The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 18th 2016
I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.
I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.
They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!
Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!
This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”