The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 22nd 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) Intel claims storage supremacy with swift 3D XPoint Optane drives, 1-petabyte 3D NAND
Most of the coverage around this news was fairly critical as the tests were not altogether fair since the bottleneck in the SSDs was likely the interface and Xpoint memory was supposed to have “up to” 1,000x the performance of NAND flash when announced. Of course “up to” includes 1, so that statement isn’t meaningful. Regardless, this first generation product and there is a good chance neither the Xpoint software nor the interface are fully optimized yet. Other important features for Xpoint like long life and rapid write times are also very important.
“Crooke also talked up the company’s upcoming 3D NAND product. Intel said its 3D NAND will be able to squeeze 384 billion bits in a single die. That means, Crooke said, Intel can now squeeze 1TB of storage into a 1.5mm-thick drive that can go into laptops and tablets. For traditional 2.5-inch drives in a desktop or larger laptop, the company will be able to pack up to 15TB of data. The real bombshell: A 1U rack server with Intel’s upcoming 3D NAND will be able to pack 1 petabyte of storage. Just so you know, 20PB is enough to store 13.3 years of HD video.”
2) The rise of the $400 smartphone—you want how much for a flagship?
This article covers a number of significant issues in the smartphone industry, namely that prices are going down though it leaves the impression this is an issue in the developing world. It is actually a global issue: because there is no real innovation in smartphones the only real competitive forum is price, and prices will necessarily come down. After all there is no particular reason smartphones should be any more profitable than PCs. As the article mentions, the end of contracts in the US will have a significant impact on buyer behavior, something we highlighted a number of months ago.
“For a long time, the cost of a fast, high-end smartphone with the latest technology seemed definite. You were paying $600 or $700 no matter whether you did it up front or spread out over the course of a two-year carrier contract. This doesn’t have to be the case today, however. There’s an exciting new category of phone on the block—the “cheap flagship,” a phone that has flagship or very-close-to-flagship specs but only costs around $400.”
3) Anti-Adblock Killer extension prevents sites from blocking your ad-blocker
Sweet! It was a matter of time before somebody came up with something like this. I installed the “disable anti-adblock” (you have to google that search term for some reason) add on to Firefox and it seems to work as promised on Wired and Forbes websites. As the article notes it is probably a matter of time before an “anti-anti-disable adblock” is released, then an anti-anti-anti- disable adblock, etc..
“Wired caused a bit of a stir earlier this week when it announced that it would block anyone who uses an ad-blocker from viewing its site. Worried that adblockers would eventually prevent them from making any money from their articles, Wired is rolling out technology next week that will detect and block ad-blocking extensions. It seems like Wired’s efforts to block ad-blockers may be a bit fruitless, as a new extension has appeared for all major browsers that allows you to keep your ad-blocker enabled, even when a website asks you to disable it before viewing content. The extension, known as Anti-Adblock Killer, essentially tricks websites into thinking that you aren’t running ad-block at all times.”
4) The Broadband Industry Is Now Officially Blaming Google (Alphabet) For…Everything
Broadband providers in North America emerged out of the protected status of regulated monopolies. Consumers essentially payed for their infrastructure and other regulatory machinations limit competition even in an unregulated era. This may change as new wireless technologies are developed – unless the respective governments continue their incompetence and auction off spectrum (spectrum auctions guarantee that dominant players retain their dominance since they are the only ones with the capital to bid).
“This desperation originates with two things, one of them being Google Fiber. Though admittedly still limited in reach, Google Fiber has managed to light a fire under the apathetic posteriors of telecom giants that previously had little to no impetus to upgrade networks. It has managed to generate a national conversation about the sorry state of broadband competition, and even managed to illuminate the telecom sector’s love of state protectionist laws that prevent community broadband and even public/private partnerships. In short, the broadband industry’s mostly just pissed that they’re now facing some competition (which is why they’ve resorted to lawsuits to slow Google Fiber’s expansion).”
5) Google CDN Beta is here… and it’s already one of the fastest CDNs out there!
A Content Delivery Network is the sort of infrastructure a company like Netflix uses to stream content to users but it can be used for almost any big data file. The idea is to get the data as close as possible to the user so that response times and congestion is improved. Akamai is a major player in the space but Google and other cloud providers might have a leg up because they can essentially run this as a sideline to their main business.
“Some months ago, Google launched their Alpha program for their upcoming CDN service. We kept a close eye to their development and in the meanwhile, in NEXT 2016 Google has already announced the Beta phase of their CDN. We already discussed how this new product will fit in the broad palette of content distribution solutions Google has implemented. We have seen Google Global Cache, which is primarily aimed at speeding up their own services at ISP level, with more than 800 caches installed globally. CDN Interconnect is their partner program with third party providers like Cloudflare, Level3, Akamai, Highwinds, Fastly and Verizon, allowing them to use Google’s backbone network to transport content faster than ever from the source to practically anywhere where it is required, powering up CDNs not only with faster caching, but also enabling them to deliver rapidly changing content at top speeds.”
6) How ‘The Jungle Book’ Made Its Animals Look So Real With Groundbreaking VFX
It is not my cup of tea but I am led to believe the animation in the new Jungle Book movies sets a new standard for CGI just as “Toy Story” did 15 years ago. I find it a pity there is only brief mention of how cloud technologies might have helped the project and even then it seems speculative. In the past, a company would have to buy expensive graphics servers, set them up, and run them for a particular movie. Once the movie was done, unless there was another movie to be rendered the asset was just rapidly depreciating. Moving CGI rendering to the cloud should be much faster and more cost effective.
““It would take 30-40 hours per frame, and since its stereo [or 3D], it requires two frames to produce one frame of the movie — at 2K, not even 4K,” Legato said. “So you can tell how much the computer has to figure out, exactly what it’s doing, how it’s bouncing, how much of the light is absorbed, because when it hits an object, some gets absorbed and some gets reflected.” The math there is mind-boggling; it takes a full 24 frames to make up a single second of the movie, and most shots are between five and ten seconds. That required “literally thousands of computers,” Legato said, and eventually, some creative solutions. “I think they started using the Google cloud, which has tens of thousands of computers, and sometimes it would take two or three days to render a shot, he said, exasperated at the mere thought of the process.”
7) Nest was supposed to lead the next computing revolution. It’s looking like a bust.
Nest generated a lot of excitement when it introduced its WiFi thermostat despite the fact the product itself was trivial. Since then they have suffered a number of missteps and released a number of unremarkable products. IoT in general is in its early years and there are a lot of challenges to overcome, most significantly the development of standards, the lack of security in most products, and the fact the products stop working when the vendor loses interest in actively supporting them.
“There are now lots of internet-connected devices on the market, but a big problem with many of them is that they require too much effort to set up and manage. It’s hard enough to convince someone that it’s worth paying a premium for an internet-connected lightbulb or washing machine. It becomes an even harder sell if customers are required to separately configure devices from different companies. Part of the value proposition for connected devices is their ability to work together — for example, to turn off all the lights in your house with a single tap on your smartphone. But this becomes more — rather than less — of a hassle if you have to open several different apps to turn off the lights. Nest hopes to play a central role in solving this dilemma. Over the past couple of years, the company has convinced the manufacturers of a wide variety of products — from lightbulbs to washing machines — to participate in a program called “Works With Nest.””
8) Opera bakes a free, unlimited VPN directly into its desktop browser
Opera has a tiny market share so they are forced to become imaginative with respect to the features they offer in their browser. Earlier this year they added an adblocker and now they have added an unlimited VPN to permit secure browsing and the ability to bypass geo-locking. Other reports suggest it will not allow you to get around Netflix geo-locking however.
“Norway-based technology company Opera Software is introducing a free virtual private network (VPN) feature to its desktop browser, making it the first of the major browser operators to build a VPN directly into the software. Today’s news comes a little more than a month after Opera unveiled a built-in ad-blocker for the browser.”
9) Hearing Aid Prices Under Pressure From Consumer Electronics
The hearing aid business is one of the great scams of all time rivaled only by the eyeglass business. The innards of the most sophisticated hearing instrument cost a few dollars and yet a byzantine regulatory structure ensures users – most of which are elderly and on fixed income – pay thousands for them. There is no real reason the market should be tightly regulated since the majority of users would be able to adjust the units as well as, or better than an audiologist. The net result is that few people can afford hearing aids because the profits of the industry override the health of the elderly. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.
“The consumer electronics industry is encroaching on the hearing aid business, offering products that are far less expensive and available without the involvement of audiologists or other professionals. That is forcing a re-examination of the entire system for providing hearing aids, which critics say is too costly and cumbersome, hindering access to devices vital for the growing legions of older Americans. “The audiology profession is obviously scared, for good reason, right now,” said Abram Bailey, an audiologist and chief executive of Hearing Tracker, a consumer website.”
10) Intel Begins Shipping Xeon Chips With FPGA Accelerators
FPGA are reprogrammable logic devices and are therefore highly flexible. They are found in all kinds of equipment where either the volume does not support the development of a speciality chip or the product requires change often enough some degree of specific customization is necessary. Adding an FPGA to a CPU does confer some benefits but it is not abundantly clear those benefits will offset the price premium or the market is large enough to support enough demand to justify such a product.
“Intel and other chip makers are increasingly relying on accelerators to help improve the performance and energy efficiency of their processors and speed up the workloads that run on them. Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices offer GPU accelerators. However, the company also is now using FPGAs, which can be reprogrammed through software after they’ve been manufactured. They’re becoming more important for cloud and Web-scale environments, where workloads can change quickly.”
11) AMD strikes chip licensing deal, which could create more x86 rivals for Intel
This appears to be part of the move by China to go upmarket in its technology. Depending on the details of the agreement the licensees may elect to flood the market with very cheap x86 parts for the high margin server segment. After all, the Chinese government is probably more interested in technology development and market share than in high margins to meet investor expectations and to fund cutting edge process R&D.
“Things just a lot more interesting in the x86 server market. AMD has announced a plan to license the design of its top-of-the-line server processor to a newly formed Chinese company, creating a brand-new rival for Intel. AMD is licensing its x86 processor and system-on-chip technology to a company called THATIC (Tianjin Haiguang Advanced Technology Investment Co. Ltd.), a joint venture between AMD and a consortium of public and private Chinese companies. AMD is providing all the technology needed for THATIC to make a server chip, including the CPUs, interconnects and controllers. THATIC will be able to make variants of the x86 chips for different types of servers.”
12) The golden era of video-game console sales is over
Every tech market saturates (potential buyers already own the product) and approach feature saturation (meaning new features do not precipitate a replacement cycle). It is reasonable to believe the video game console business is at that point although, as the article notes, the introduction of Virtual Reality (VR) goggles might change that. The major issue is whether the performance of VR, and, in particular, the associated software makes for a long term positive experience. It may be that VR provides some “wow” which quickly wears off, a bit like 3D TV. Time will tell.
“It does seem, to some degree, that the golden age of home video-game consoles may be over. The previous generation of consoles was the last generation that didn’t have to contend for users’ time with mobile games. And you could make a strong case that a large portion of the casual gaming audience that Nintendo attracted for the Wii was almost entirely wiped out by mobile gaming. After all, the Wii was released in 2006—a year before the iPhone launched. Nintendo’s next console, the Wii U, has been the company’s worst-selling of all time. The average consumer may now feel more inclined to just pick up their phone and play Candy Crush or Temple Run than to get up and swing a controller around.”
13) Why Linux is more secure than other operating systems
Linux is the most popular operating system on the planet through Android, and it powers most cloud applications and much of the Internet. Unlike Windows it was designed to be a multi-user operating system and as a result was designed to be secure. This article outlines some of the reasons the OS has a deserved reputation for security.
“Linux is an open operating system, the codes which can be read by everyone, but still accept more secure in comparison with other OS. Linux is growing rapidly in the market because there are more devices based on Linux, and that is why more people trust Linux. To understand why Linux is so safe when working on the network (and not only), let us talk about some of its capabilities in the sphere of strengthening security.”
14) The list of cancers that can be treated by immunotherapy keeps growing
Cancer immunotherapy drugs have been in use for some time (I believe the first ones were against certain lymphomas and leukemias) and the results can be dramatic. In some instances the survival statistics were so skewed by the effectiveness of drugs like Rituximab that they refer to “pre” and “post” figures. The approach is being generalized and the results can also be impressive, at least for the patients who show a response. This is probably because the drug works against very specific sub-types of tumors. It is likely that new techniques which involve customizing the therapy will have much greater effectiveness.
“New immunotherapy drugs are showing significant and extended effectiveness against a broadening range of cancers, including rare and intractable tumors often caused by viruses. Researchers say these advances suggest the treatment approach is poised to become a critical part of the nation’s anti-cancer strategy. Scientists reported Tuesday on two new studies showing that the medications, which marshal the body’s own immune defenses, are now having some effect against recurrent, difficult-to-treat head and neck cancer and an extremely lethal skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma. The diseases can be caused by viruses as well as DNA mutations, and the data show that the drugs help the immune system to recognize and attack cancers resulting from either cause.”
15) Scientists unveil the ‘most clever CRISPR gadget’ so far
Another recent scientific breakthrough which will have a profound effect on human health, agriculture, and a number of other fields is CRISPR, which is a precise system for editing DNA. This is a refined approach to CRISPR which allows the repair of point mutations which are the source of many inheritable diseases.
“For nearly two years he, Komor, and their colleagues tried to improve that aspect of CRISPR. They replaced its usual cutting enzyme with a dud called “dead Cas9.” Like blunt scissors biting down on fabric, dead Cas9 can latch on to DNA but not cut it. Then they attached two other proteins that change one DNA letter to another and lock it in place. So far, of the 12 possible changes (A to T, C to G, G to C …), the new system can make two: C to T and G to A. But at least 3,000 inherited diseases are the result of a C that should be a T or a G that should be an A, including Franconi anemia and some cancers. “And we’re in the middle of an all-out effort to do the other 10,” Liu said.”
16) Gene-edited CRISPR mushroom escapes US regulation
One can imagine the anti-GMO crowd is having the vapors right now. For whatever reason, modifying the genome of a mushroom is not regulated the same what as inserting genes even though you could progressively modify the genome to achieve the same result. GMO technology is of huge potential benefit to humanity despite the scare tactics. This is good news.
“The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will not regulate a mushroom genetically modified with the gene-editing tool CRISPR–Cas9. The long-awaited decision means that the mushroom can be cultivated and sold without passing through the agency’s regulatory process — making it the first CRISPR-edited organism to receive a green light from the US government. “The research community will be very happy with the news,” says Caixia Gao, a plant biologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology in Beijing, who was not involved in developing the mushroom. “I am confident we’ll see more gene-edited crops falling outside of regulatory authority.””
17) Almost Nothing About the ‘Apple Harvests Gold From iPhones’ Story Is True
A few days ago the media was flooded with articles about how Apple recycles millions of iPhone, etc.. My thoughts were “if so then what?” as there is a scrap metal recycler about 5 km from my farm. This article is more balanced in that it shows Apple was mostly complying with local and state laws and few of the products were actually iPhones. It inadvertently highlights that, like plastic bags and bottled water, the “waste” from very specific products is considered a societal evil, even if their impact on the environment is questionable. It did allow the half-wits in the Ontario government to place a sin tax on technology products which easily exceeds 10% of the purchase price. Because if you want a high tech economy the first thing you tax is technology.
“Here is the truth: Apple paid independent recyclers to recycle old electronics—which were almost never Apple products, by the way—because it’s required by law to do so. Far from banking $40 million on the prospect, Apple likely ended up taking an overall monetary loss. This is not because Apple is a bad actor or is hiding anything, it’s simply how the industry works.”
18) The Curious Link Between the Fly-By Anomaly and the “Impossible” EmDrive Thruster
The EmDrive Thruster is a bit like cold fusion: too good to be true. Odds are it is a measurement anomaly, even though the results have reportedly been replicated in a number of labs. One issue with EmDrive is that it appears to violate known physics and the effect had never been explained theoretically. This is the first I have read about a possible theoretical explanation for the EmDrive effect. What makes EmDrive interesting (in the unlikely event it works) is that you can directly convert electric power to thrust without a fuel. Because there is no fuel the thrust is continuous meaning a spacecraft could achieve very high velocities even with a very modest thrust.
“McCulloch says there is observational evidence for this in the form of the famous fly by anomalies. These are the strange jumps in momentum observed in some spacecraft as they fly past Earth toward other planets. That’s exactly what his theory predicts. Testing this effect more carefully on Earth is hard because the accelerations involved are so small. But one way to make it easier would be to reduce the size of allowed wavelengths of Unruh radiation. “This is what the EmDrive may be doing,” says McCulloch.”
19) Superconductor Nearing Room Temp
I’d be lying if I said I understood much about this article. As near as I can tell the theory around superconductors is evolving rapidly and there is optimism the phenomenon might be observed at near room temperatures. As the article touches on this could have profound ramifications in many applications. Mind you, like any other physical parameter, you may end up with superconductors which superconduct only when a small amount of current is going through them, etc..
“Room-temperature superconductors are getting closer-and-closer now that separate research groups in the U.S. and Europe have improved a theory, namely that “critical states” at not fixed temperatures backed up by experimental results—and the highest temperature superconductor yet has been proven to be depend on quantum effects that open the possibility of optimizing compounds for room-temperature operation.”
20) A plane collides with a drone at Heathrow airport
As expected, most likely a $100M aircraft was taken out of service for an inspection because some halfwit decided to fly his drone near an airport. It may be unlikely a drone will take down an airplane but a strike would require an inspection of the aircraft and even potentially the replacement of an engine for overhaul.
“IT WAS last year that consumer drones really took off. Around the world, perhaps 1m of the unmanned robots flew off the shelves in 2015. Now, any visit to the park feels incomplete without high-pitched whining overhead. So it was to no one’s surprise when British Airways reported yesterday that it believed that one of its planes had hit a drone as it came into land at London’s Heathrow airport. Although not confirmed, the incident, which involved an A320 en route from Geneva with 137 passengers and crew on board, is thought to have been the first of its kind in Britain. Few think it will be the last. There have been seven “category A” near misses—those of a serious nature—in Britain in the past year.”