The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 13th 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.
1) Linux will be the major operating system of 21st century cars
Even though there are plenty of Blackberry analysts who believe QNX (part of Blackberry) will rule the automotive world, this is actually an open secret. While QNX has its merits it is a proprietary OS meaning you have to pay for it and there are limited development options, making it anathema today. QNX’s real time features become far less important as embedded computers become more powerful and more capable.
“Linux doesn’t just run your servers and, via Android, your phones. It also runs your cars. Of course, no one has ever bought a car for its operating system. But Linux is already powering the infotainment, heads-up display and connected car 4G and Wi-Fi systems for such major car manufacturers as Toyota, Nissan, and Jaguar Land Rover and Linux is on its way to Ford, Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Subaru cars. Software companies are also getting into this Internet of mobile things act. Movimento, Oracle, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, UIEvolution and VeriSilicon have all joined the Automotive Grade Linux (AGL) project. The AGL is a collaborative open-source project devoted to creating a common, Linux-based software stack for the connected car.”
2) A legal battle about the Klingon language could affect the future of computer programming
As the article points out the issues at play go far beyond who if anybody “owns” the Klingon language and the issues is of particular significance within the context of the legal battle between Oracle and Google on the use of the Java computer language. Oracle is struggling for relevance and it has the copious good fortune of finding itself the proud owner of Java through its acquisition of Sun Microsystems. Java is used in a vast assortment of Internet applications but that will likely change if Oracle is successful as it might well be because Oracle could then assert ownership of anything which written in Java. A legal victory for Oracle would immediately kill any development work on non-GPL open source platforms.
“Late last month, the Language Creation Society filed an amicus brief siding with the filmmakers. In a document written partly in Klingon, the society argued that while Paramount commissioned the creation of the language in 1984 from linguist Marc Okrand, the language “has taken on a life of its own.” There are groups of fans whose only shared language is Klingon. People have tried to raise children as native Klingon speakers. If a language is copyrighted, the group argued, then all ideas subsequently expressed in it could be too. Owning a language would mean having the right to block any future work in that language. That matters to the makers of Axanar. It could also really, really matter to the countless developers and programmers who work on programming languages, the ownership of which has been the subject of legal disputes in the US and Europe.”
3) Samsung announces a massive 256GB microSD card
This announcement may sound like bragging but you know the device is going to see for less than $50 (below the floor cost of any HDD) within a couple years. A microSD is way too slow to use for a desktop but if they can make a 256G device which is less than a half a square centimeter and a millimeter thick you can see what is coming down the pipe in SSDs.
“The EVO Plus 256GB microSD card has read and write speeds of 95MB/s and 90MB/s respectively, and can store up to 55,200 photos, 12 hours of 4K video, 33 hours of full HD video, or 23,500 songs. Samsung says the card will come with a 10-year limited warranty and will be available in over 50 countries beginning in June for $249.99.”
4) Nissan EVs to join the grid in UK trial
This idea gets floated every now and then and it is idiotic. All batteries have a durability limit which is a function of the number and depth of charges. For example, a battery which has a 1,000 charge life expectancy might drop to 250 charges if fully discharged or if the temperature is high. The battery is, by far the most expensive part of any EV and by “joining the grid” hapless consumers would be take years off the viable life of their vehicles with no real quid pro quo. Note that the price for the storage system works out to about $1,137.50/kilowatt hour – remember that the next time somebody claims battery prices are dropping drastically.
“The vehicle-to-grid (V2G) trial scheme will see 100 V2G units installed at locations agreed upon by individual and fleet owners of Nissan Leaf and e-NV200 vehicles. Having charged their cars during low-cost, off-peak times, owners can hook their vehicle up to the V2G unit and use it to supply power to their home or office during peak periods. Alternatively, the power can be fed back into the UK National Grid for a bit of extra cash. The trial will be a first for the UK, but follows in the footsteps of a similar trial in Denmark involving 40 V2G units that began in January. Nissan claims that if the 18,000 Nissan EVs currently on British roads were plugged into the energy network at once, they could provide the same amount of power as a 180 MW power plant.”
5) Tesla Model S driver claims his car crashed into a trailer on its own, Tesla says ‘Summon’ was activated
To recap, the unoccupied Tesla Model S spontaneously crashed into the truck and Tesla immediately blamed the owner. It turns out the car had beta software which enables the vehicle to move by itself (though evidently not safely) and they fault the driver for letting it do so. The real question is under what context any unoccupied vehicle should be allowed to “drive itself on short distances” without anyone in the car unless there is a failsafe? It is astounding a dangerous feature such as this could be allowed on the road until it is fully debugged. We should be thankful a person wasn’t in its path.
“A Tesla Model S driver in Utah, Jared Overton, says that he parked his car behind a trailer before running an errand for a few minutes. When he returned to his vehicle, he says he found it crashed in the back of the trailer with the windshield crushed by the trailer’s bed – picture above. The owner claims the car decided to move forward on its own, but after verifying the logs, Tesla claims that the ‘Summon’ feature, which allows the vehicle to drive itself on short distances without anyone in the car, was activated seconds after the car was parked.”
6) IBM Researcher: Fears Over Artificial Intelligence Are ‘Overblown’
Most of the mass hysteria over AI has died down even though I’m still seeing a lot of “robots are gonna take our jerbs” articles. The funny thing about the fear of AI is that it mostly arises from those who have no idea what it is (including various billionaires and physicists) but who are reacting to what it might be. Actual AI experts are generally baffled by the concern.
“Murray Campbell, a research scientist and senior manager with IBM, doesn’t think we have reason to worry about artificial intelligence in the near term. Campbell has been studying AI for decades since he was recruited to help develop Deep Blue in 1989, the IBM computer famous for defeating former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. His current work in the company’s Cognitive Computing division examines artificially intelligent approaches to reasoning, planning, and decision making, and he regularly collaborates with the Watson team.”
7) Silicon Valley’s newest trend is realizing its most insane perks aren’t sustainable
Start-ups don’t offer perks because of a desire to be nice to employees but because the job market is brutally competitive. As wasteful as these perks are, companies like DropBox are in competition for talent with companies willing to waste even more money. These cutbacks are being done either because the company is running out of money or because they want to put lipstick on the pig prior to an IPO by slashing expenses. Either way, talent with go elsewhere.
“Employee perks like climbing walls, vacation money, and on-site barbers have been a signature part of Silicon Valley’s start-up culture. But with venture capital funding drying up and cash-strapped businesses eager to get liabilities off the books, some companies have had to face the unthinkable: limiting the free-for-all. In March, file-sharing site Dropbox told employees it was nixing its free laundry service and shuttle bus to San Francisco, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Once-unlimited guests at the office’s free dinner hour and open-bar Fridays were capped at five per month. In a staff email, the company said it was spending at least $25,000 per person on perks each year. That’s about $38 million annually, according to the Chronicle’s estimate, based on the Dropbox’s roughly 1,500-person headcount.”
8) 5G, The Long Road Ahead
There are some who hope that 5G wireless may lead to an upgrade cycle in mobile phones. I am skeptical since LTE is more than fast enough for any function a smartphone could need bandwidth for. Plus, 5G phones would be expected to have poor battery life due to the complexity of the receiver. What 5G might do is disrupt the bloated and inefficient fixed broadband industry in North America, which benefits from inept and corrupt policy decisions leading to a lack of competition. Few companies can afford to dig up roads to lay fiber but you could deploy 5G wireless in a town quickly for not so much cost.
“Over the past year or so, 5G has become a hot topic of discussion in telecom industry, with operators rushing to make premature announcements. But in reality 5G hasn’t been defined, and commercial user equipment is not expected to hit the market until at least 2020.”
9) Wireless charging startup uBeam accused of being the next Theranos
One of my rules of thumb is that people are singularly ill-informed when it comes to energy. Any huckster worth his salt should be able to make a decent living off energy scams. I’m not suggesting that uBeam is a scam, of course, but physics is well understood and the idea a group of bright eyed young entrepreneurs would somehow make new science is a bit of a stretch, no matter how well financed they are or who’s money they’ve taken. Talk about near zero odds of a return of investment. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.
“uBeam could be vaporware, according to a blogger claiming to be uBeam’s former VP of engineering. They accuse the startup of being unable to fulfill promises made about its technology. uBeam says it’s building a device that could wirelessly charge your phone or other electronics from several meters away. But in a series of blog posts about the startup, the author asserts that the product is a sham. The criticism will increase the pressure on uBeam to reveal a working prototype.”
10) Theft of Kickstarter Raised Funds
I bet the guy who made this blog post wasn’t acting under the advice of a lawyer, but the whole thing shows what happens when you turn large sums of money over to people who have no idea what they are doing: it’s amateur night at the zoo. It ain’t theft until there is a conviction (good luck with that) and, regardless, like any other 3D printer Kickstarter project, the odds it’ll see the light of day are near zero. Either way the money was gone but at least somebody got a nice renovation out of it.
“To date, Peachy Printer has received a total of $107,000 in payments from David since the initial transfer of $200,000. You can see why I thought that this was a viable solution, he’d paid back nearly 1/3rd of the stolen funds. The last of these payments was on March 2nd 2015, after which I was unable to contact him for months. When I finally did speak to him, I found that he had gotten a lawyer and quite drastically changed his tone. While I turned my energy towards new solutions nearly a year ago, I do still expect to see repayment from David at some point. Our last point of contact with his lawyer states that they are calculating the amount that is owed. My understanding of David’s financial situation is that he still has the ability to repay us upon completion of his house due to his builders mortgage.”
11) PayPal stops protecting you when crowdfunding goes bust
Any unregulated financial market devolves to fraud (see item 10) and Bitcoin and crowdfunding sites are ripe for the picking. It is surprising PayPal was actually covering losses because, as the article shows the loss ratio is far too high to be sustainable. In particular, PayPal would have been a hedge against losses associated which these crazy schemes.
“PayPal won’t be so crowdfunding-friendly in the future. The payment giant is dropping Purchase Protection for crowdfunding projects as of a user agreement change coming June 25th. From then on, you back efforts at your own risk — if a campaign goes bust or otherwise doesn’t deliver what you were promised, you can’t dispute the PayPal charge to get your cash back. You might not want to take a chance on that too-cool-to-be-true gadget, then. The move is unfortunate if you like to give artists and inventors a helping hand, but it’s not all that shocking in light of crowdfunding’s riskiness. Kickstarter notes that about 9 percent of its projects never deliver, for example — if the failure rate is similar or worse on those crowdfunding sites that take PayPal, that’s a lot of potential refunds.”
12) Italian Military to Save Up to 29 Million Euro by Migrating to LibreOffice
A few million here, a few million there – pretty soon you are talking serious money. LibreOffice is not as functional as Word (and it lacks integration with things like mail) but it is more than enough for the overwhelming majority of users. The problem you run into is then your employer runs Word and you run LibreOffice and this leads to the occasional compatibility issue. That becomes a non-problem when the whole organization shifts to the platform.
“We said it before, and we’ll say it again, this is the smartest choice a government institution can do. And to back up this statement, the Italian Ministry of Defense announced that they expect to save between 26 and 29 million Euro over the next few years by migrating to the LibreOffice open-source software for productivity and adopting the Open Document Format (ODF). “Taking into account the deadlines set by our current Microsoft Office licenses, we will have 75,000 (70%) LibreOffice users by 2017, and an additional 25,000 by 2020,” said General Camillo Sileo, Deputy Chief of Department VI, Systems Department C4I, for the Transformation of Defence and General Staff, for ISA (Interoperability Solutions for European Public Administrations).”
13) Facebook news selection is in hands of editors not algorithms, documents show
This news caused quite a fuss but I really don’t understand why: Facebook is not a news organization and news organizations have become so untrustworthy and biased the term “journalistic ethics” has become an antilogy. Facebook is in the business of reselling your private information and selling you things. If they believe they can sell you ideas they will: heck the New York Times decided to sell the American public on the Iraq War so why would anybody expect Facebook is different?
“Leaked documents show how Facebook, now the biggest news distributor on the planet, relies on old-fashioned news values on top of its algorithms to determine what the hottest stories will be for the 1 billion people who visit the social network every day. The documents, given to the Guardian, come amid growing concerns over how Facebook decides what is news for its users. This week the company was accused of an editorial bias against conservative news organizations, prompting calls for a congressional inquiry from the US Senate commerce committee chair, John Thune.”
14) Flaw-ridden bloatware puts nearly every Lenovo PC at risk from hackers
Lenovo seems inordinately fond of bloatware and has even been found to install malware on their PCs (http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/now-three-pre-installed-malwares-lenovo-laptops/). Usually they react with horror – at least once they have been found out. I wouldn’t touch a Lenovo PC with a barge pole but somehow they manage to sell them, even to businesses.
“A serious security vulnerability has been discovered in software that’s installed on almost every Lenovo notebook, tablet, and PC — potentially affecting millions of users. The affected Lenovo Security Center software allows users to see the overall health of their device, from hardware and software status, network connections, and installed security features. But security researchers have found a way to raise the privileges of the software, which could let an attacker gain access to the whole system, according to a soon-to-be-released blog post by security firm Trustwave. In other words, a hacker can run malware at a system-wide level — even if the app doesn’t appear to be running. The good news is that Lenovo quickly patched the software after details of the vulnerability were privately disclosed.”
15) PSA: Latest Update to ES File Explorer Brings Adware to Your Lockscreen
I had ES File Explorer installed on my phone and the DU Battery Booster malware popped up. I initially thought it was part of an OS upgrade but once it started serving ads it was clear it was malware but it too me some time to figure out the source. Getting rid of it was easy enough – I deleted ES File Explorer and strongly encourage everybody to do the same: like Lenovo once a company goes down the path of serving up malware it never comes back. For the record, it took 50% more time to charge my battery with “DU Battery Booster” than without it.
“However, recent changes to ES File Explorer is signalling its decline. And the newest update might just be the last straw that breaks the camels back, as ES File Explorer now bundles in adware. This adware comes in the form of DU Battery Booster, which adds in a lockscreen on your phone and brings ads directly to your lockscreen, irrespective of your choice. There was no intimation, no choice, no changelog to mention the same; all features which are characteristic of such deceptive “Booster” apps. Of course, users are not happy. The 1-star reviews have started flowing in …”
16) Google bans ads for payday loans
A good first step but I doubt people run adblockers only because of payday loan scams. After all payday loans are legal but most other online ads are distracting, consume excessive bandwidth, are fraudulent or deliver malware. Those are far more of an issue than payday loans.
“Google will no longer show ads for payday loans, after deciding that it doesn’t want to promote predatory lending practices that are harmful to consumers. “Research has shown that these loans can result in unaffordable payment and high default rates for users so we will be updating our policies globally to reflect that,” Google’s product policy director, David Graff, writes in a blog post.”
17) This $70 wireless gateway now blocks ads for anyone who connects to it
You can achieve the same thing with a Raspberry Pi and some open source software but this looks like a compelling price point, especially for a turnkey solution. The problem I’d see with this box is that in order for it to work the company has to remain in business, which is not an issue for open source products.
California startup XOware lets users who work on unsecured networks at a coffee shop or airport connect securely through a $40 XOkey USB device. This hardware stick works with an XOnet wireless gateway, a $70 compact router-sized box, which sits in a secure location — like your home or office network. Thanks to a software update earlier this year, the XOnet box now provides ad-blocking — allowing anyone who connects to be protected from potentially unsafe ads, without requiring browser plugins or extensions.”
18) Nest Shares Thread Code
One of the many challenges with IoT going main stream is the lack of open standards. Thread is a mesh network architecture (meaning it still works if your router dies), which is nice, but the problems with IoT go way beyond the network protocol: the technology completely lacks robust security and is almost always reliant on a cloud server to function. Once the vendor goes out of business or discontinues support, all your gadgets stop working. That is a problem.
“Alphabet’s Nest Labs Inc. released OpenThread, a free open source version of the software it uses to enable the Thread protocol for the Internet of Things. The move marks a small but significant effort to accelerate adoption of its approach to interoperability in a highly fragmented market for smart home devices. Nest’s rivals including the Allseen Alliance and the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF) have already made available open source reference code for their IoT application-layer protocols. Allseen’s Alljoyn was early to release software that has been adopted in a variety of shipping systems.”
19) Swarm A.I. Correctly Predicts the Kentucky Derby, Accurately Picking all Four Horses of the Superfecta at 540 to 1 Odds
This item reminds me of the often cited “How Target Knew a High School Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Parents Did” (http://techland.time.com/2012/02/17/how-target-knew-a-high-school-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-parents/) story. Recall that Target is the same company which could not develop the computer systems to keep Canadian stores stocked nor the security to protect customer credit cards. Both are examples of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy and selective recall. Selectively disclosed successes are irrelevant.
“If you’ve been following the predictions made by UNU, a new “Swarm Intelligence” platform from Unanimous A.I., you might bet on the Kentucky Derby this weekend and won big, really BIG. That’s because a day before the race, UNU’s picks were published for the first four horses, in order. It’s a bet called the Superfecta that paid 540 to 1 odds. And that’s exactly how the horses came in. And this is not the first stunning pick UNU has made.”
20) DHL claims its drones are first to deliver
There is nothing technically challenging about flying a model airplane to pick up and deliver a package. The problem comes when something goes wrong: any aircraft capable of carrying any package would be lethal when it falls from the sky – even if the propeller blades didn’t slice the victim to pieces. I can see this being used in emergencies or warfare but do we want to risk death in order to deliver consumer products?
“Deutsche Post DHL, Germany’s market leader in shipping and logistics, said that its trial drone program delivered over 130 packages within the Bavarian town of Reit im Winkl between January and March this year. This makes DHL the first company worldwide to utilize drone technology to deliver parcels to customers, according to a press statement DHL released Monday. During the three month trial, residents were invited to drop off shipments in “packstations” – centers of parcel lockers run by the company for drones to carry off to another packstation, all without human aid. The Bonn-based company has dubbed its fleet of drones “parcelcopters,” which it first began testing in 2013. It aims to integrate them into its logistics chain to complete the “last mile” of deliveries.”