mW per cubic centimeter at 550° C (1,022° F) and maintained this power density during rapid thermal cycling. With this sort of power density and reliability, the team suggests the device may offer an alternative to lithium-ion batteries in a range of mobile electronics, such as smartphones and laptops. At just 78 mm2 per cell in size, the Postech device is also claimed to have fast on and off times similar to lithium-ion batteries and superior power densities that would allow smartphones that would only need to be charged once a week.”

http://www.gizmag.com/drone-fuelcell-batteries-postech/42222/

16)      OCP Summit: Google joins and shares 48V tech

The Open Compute Platform is an initiative started by Facebook to open source hardware and related software for the data center. Companies like Facebook have such massive operations that they can afford to design and build their own hardware. Open sourcing makes it more likely companies like Foxconn will produce the gear at their traditional negligible margins. That will open purchases to anybody, even companies which do not maintain large data centers. If momentum continues to build, this will be negative for the likes of Cisco and other vendors.

“Hölzle said Google’s 48V rack specifications had increased its energy efficiency by 30 precent, through eliminating the multiple transformers usually deployed in a data center. Google is submitting the specification to OCP, and is now working with Facebook on a standard that can be built by vendors, and which Google and Facebook could both adopt, he said. “We have several years of experience with this,” said Hölzle, as Google has deployed 48V technology across large data centers.”

http://www.datacenterdynamics.com/power-cooling/ocp-summit-google-joins-and-shares-48v-tech/95835.article

17)      Stem cells restore sight in rabbits and humans

Stem cell therapies, along with CRISPR, will likely lead to significant improvement in medical outcomes over the next decade or so. What is interesting about this article is that the therapy has been actually used on people (i.e. babies) to restore sight.

“The two teams each used adult stem cells to regenerate parts of the eye and restore sight to the blind. One team, from Cardiff University in the UK and Osaka University in Japan, grew a variety of cells, using one particular type to cure induced blindness in lab rabbits. The second team, from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Shiley Eye Institute alongside colleagues in China, generated human lens cells, using them to restore sight to human infants with congenital cataracts. Both studies were published this week in the journal Nature.”

http://www.cnet.com/news/stem-cells-restore-sight-in-rabbits-and-humans/

18)      Bionic Fingertip Gives Amputee a Sense of Touch

One of the limitations of prosthesis is the lack of feedback which has the effect of significantly limiting the ability to control the limb or hand. A similar challenge exists in robots which use crude force sensors for limited feedback. This experiment has given an amputee a limited sense of touch by hooking a sensor directly into his nervous system. It may not be much but it is a big step forward.

“Dennis Aabo Sørensen became the first amputee able to recognize different textures using a bionic finger that was surgically connected to nerves in his upper arm. A machine controlled the movement of the fingertip over different pieces of plastic engraved with different patterns, smooth or rough. As the fingertip moved across the textured plastic, the sensors generated an electrical signal. This signal was translated into a series of electrical spikes, imitating the language of the nervous system, then delivered to the nerves. Sørensen could distinguish between rough and smooth textures 96 percent of the time.”

http://www.roboticstrends.com/article/bionic_fingertip_gives_amputee_a_sense_of_touch

19)      Bad news: Low-carbon air travel isn’t very likely

Electric airplanes were in the news recently and as I’ve pointed out, a Lear jet would require a battery the size and weight of a fully loaded 767, so don’t hold your breath. This article takes a walk down memory lane at other “carbon free” air travel options and what happened to them.

“Fortunately, there’s a groundbreaking techno-fix just around the corner, waiting to usher in the clean airplane of the future, right? Wrong. According to these researchers, that airplane is a false hope that we’ve been clinging to for more than 20 years, and here’s how they found out: First, the team compiled a list of 20 efficiency-boosting technologies hyped by the aviation industry between 1994 and 2013. These potential game-changers broke down into three broad categories: alternative fuels like hydrogen, algae, and this stuff that you’ve probably never heard of; new engines that could, for example, run on sunlight or electricity; and “airframe” improvements that would make planes lighter and more aerodynamic.”

http://grist.org/business-technology/bad-news-low-carbon-air-travel-isnt-very-likely/

20)      HP Inc. CEO Dion Weisler: HP is betting big on 3D printing

It is hard to take HP’s plans seriously as they have a remarkable ability of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Nonetheless they do have impressive printing technology and they still plan to enter the 3D printing market sometime this year. It is unlikely they will “take on” injection molding with this new machine because, even though it may be 10x faster than other 3D printers, it would probably need to be 100x faster than that to replace molding. Nonetheless, a 10x faster machine, and one which can print colour and detail, could significantly broaden the market for 3D printing. A better video of their capabilities is here https://youtu.be/od863GF3WRk.

“Indeed, HP Inc.’s vision is to be a market leader in commercial manufacturing, solving the problems of quality and cost that have held the industry back to date. “Today, 3D printing is like a $5 billion or $6 billion market. It’s not going to change the trajectory of the business. But what will is when we can start tapping into the $12 trillion injection molding market. We get to democratize manufacturing with 3D printing,” he said. With its Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer, which is said to be ten times faster than any other 3D printer on the market, producing parts that are unbelievably dense with accuracy down to 21 microns (one tenth the size of a human hair), HP believes it can get the market to a “point of inflection”, where it will actually be more cost-efficient and effective to go to 3D printing rather than traditional injection molding.”

http://www.3ders.org/articles/20160311-hp-inc-ceo-dion-weisler-hp-is-betting-big-on-3d-printing.html

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

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

Hello,

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

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

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

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

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.

Brian Piccioni

 

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1)          Google self-driving car strikes bus on California street

It had to happen: Google’s self-driving car has been involved in an accident for which it probably is at least partly responsible. There appears to be minor damage because the collision was at very low speed. That is, in fact, one thing which modern safety systems such as autobrake will help a lot: since the force of impact is proportional to the square of the velocity, hitting something at a lower speed is bound to cause much less damage to all.

“A self-driving car being tested by Google struck a public bus on a Silicon Valley street, a fender-bender that appears to be the first time one of the tech company’s vehicles caused a crash during testing. Google accepted at least some responsibility for the collision, which occurred on Valentine’s Day when one of the Lexus SUVs it has outfitted with sensors and cameras hit the side of the bus near the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. No one was injured, according to an accident report Google wrote and submitted to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. It was posted online Monday.”

http://bigstory.ap.org/article/4d764f7fd24e4b0b9164d08a41586d60/google-self-driving-car-strikes-public-bus-california

2)          An all-star team of former NASA/Tesla/Stanford engineers is building a promising VTOL electric aircraft

I enjoyed the quote from Musk that implies batteries only need to improve by 66% in order to make an electric airplane feasible. As is often the case, nobody bothers to state the facts: jet fuel has specific energy of about 13.8 kwhr/kg (https://wiki.xtronics.com/index.php/Energy_density) about 50x the energy density of the imaginary battery rechargeable lithium ion battery cited in the article. Not only that but a battery loses capacity with every charge and using them at peak current causes them to self-destruct, you’d need an even larger battery than the equivalent 50x the mass of jet fuel. It is hard to believe that actual aircraft designers, NASA, etc, lack the intelligence to create an airplane with 50x the fuel economy of current ones, especially since fuel is a major operating cost.

“A startup operating mostly in stealth mode for the past 6 years has been developing a very interesting battery-powered vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, which could potentially be described as a “flying car”. Just over two years ago, some early prototypes were spotted at the company’s facility near Google’s X lab, now called the Moonshot factory, which sparked speculation that Google was financing the project. Not much was known about the company then, but we did some research after finding out that it went on a recent hiring spree and we are now bringing you the most up-to-date report on this promising project. Zee Aero was founded by Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford and former NASA Researcher at Ames Ilan Kroo. He recruited a surprising number of students and colleagues from both organisations to launch his startup, which looks more ready than ever to debut its aircraft.”

http://electrek.co/2016/03/02/zee-aero-vtol-electric-aircraft-2/

3)          IBM job cuts: US tech giant begins mass-firing one third of workforce

This is still a rumor, but pretty widespread. The company is hiring in some areas, but if even half this figure would be devastating to morale, customer service, and engineering. Mass layoffs like this rarely cut only “dead wood” and even so the good people also leave because of the impact on morale. IBM is a company which has pretty much missed every major high tech trend since the PC, and it seems to be hitting the accelerator in its demise. As a reminder, tech companies rarely downsize to greatness.

“IBM has begun a widespread culling of its US workforce with an estimated one-third of staff facing the axe according to those affected by the strategic shake-up of the technology company. The job cuts, which are being described as “massive”, come following IBM’s announcement in January that it would be laying-off staff at its Global Technology Services (GTS) department in the US. Reports claim the axe has fallen on further departments as of Wednesday (2 March). The news began to trickle out from the Facebook group of employee watchdog, WatchingIBM, with members posting their accounts of IBM’s slash and burn policy. “I am a GTS Strategic Outsourcing casualty of the mass firing today. My manager told me it was big and widespread, and I’d be hearing from a lot of people that will also be notified today,” said one user.”

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/ibm-job-cuts-us-tech-giant-begins-mass-firing-one-third-workforce-1547306

4)          The Chevy Bolt Won’t Make a Dime for GM

With all the excitement over electric vehicles, it is noteworthy that none are manufactured at a profit despite massive subsidies. The important thing with EVs is that they sound like a good idea, provided you ignore the details about things like batteries. Eventually the whole thing will run its course, the subsidies will vanish, and people will make another movie about “who killed the electric car”.

“To be sure, automakers across the board have been reluctant to produce all-battery electric cars for very good reasons. Batteries have far shorter lifespans than the electric motors they power, so BEVs have hidden replacement costs that consumers may or may not be willing to pay. Consider as well that no major automaker except Nissan produces its own EV batteries, meaning that money leaves the automaker with each EV built, and with each cycle of battery replacement. Finally, nobody yet knows how to price aging EV batteries, rendering opaque the rationale for user ownership and the economics of used BEVs.”

http://spectrum.ieee.org/cars-that-think/transportation/advanced-cars/the-chevy-bolt-wont-make-a-dime-for-gm

5)          SSD reliability in the real world: Google’s experience

This report caused some excitement among HDD bulls, of which there are probably only a handful left. I predict the laptop market will be almost 100% SSDs within about 18 months because the devices are superior in nearly all respects. This article suggests otherwise but it is worth noting that it refers to rather antique SSDs operating in a much more benign environment than experienced by a laptop SSD or HDD. Data centers do not get dropped, subject to temperature extremes, etc, which can be very hard on HDDs.

“Two standout conclusions from the study. First, that MLC drives are as reliable as the more costly SLC “enterprise” drives. This mirrors hard drive experience, where consumer SATA drives have been found to be as reliable as expensive SAS and Fibre Channel drives. One of the major reasons that “enterprise” SSDs are more expensive is due to greater over-provisioning. SSDs are over-provisioned for two main reasons: to allow for ample bad block replacement caused by flash wearout; and, to ensure that garbage collection does not cause write slowdowns. The paper’s second major conclusion, that age, not use, correlates with increasing error rates, means that over-provisioning for fear of flash wearout is not needed. None of the drives in the study came anywhere near their write limits, even the 3,000 writes specified for the MLC drives.”

http://www.zdnet.com/article/ssd-reliability-in-the-real-world-googles-experience/

6)          Samsung ships the world’s highest capacity SSD, with 15TB of storage

Samsung announced this product a number of months ago and now it is shipping. It ain’t cheap: pricing is probably in the range of $5,000, and it won’t work in most laptops – even if it is small enough to fit. Nonetheless, it shows what is possible with SSDs. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that 1GB USB keys were a novelty and now you can buy a 64GB device for less than $50.

“Samsung Electronics announced Wednesday that it is now shipping the industry’s highest-capacity solid-state drive (SSD), the 15.36TB PM1633a. Samsung revealed it was working on the drive last August, saying it would use the same form factor as for a laptop computer: 2.5-in. The 2.5-in SSD is based on a 12Gbps Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) interface for use in enterprise storage systems. The PM1633a has blazing fast performance, with random read and write speeds of up to 200,000 and 32,000 I/Os per second (IOPS), respectively. It delivers sequential read and write speeds of up to 1200MBps, the company said. A typical SATA SSD can peak at about 550MBps.”

http://www.computerworld.com/article/3040208/data-storage/samsung-ships-the-worlds-highest-capacity-ssd-with-15tb-of-storage.html

7)          Oculus Founder: Rift will come to Mac if Apple “ever releases a good computer”

This story was a hoot because it lets a big secret out of the bag: Apple computers may be nifty, they may be white, and they are expensive, but they are definitely not state of the art. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“It’s been almost a year now since Oculus announced that the consumer version of the Rift virtual reality headset would only support Windows PCs at launch—a turnaround from development kits that worked fine on Mac and Linux boxes. Now, according to Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey, it “is up to Apple” to change that state of affairs. Specifically, “if they ever release a good computer, we will do it,” he told Shacknews recently.”

http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2016/03/oculus-founder-rift-will-come-to-mac-if-apple-ever-release-a-good-computer/

8)          UK government launches initiative against online adblocking, compares it to piracy

For the most part politicians talking about technology is simply a demonstration of their appalling ignorance on the matter. Here is an excellent example where the “culture secretary” comes across as a barely verbal drooling idiot whose knowledge of the Internet comes mostly from briefing papers and not hands on use. Ads are increasingly distracting, disruptive, fraudulent, and often convey malware. The reason this is so is that the advertising industry disavows any responsibility for the garbage they are pushing onto consumers’ computers. The good news is that ad blockers are open source so there is nothing any government can do to help advertisers defraud consumers – try as they might.

“With the rise of users employing adblocking technology in the last 18 months, the conflict between online publishers and users has been mostly left as a problem for the market to resolve organically. However today the UK’s culture secretary John Whittingdale has announced that the British government intends to e ‘do something’ on the issue, describing the practice as a ‘modern day protection racket’, and comparing it to piracy.”

https://thestack.com/world/2016/03/02/uk-government-launches-initiative-against-online-adblocking-compares-it-to-piracy/

9)          Coolest Cooler Not So Cool as Project Runs Short of Cash

Shocker! Yet another Kickstarter project has burned through its money and may not be able to deliver promised products to its “supporters”. As a general rule, giving money to start-up companies is a good way to lose it, and more so when you have no say in the outcome (one benefit of crowdfunding, for the start-up at least, is that you don’t sell ownership, just promises). There is virtually no oversight to crowdfunding and nobody, including the crowdfunding middleman, has any incentive to change that. The best thing to do is save your money or burn it: the outcome will be the same in most cases.

“In a backer update emailed to supporters yesterday, the second most funded Kickstarter campaign delivered some disturbing news. In brief, Coolest Cooler has ran out of cash. … Grepper explained that while the campaign raised well over $13 million (from 62,642 backers), after Kickstarter got their cut, transactional fees, development, people and operations dropped the cash down to $7.4 million. This amount is not sufficient to complete manufacturing and shipping to the thousands of backers who remain Cooler-less.”

http://www.crowdfundinsider.com/2016/02/82285-coolest-cooler-not-so-cool-as-project-runs-short-of-cash/

10)      Exclusive: the Raspberry Pi was turned down for funding by the UK government

The Raspberry Pi Model 3 was released this week to considerable excitement among the hobbyist and maker community. To those who are not aware, Raspberry Pi is a series of low cost (in the case of the Pi 3, US $35) which are powerful computers the size of a credit card. They tend to be in short supply because the company shifted assembly from China to the UK and have trouble keeping up with demand. (They initially could not find a UK company capable of producing the board). Long story short, the UK government declined to support the project – even though it now takes credit for the most successful computer ever designed in the UK.

“”It has left me very sceptical about any government attempt to do industrial support,” Upton continued, “because it is always going to have gatekeepers. And the gatekeepers are always going to have a bias towards things that already exist.” Despite a lack of pre-existing demand for the Pi, a market for it appeared quickly: “We sold 4.5 million Pi 1s in three years, and 3 million Pi 2s in one year.” The tiny, cheap computers have been an enormous hit with hobbyists and educators around the world and even off-world; two armour-clad Pi PCs are currently assisting Tim Peake in his experiments in space.”

http://www.stuff.tv/news/exclusive-raspberry-pi-was-turned-down-funding-uk-government

11)      New defence trade controls threaten academic freedom and the economy

In what seems to be a theme, if this article is to be believed the Australian government has made doing any form of R&D a high risk behavior. If true, and if the government is stupid enough to prosecute people under this law, academics will flee the country to a less hostile environment. Like Russia.

“The DTCA introduces a permit regime for any “intangible supply” (especially electronic communication) of new ideas in DSGL areas. Researchers and innovators who communicate any new idea overseas without permission face ten years in prison and A$400,000 fines. In other words, if you deal in new ideas in any of these areas, and you do not apply for a DoD permit, you are putting yourself at serious legal risk. The DSGL is clearly difficult to maintain. For example, it refers to integrated circuits running at 40 MHz or above, which were state of the art around 25 years ago. Recently Daniel Mathews pointed out that the DSGL controls encryption using only 512 bits, also long obsolete.”

https://theconversation.com/new-defence-trade-controls-threaten-academic-freedom-and-the-economy-55310

12)      AAA: 75% Of Drivers Say They Wouldn’t Feel Safe In An Autonomous Vehicle

One always has to take survey results with a large grain of salt. I suspect AAA members are more representative of an older demographic, many of whom will be dead before a commercially available self-driving car hits the road. Ironically, older drivers will probably benefit most from the technology because it will extend their ability to drive for quite a few years.

“A future where we’re all tooling around in self-driving cars with our feet up on the dash, hands behind the head, relaxing at the wheel is still far away. But while technology companies and car manufacturers alike are rushing to test their own autonomous vehicles, the average American driver doesn’t feel quite comfortable with the idea of riding in a driverless car just yet, according to the results of a recent AAA survey. AAA’s survey of 1,800 drivers found that 75% of drivers say they wouldn’t feel safe in a driverless vehicle. But it’s worth noting that 60% said they would like access to some kind of self-driving feature, like self-parking, lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control, and other options the next time they buy a new car.”

https://consumerist.com/2016/03/01/aaa-75-of-drivers-say-they-wouldnt-feel-safe-in-an-autonomous-vehicle/

13)      No coal: Solar, wind, gas dominate new US generating capacity in 2016

You have to credit the alternative energy industry because they are able to publish things like this. It is not exactly false, but it’s exactly true either. For example “new generating capacity” means different things for solar or wind than gas. If you install 1MW of solar power, you are maybe going to realize maybe 20% of that. In contrast, a 1MW gas turbine is going to produce 1MW, except during occasional repair cycles. After all the subsidies and other incentives (like being able to sell all the power you want at a multiple of retail price) solar and wind is responsible for less than 10% of power production https://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.cfm?t=epmt_1_1. The greatest impact on CO2 emissions has happened from the decline of coal and rise of natural gas, due mainly to the low cost of natural gas thanks to technology like fracking.

“Part of the boom in renewables came because the tax incentives for their installation were in danger of expiring, so utilities rushed to get projects through the pipeline ahead of the end of the year. (The incentives have since been extended in the most recent budget deal.) This led to a phenomenal boom in solar, with 9.5GW of capacity expected to come online—more than the past three years combined. Last year saw 8.4GW of distributed solar installed in the US (compared to 3.1GW of utility scale); given the continued slide in solar panel prices, that figure is likely to grow as well. Thus, the actual solar capacity installed next year may be double the EIA’s estimates.”

http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/03/no-coal-solar-wind-gas-dominate-new-us-generating-capacity-in-2016/

14)      Forty Big Banks Test Blockchain-Based Bond Trading System

Blockchain is the underlying technology of Bitcoin, but you can have Blockchain without Bitcoin and many different types of Blockchain are possible. The hope among banks is to ensure secure transactions with rapid clearing, which could significantly reduce their costs.

“Forty of the world’s biggest banks, including HSBC and Citi, have tested a system for trading fixed income using the technology that underpins bitcoin, fintech company R3 CEV said on Thursday. The banks are part of a consortium of 42 major lenders, brought together last year by New York-based R3 CEV to work on ways blockchain technology could be used in financial markets – the first time so many have collaborated on using such systems. A blockchain is a huge, decentralised ledger of transactions that can be used to secure and validate any exchange of data, including real assets, such as commodities or currencies. Bitcoin’s blockchain was the first, but others have since been built that offer additional features and can be programmed. That means the technology can enable so-called smart contracts: agreements that are automatically executed when pre-determined conditions are met.”

http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2016/03/02/business/02reuters-banking-blockchain-bonds.html?_r=4

15)      Bitcoin’s nightmare scenario has come to pass

There are a variety of explanations within the Bitcoin community for why this is happening, including a cabal of Bitcoin miners who have taken control of the system. Either way, an unregulated financial system such as Bitcoin is bound to collapse.

“Over the last year and a half a number of prominent voices in the Bitcoin community have been warning that the system needed to make fundamental changes to its core software code to avoid being overwhelmed by the continued growth of Bitcoin transactions. There was strong disagreement within the community, however, about how to solve this problem, or if the problem would ever materialize. This week the dire predictions came to pass, as the network reached its capacity, causing transactions around the world to be massively delayed, and in some cases to fail completely. The average time to confirm a transaction has ballooned from 10 minutes to 43 minutes. Users are left confused and shops that once accepted Bitcoin are dropping out.”

http://www.theverge.com/2016/3/2/11146584/bitcoin-core-classic-debate-transaction-limit-crisis

16)      IBM sues Groupon over 1990s patents related to Prodigy

As IBM struggles for relevancy they have devolved into a patent troll. It is worth noting that, once upon a time, IBM actually produced leading edge technologies. Now it seems it wants to shake down companies with flimsy “do it with a computer” type patents.

“IBM is pushing big Internet companies to pay patent licensing fees in part because IBM invented the Prodigy service, a precursor to the modern Web. Yesterday, Big Blue filed a lawsuit (PDF) against Groupon, saying the company has infringed four IBM patents, including patents 5,796,967 and 7,072,849. Each of those relates to the Prodigy service. IBM inventors working on Prodigy “developed novel methods for presenting applications and advertisements,” and “the technological innovations embodied in these patents are fundamental to the efficient communication of Internet content,” according to the company. The Prodigy patents were filed in 1993 and 1996, but they have “priority dates” stretching back to 1988. That’s because they’re based on “divisional” and “continuation” patent applications, which were abandoned but first filed in that year.”

http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/03/ibm-sues-groupon-saying-it-infringes-patents-related-to-1990s-prodigy-service/

17)      With a bullet to the head from Samsung, 3D TV is now deader than ever

3D TV was a big deal when it came out but the technology is rarely mentioned nowadays as manufacturers are focused on things like 4K (higher resolution). Samsung is a major TV manufacturer and, as the article suggests, while not all vendors have discontinued 3D, the industry has moved on. Now if we could only get them to kill 3D movies …

“If you’re among the few who actually don 3D glasses to watch movies at home, you’re not gonna like this. If you’re everyone else, you probably couldn’t care less. 3D, once hailed as a breakthrough new feature on TVs and propelled into mainstream consciousness by the blue aliens of “Avatar” and the efforts of ESPN and DirecTV, has been waning in popularity for years. Now it has absorbed that most telling of deathblows from the biggest gun in the TV hardware business. A source at Samsung, who asked to remain anonymous, has confirmed to CNET that none of its 2016 US TV models will support 3D.”

http://www.cnet.com/news/3d-tv-is-now-more-dead-than-ever/

18)      Should you fear your USB cable?

When I designed PCs all sorts of tests were done to make sure it was nearly impossible to destroy your PC. As the article suggests it is the PC’s responsibility not to be damaged by a bad cable no matter how bad the cable. While you don’t want to buy a bad cable, if your PC smokes because of a bad cable it speaks more to the quality of the PC than anything else.

“Aren’t laptops designed to protect against damage like this? Dell says their laptops are. Jason Lee, the company’s lead engineer on XPS notebooks, says that not only are Dell’s USB ports protected against voltage drops and short circuits, but they will also automatically restart themselves as soon as they cool down. No need to restart your computer. And HP’s Atkinson says such protections aren’t just limited to Dell; they’re standard practice for the computer industry. “With everything I’ve ever seen — and we’ve been shipping USB-A since 1997 — if there’s a short circuit, the port just shuts off. That’s existed forever.” Atkinson points out that even with previous versions of USB, a cable could get damaged, and the industry adopted overcurrent and overvoltage protection circuits to keep the computers safe. Today, “If you threw molten metal into the connector itself, it’d essentially just shut down,” he says.”

http://www.cnet.com/news/usb-type-c-cable-problems/

19)      Third of global firms now hit by cybercrime: Survey

Surveys like this are often marketing collateral for sellers of security products but it is worth a read. Hacks are getting more sophisticated and damages are increasingly financial as various fraudulent schemes are costing companies and their customers lots of money.

“Economic crime is on the rise, with cybercrime affecting almost a third of global businesses, according to the latest survey by audit firm PwC. In the last two years, 36 percent of organizations surveyed experienced economic crime, the Global Economic Crime Survey revealed on Thursday. The most common forms of economic crime were asset misappropriation, cybercrime, and bribery or corruption. The rate of economic crime rose in Africa, Western Europe and the Middle East, while 14 percent of total respondents said they had lost more than $1 million as a result of crime in the last two years.”

http://www.cnbc.com/2016/02/25/third-of-global-firms-now-hit-by-cybercrime-survey.html

20)      Disruptive advanced nuclear design is in pre-licensing design review

I figure that 100 years from now historians will puzzle over why nuclear power wasn’t used more broadly. After all, failures in antique designs govern current policies which make it extremely time consuming and expensive to commission a new reactor. Modern reactor designs are inherently safe, meaning they shut themselves down in the event of failure. The major concerns are disposal of waste and someone getting access to nuclear materials. I have no idea whether this design is as good as it says it is, but I doubt that matters. People prefer the fantasy of solar power over safe, cost effective, nuclear.

“Terrestrial Energy is developing a next-generation nuclear reactor based on its Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR) technology. The IMSR represents true innovation in safety, cost and functionality. It will offer safe and reliable power solutions for electricity production, both on- and off-grid, and also energy for industrial process heat generation. These together extend the applicability of nuclear energy far beyond its current footprint. With this profile, the IMSR is capable of driving the rapid global decarbonization of the primary energy system by displacing fossil fuel combustion across a broad front. It is complementary to renewable power sources and ideal for distributed power systems on existing grids. Using an innovative design and proven Molten Salt Reactor technology, the IMSR can be brought to global markets in the 2020s. Terrestrial Energy is currently developing its IMSR commercial demonstration power plant for deployment in Canada.”

http://nextbigfuture.com/2016/02/disruptive-advanced-nuclear-design-is.html