The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 26th 2016

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 26th 2016


Welcome to the new abbreviated Geek’s Reading List. I have decided to cut back to a maximum of 10 articles per week as it is becoming harder and hard to find interesting tech or science articles which are not puffery, billionaire worship, or other nonsense.

These articles and the commentary are not intended 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.

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

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni




1)          iPhone 6 touch problems? The gray flickering is an epidemic

The video is pretty long and boring until the end where the entrepreneur explains that iPhone forums are trying to shut down discussion of the problem. I admit to being baffled by fanboyism but it can be a toxic thing: there is a fine line between love and hate. Thanks to Paul Kantorovich for this item.

“If your iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus stopped responding to touch, you’re not alone. Many iPhone users are reporting the loss of touch combined with a strange flickering gray bar at the top of the display. The problem has been around since the launch of the phone, but didn’t manifest until recently because the phones are getting older, according to a recent report from iFixit. It’s being called “Touch Disease” because it has become such a widespread problem. iPhone 6 “Touch Disease” is said to stem from Apple’s design of its logic board for this particular phone. This board is home to most of the circuits that make your iPhone work, including the processor, storage, and touch controllers.”

2)          Robots-as-a-service: New company introduces first ‘goods-to-box’ warehouse picking system

Shades of “Mom’s Robots” and every other apocalyptic science fiction story involving robots. Actually the business model makes a lot of sense: the expertise to implement a robotic inventory system is rare and the same issues probably arise in all warehouses. This saves converts the sizeable capital cost into an expense and makes adoption easier. It is win/win.

“According to Elazary, companies with no automation can spend as high as a dollar per pick. Adding automation such as conveyor belts dramatically reduces costs to 25 cents per pick, and inVia’s goods-to-box solution rings in at just 10 cents per pick. “In the past, for you to be able to do this kind of automation you’d have to spend several millions of dollars,” he says. InVia reduced costs by choosing cheaper hardware, such as cameras, which they were able to compensate for with excellent perception. The system also requires a minimal investment because of a unique “robotics as a service” business model.”

3)          Google’s Tensor Processing Unit explained: this is what the future of computing looks like

Companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon are large enough to be able to design their own hardware and even chips to suit their needs. This article is more of a teaser than an explanation but the idea is that Google’s computer scientists can identify bottlenecks in specific problems and specify hardware to solve those bottlenecks. Things like Graphics Processors (GPUs) can do that now but they are a compromise in themselves. Eventually Google and its competitors will make things like access to TPUs part of its cloud service offering.

“When Google unveiled its Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) during this year’s Google I/O conference in Mountain View, California, it finally ticked for this editor in particular that machine learning is the future of computing hardware. Of course, the TPU is only a part of the firm’s mission to push machine learning – the practice that powers chat bots, Siri and the like – forward. (It’s also the chip that defeated the world Go champion recently.) Google also has TensorFlow, its open source library of machine intelligence software.”

4)          Bash on Ubuntu on Windows

I had heard Microsoft was going to bring out Bash (a popular Linux “shell”) on Windows but I thought they were going to implement a sort of Bash-like functionality. Although this is still beta there approach is remarkable: essentially they have implemented a “kernel emulator” which means that Bash and eventually all Linux applications should be able to run under Windows. It also means there is no Virtual Machine which could improve performance and lower costs.

“Windows provides developers with a familiar Bash environment. This environment will allow users to: 1) Run common command line utilities such as grep, sed, and awk; 2) Navigate the file system using these commands; 3) Run bash shell scripts which rely on supported command line utilities. Windows is running Ubuntu user-mode binaries provided by Canonical. This means the command line utilities are the same as those that run within a native Ubuntu environment. Installation of Bash on Windows is just a few clicks. This is provided as beta software. While many of the coreutil commands provided by Ubuntu will work, there are some that will not. We welcome feedback and will prioritize accordingly.”

5)          Intel Launches 3D NAND SSDs For Client And Enterprise

The SSD market is being shaken up by Samsung – the dominant player – and its advances in 3D flash. Intel is being forced to play catch up with announcements such as these. The big winner is the consumer as prices are dropping rapidly. The losers will be Western Digital and Seagate who will see HDD demand collapse.

“Today Intel is announcing a variety of new SSDs with their 3D NAND flash memory. The new models use a mix of 3D MLC and 3D TLC, some SATA and some PCIe, and variously target the consumer, business, embedded and data center markets. While we are still awaiting details on the timing of these product releases, it is clear that Intel is eager to put planar flash behind them. The drive for this is especially strong as the models being replaced are all either based on Intel’s relatively expensive 20nm flash or on 16nm flash that Intel had to buy on the open market due to their decision to not participate in the 16nm node at IMFT.”

6)          Tesla’s new 100kWh battery makes Ludicrous Mode even more ludicrous

Most of the predictions about the rise of EVs and the collapse of the oil industry are predicated on the premise that batteries will improve dramatically, leading to more storage at a lower cost. Here we have a minor improvement in capacity priced at $1,000/kWh. That isn’t much of an improvement over $400/kWh.

“The 100kWh battery will, naturally, come at a price. The Model S P100D with Ludicrous Mode will start at $134,500, an increase of $9,500 over the old P90D. It will be available for order immediately with the first deliveries beginning next month. A similarly equipped Model X starts at $135,500. Tesla said that the initial production run will be “limited” to around 200 packs per week, around 10 percent of total Tesla volume, and production will be increased going forward. It will likely be “several months” until Tesla offers the 100kWh battery pack in other trim levels.”

7)          The Internet of Poorly Working Things

For some reason this article doesn’t open properly under Firefox so I had to open it with Edge. The author talks about some of the myths about IoT and pretty much hits on the problem: the consumer electronics industry. This is not new and also not likely to change: it is hard enough to get advanced features of TVs to work, let alone interoperate with other audio-video products from other vendors.

“Of course, not all connected devices are so easily mocked; some devices are dead serious: home security, HVAC, almost any kitchen appliance — even our very smart toaster. And it’s not that the IoT doesn’t work. The situation is actually worse than that: The IoT randomly works. Devices stop and restart, they require visit to unsupportive customer support pages and helpless Your Call Is Important To US help lines (and now we have chatbots). If you think I exaggerate, google “Nest trouble” or “smart bulbs trouble”. We don’t have to look around much to find the culprit: with its razor-thin margins, the Consumer Electronics (CE) culture offers a big fat target for our inquisition.”

8)          iPhones and iPads Fail More Often Than Android Smartphones – Study

Frankly this is a surprising result even in light of “touch disease” discussed in item 1. Presumably these figures exclude broken displays and suggest build quality issues. It is hard to believe a company such as Apple can continue to maintain high prices despite a lack of innovation and now, apparently, poor reliability.

“The report reveals that in Q2 2016, iOS devices had a 58% failure rate, marking the first time that Apple’s devices have a lower performance rate compared to Android. It seems that the iPhone 6 had the highest failure rate of 29%, followed by iPhone 6s and iPhone 6S Plus. Android smartphones had an overall failure rate of 35%, an improvement from 44% in Q1 2016. Samsung, Lenovo and LeTV were among the manufacturers with the weakest performance and higher failure rates. Samsung scored 26% in failure rate, while Motorola just 11%. The study also reveals that iOS devices fail more frequently in North America and Asia compared to Android. Specifically, the failure rate in North America is 59%, while in Asia 52%. The failures could be influenced by the fact that the quality of smartphones shipped around the world varies.”

9)          What’s in store: The tech that will transform memory and storage

Most of the progress being made in computer memory is in non-volatile memory, in particular Solid State Drives. This article looks at some of those trends as well as a few others. I suspect that besides SSD, which has the potential to completely change software architecture, most of these shifts will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

“One of the most promising new technologies is High Bandwidth Memory or HBM for short. Although it’s a very new technology Samsung and Hynix are already developing the third generation, which they expect to commercialise in 2019 or 2020. Unlike traditional memory, where chips are laid flat on the memory module, HBM chips are stacked. That shortens the distance between the chips and the CPU or GPU, achieving the same speeds as on-chip integrated RAM, and it enables manufacturers to cram more RAM into smaller spaces. And we don’t just mean slightly smaller.”

10)      Quantum Computing: A Primer

Quantum computing is a very topical subject with lots of people opining on how it will transform many fields such as artificial intelligence. I believe it will be extremely useful but in a very narrow domain of problems. It is handy to at least have an idea what quantum computing is and this video does a very good job of explaining it.


The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 19th 2016

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 19th 2016


Welcome to the new abbreviated Geek’s Reading List. I have decided to cut back to a maximum of 10 articles per week as it is becoming harder and hard to find interesting tech or science articles which are not puffery, billionaire worship, or other nonsense.

These articles and the commentary are not intended 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.

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

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni




1)          Did The NSA Continue To Stay Silent On Zero-Day Vulnerabilities Even After Discovering It Had Been Hacked?

Once upon a time the NSA would advise companies on security and even help create standards. I strongly believe US companies are “guided” to insert obscure weaknesses in their equipment the NSA can exploit (see item 2). Of course, the Russians, Chinese, and others are not complete idiots so they know those weaknesses are there: they just have to find them. The reason I figure NSA didn’t inform the tech companies is because either they already knew about them or were ignorant they had been installed. I am not sure which is worse.

“The NSA’s exploit stash is allegedly for sale. As mentioned earlier this week, an individual or a group calling themselves Shadow Brokers claims to be auctioning off parts of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) toolkit, containing several zero days — including one in Cisco’s (a favorite NSA TAO target) Adaptive Security Appliance which allows for remote code execution. The thing about these vulnerabilities is that they aren’t new. The exploits being hawked by Shadow Brokers date back to 2013, suggesting the agency has been sitting on these exploits for awhile. The fact that companies affected by them don’t know about these flaws means the NSA hasn’t been passing on this information. Back in 2015, the NSA declared that it passed on information about vulnerabilities to affected companies “90% of the time.” Of course, this statement contained very few details about how long the NSA exploited vulnerabilities before allowing them to be patched.”

2)          Cisco confirms NSA-linked zeroday targeted its firewalls for years

A number of months back Juniper announced a series of “weakness” had been “discovered in its firewalls. There were strong suggestions these were installed by state players. Not coincidentally those announcements were well timed with respect to third party disclosure. Now it is Cisco’s turn: shortly after the announcement that NSA hacking tools were available Cisco announced it has “discovered” a vulnerability in its equipment. I sure they were shocked. They will get around to providing a patch but chances are their gear has other, as yet undisclosed problems, along with the new ones it will introduce in due course. That’s the great thing about a free market: you might not be able to buy equipment secure from spies but you can choose whose spies you want to use.

“Cisco Systems has confirmed that recently-leaked malware tied to the National Security Agency exploited a high-severity vulnerability that had gone undetected for years in every supported version of the company’s Adaptive Security Appliance firewall. The previously unknown flaw makes it possible for remote attackers who have already gained a foothold in a targeted network to gain full control over a firewall, Cisco warned in an advisory published Wednesday. The bug poses a significant risk because it allows attackers to monitor and control all data passing through a vulnerable network. To exploit the vulnerability, an attacker must control a computer already authorized to access the firewall or the firewall must have been misconfigured to omit this standard safeguard.”

3)          Bacteria coaxed to deliver chemo drugs right inside tumours

This is an interesting approach: take magnetotactic bacteria and load it up with chemo drug. Inject close to the tumor and use a magnetic field to direct the bugs toward the spot. It’s a bonus that they also like low oxygen levels such as those around tumor. The short life might be a problem or a feature: you don’t want long lived bacteria crawling around your body. Nevertheless perhaps they can engineer the bugs to last an hour or so, extending their “range”.

“The bacteria were then ready to test on mice with colorectal tumours. The drug-loaded bacteria were injected a few centimetres from the tumour. The researchers used weak magnetic fields to direct the bacteria to the tumour, then relied on the bacteria’s low-oxygen navigation to bring them to the most active part of the tumour. … Once the experiment was over, the researchers examined the tumour under a microscope. Special dyes allowed them to distinguish between the bacteria, the drugs and different regions of the tumour. They found that on average, about 55 per cent of the 100 million bacteria they injected into each mouse made it to the low-oxygen areas of the tumour, they reported in the journal Nature Nanoscience this week.”

4)          Tech IPO Clog Poised to Burst

Time was companies did an IPO because they needed capital to finance their expansion. Maybe that still happens but in the case of “Unicorns” (privately owned tech companies with a valuation of $1B or more) it is because the investors have decided the lamb is ready for slaughter. They want the ability to sell their shares to an unsuspecting public and have individuals fund their losses. You know a deal is a bad deal when the people who know most about a company would rather you buy it from them. Fortunately for “Unicorn” owners investment banks are very polished and investors are very gullible. Stay away.

“Some unicorns like Dropbox may not like what they hear as they start talking to advisers and investors about going public. Dropbox’s similarly named public rival, Box, trades at about four times the company’s expected revenue for next year, according to Bloomberg estimates. The Wall Street Journal last year cited a source who said Dropbox’s revenue was likely to hit $500 million in 2015. If Dropbox’s sales double this year, and do so again in 2017, Dropbox could be valued at about $8 billion at Box’s revenue multiple. If Dropbox does go public at a valuation below its current one, it will have plenty of company. Box did it, too.”

5)          Verizon Offered to Install Marketers’ Apps Directly on Subscribers’ Phones

Crapware installation has become a big business for the PC industry and it is emerging in the wireless device business as well. This isn’t exactly new: “locked” phones have included crapware for some time now. I think Verizon’s rumored pricing is whacko and it seems the market agrees. What is a bit odd is that Verizon has done away with contracts so there is no reason to buy a phone from them. Get an unlocked phone directly from the manufacturer, probably save money, and have less garbage installed on it.

“The wireless carrier has offered to install big brands’ apps on its subscribers’ home screens, potentially delivering millions of downloads, according to agency executives who have considered making such deals for their clients. But that reach would come at a cost: Verizon was seeking between $1 and $2 for each device affected, executives said. Verizon started courting advertisers with app installations late last year, pitching retail and finance brands among others, agency executives said.”

6)          Walabot lets you see inside your walls or floors

As a guy engaged in never ending construction jobs I can see a lot of potential for this gizmo. As near as I can tell it is a radar unit, and, if so, lots of similar product could come on the market and make priced a bit more mainstream. I am a bit skeptical though. Most of the demonstration videos don’t really look like the video they show on the article.

“WalabotDIY is a 3D imaging device that works along with your Android smartphone using an app that is available for download at no cost. Once the app is installed, the device can be used to scan the wall and images are projected onto the screen of the smartphone. The idea is to allow the user to know how far they need to drill or cut to avoid hitting any pipes, wires, or other items inside the walls.”

7)          Why Drones Actually Can’t Deliver Packages to Homes

I am glad somebody finally bothered doing the math. Of course, it could be that gasoline powered drones would be the solution nevertheless I can’t wait for the first fatality associated with a heavy drone dropping from the sky so somebody could get a book a day faster.

“My first investigation was aimed at understanding why the drone flight time was limited to 20 minutes. Being an engineer, I developed the math for it. It is based on a few known characteristics of the current state of technology. Most drones use electric motors and batteries. In my research, I found that a battery typically holds a capacity of 65Wh (Watt-Hour) for every 1 pound of battery weight. The “hover” or cruise speed power requirement for a drone is 100W for every 1 pound of overall weight (drone + batteries + payload), while it requires 200 W/lb to climb or fly at speed. Finally, the power system (motor + speed controller) delivers 1,000W for every 1 pound of drone weight (not including batteries or payload). I checked the performance specifications for many different sizes and manufacturers of electric motors and batteries, and found that the numbers above were very consistent. I don’t want to bore you with the math, so I’ll skip right to the conclusion. When you do the calculations, you find that it results in the following: For a 30-minute flight, a drone’s overall weight (drone + batteries + package) must be 20 times that of the package alone. The batteries’ weight accounts for most of that. For a five-minute flight, the overall weight has to be only 1.5 times that of the package.”

8)          The LTE Apple Watch 2 is dead, but the new model may still have GPS

Well, duh. A big part of a smartphone’s battery consumption is the display but the rest is the radio. The power consumption of the receiver is subject to some Moore’s Law related improvement but the transmitter is pretty much a matter of physics. No kidding you can’t get enough power in a watch sized battery. As for the GPS, well, golly, that would give the Apple Watch the same capability as a wrist mounted Garmin product I had a decade ago.

“That LTE Apple Watch you’ve been wishing for is probably not coming any time soon — but the new version will have GPS tracking as previously rumored, so at least there’s that. According to a report from Bloomberg, Apple ran into trouble with battery life for a version of the incoming Apple Watch 2 with cellular connectivity. All that data transferring decimated the wearable’s small battery.”

9)          Popular Internet of Things Forecast of 50 Billion Devices by 2020 Is Outdated

I wish more people understood that IDC and Gartner are in the business of selling industry research, not making accurate predictions. Selling industry research is predicated on making it sound exciting: no investor or entrepreneur is going to fork over big bucks unless you are forecasting sunny skies and huge growth. The *lowest* forecast for the IoT market I was able to uncover is $4T which is about 22% of the GDP of the US, and fully 4% of global GDP.

“Still, it would seem the practical utility of IoT estimates is limited if they have the potential to be revised by many billions of units. Turner at IDC says such variation and fluidity of these numbers is typical of early estimates focused on nascent markets. The point, he suggests, is to think of the estimates as a general signal, rather than focus on the specific numbers. There are many reasons why projections from different firms may change over time, or simply not match up in the first place. Each company starts with its own definition of IoT and refines its methods over time.”

10)      With SolarCity Cuts, Elon Musk’s Magic May Be Wearing Thin

What I find remarkable is not the content of the article (seriously: no s—t, Sherlock) but that articles like these are becoming more and more common. Some “business plans” revolve around telling louder and ever more elaborate versions of stories people want to hear. Whether the stories are grounded in reality is moot provided investors are willing to provide the money. This works perfectly until it stops working. Once the money supply dries up the whole thing comes crashing down and the first signs the money supply is going to dry up is when people start thinking rationally.

“Musk’s grand vision for an integrated solar-plus-electric-vehicle behemoth, meanwhile, looks increasingly like a reality distortion field. The opening of the massive solar-panel factory the company is building in Buffalo, New York, has already been pushed back to mid-2017. Some analysts have estimated that the factory is likely to lose as much as $150 million a year once it reaches full production. What’s more, there is little indication that huge numbers of people are clamoring for the ability to equip their homes with SolarCity panels, a Tesla Powerwall battery, and a charging system for their Teslas. In short, SolarCity’s latest moves could be a signal that merging two companies with combined 2015 losses of $1.6 billion might not be such a great idea after all.”


The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 12th 2016

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 12th 2016


Welcome to the new abbreviated Geek’s Reading List. I have decided to cut back to a maximum of 10 articles per week as it is becoming harder and hard to find interesting tech or science articles which are not puffery, billionaire worship, or other nonsense.

These articles and the commentary are not intended 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.

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

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni



1)          A Prayer for Archimedes

Apparently historians no longer refer to the period prior to the enlightenment as the “Dark Ages”. The wholesale destruction of learned texts by people so ignorant of technology they destroyed old books because they didn’t know how to make new ones is not enough to characterize 1000 years of lost opportunity as “Dark”. For what it is worth, historians also like to pretend religious authorities were not “anti-knowledge” back then even though they vigorously oppose almost all scientific progress today. I’m going to stick with the term “Dark Ages”.

“Two of the texts hiding in the prayer book have not appeared in any other copy of Archimedes’s work, so no one but Heiberg had studied them until now. One of them, titled The Method, has special historical significance. It could be considered the earliest known work on calculus. Archimedes wrote The Method almost two thousand years before Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz developed calculus in the 1700s. Reviel Netz, an historian of mathematics at Stanford University who transcribed the text, says that the examination of Archimedes’ work has revealed “a new twist on the entire trajectory of Western mathematics.””

2)          75 Percent of Bluetooth Smart Locks Can Be Hacked

This is yet another example of the pathetic security of most IoT devices. Or course, traditional locks can also be picked but it takes a bit of practice to learn the technique. Nevertheless it isn’t so much the lack of security as the disinterest in vendors in even admitting there is a problem.

“Researcher Anthony Rose, an electrical engineer, said that of 16 Bluetooth smart locks he and fellow researcher Ben Ramsey had tested, 12 locks opened when wirelessly attacked. The locks — including models made by Quicklock, iBlulock, Plantraco, Ceomate, Elecycle, Vians, Okidokey and Mesh Motion — had security vulnerabilities that ranged from ridiculously easy to moderately difficult to exploit. “We figured we’d find vulnerabilities in Bluetooth Low Energy locks, then contact the vendors.  It turned out that the vendors actually don’t care,” Rose said. “We contacted 12 vendors. Only one responded, and they said, ‘We know it’s a problem, but we’re not gonna fix it.'””,news-23129.html

3)          Hacked Bitcoin exchange Bitfinex will reduce balances by 36% to distribute losses amongst all users

If you are going to run an exchange with lousy security you might as well share the losses among the suckers you lure into using it. This is a follow up on the most recent multimillion dollar Bitcoin “hack” (most are likely inside jobs). Rather than taking the hit themselves they’ve decided their customers should pay the piper. Why not? It is a completely unregulated industry.

“Since the exchange used a service to individually segregate each customer’s funds in unique wallets, only some customers’ funds were drained, while others retained their full balances. The question then became would Bitfinex limit losses to only users whose wallets were compromised, or distribute them equally amongst all users (since the attack was essentially indiscriminate amongst random wallets). We now have an answer, as the company has posted that they will distribute losses amongst all users to the tune of 36.067%, which is the total loss experienced by Bitfinex.”

4)          Abundant Robotics spins out of SRI to bring apple-picking robots to the farm

The article and video don’t really tell you much about the machine or its limitations. I suspect not all fruit are easily accessed by the sucker gizmo due to branches. Nevertheless it is credible that a commercially viable machine might emerge from this work. Video:

“Steere said, “Seeing fruit and picking it without damaging it is the big engineering challenge. If you bruise or cut the fruit it loses its value.” According to SRI Ventures President, Manish Kothari, it had not been possible to automate the task of apple picking before recent breakthroughs in computer vision and image processing were made. He said, “You direct this robot to go someplace, see and pick an apple, and go again. It’s a very non-trivial engineering challenge. To detect apples very precisely you have to see down at the millimeter level in real time. That requires software, and on the hardware side, chips that allow you to do real time image processing on the fly.””

5)          Secure Boot snafu: Microsoft leaks backdoor key, firmware flung wide open

Long story short this development is being used as proof of the dangers of backdoors to encryption algorithms. If the backdoor key leaks or is cracked (and knowing there is a back door probably brings you a long way to cracking it) and presto you no longer have security. Given these ease with which NSA has been penetrated there are probably all kinds of foreign operatives working inside it and you can rest assured the Russians or Chinese has ready access to any proposed backdoor.

“Microsoft has inadvertently demonstrated the intrinsic security problem of including a universal backdoor in its software after it accidentally leaked its so-called “golden key”—which allows users to unlock any device that’s supposedly protected by Secure Boot, such as phones and tablets. The key basically allows anyone to bypass the provisions Microsoft has put in place ostensibly to prevent malicious versions of Windows from being installed, on any device running Windows 8.1 and upwards with Secure Boot enabled.”

6)          Researchers orbit a muon around an atom, confirm physics is broken

Unexpected results are the sorts of things which make experimental physicists giddy. In this case they created an artificial atom with a muon, rather than an electron, orbiting the nucleus. The orbital radius turned out to be significantly different from what was predicted by the standard model of physics and that difference could mean a significant revision to theory.

“Their first attempt showed something strange: the value for the radius they got was significantly smaller than the one obtained when you measure using an electron. Remember, the muon and the electron should be equivalent, so there should be no difference. Currently, we have no physics that could explain the difference. The finding had a statistical significance of over five sigma, which is the standard for announcing discovery in physics. Still, it might have been possible to dismiss this as some sort of experimental oddity. Or at least it was until the team gathered even more data, pushing the significance up to over seven sigma. At this point, there was no way around the fact that we have what has become known as the “proton radius puzzle.””

7)          Samsung Debuts 3D XPoint Killer

I wrote about 3D XPoint, the new non-volatile memory technology introduced by Intel and Micron about a year ago. There are still plenty of unanswered questions regarding 3D XPoint, not the least of which is cost. Samsung has provided almost no details regarding its Z-NAND technology but the price range seems good. Samsung has about 50% market share in SSDs so it has a strong incentive to keep ahead of the competition.

“Samsung’s Z-NAND will deliver 10x faster reads than multi-level cell flash and writes that are twice as fast, the company said. At the drive level, they will support both reads and writes at about 20 microseconds, suggesting some of write performance comes from an enhanced controller. …The first drives will have a terabyte capacity. Like today’s high-end SSDs they will draw a full 25W from a PCIe Gen 3 slot to deliver maximum IOPS. Costs will be “a little bit more than standard triple-level cell flash shipping today, but it will be more cost effective than alternative memory technologies,” said Shiah, in a nod to 3D Xpoint.”

8)          Millions of Volkswagens can be broken into with a wireless hack

I would not be surprised if substantially all cars with electronic key systems can be broken in to. The fobs themselves are very simple devices and eavesdropping, even from a distance, should be straightforward. Of course anybody can break into any car just by breaking the window. Actually stealing a car with a electronic key to start it is probably much more difficult.

“Millions of Volkswagens built over the past 20 years can be broken into with a hack that exploits the cars’ remote control key systems, security researchers have found. Most VWs built since 1995 use one of a handful of electronic “master keys” to remotely open and lock the doors, and those keys can be extracted by reverse engineering the firmware, the researchers wrote in a new paper. That alone isn’t enough to break into a car—the master key has to be combined with a unique code generated by each remote key device. But the researchers also devised a way to do that, assembling a piece of radio hardware costing around $40. The radio device eavesdrops on the signal sent from the key fob to the car. Once the signals are decrypted, the researchers were able to make copies of the key fob and open the car door.”

9)          The Next Generation of Wireless — “5G” — Is All Hype.

This is a counterpoint to most of what has been read about 5G. I believe the mistake which is being made is assuming all 5G systems will run at millimeter wave radio which is not the case. Nevertheless, the point about needing fiber is a good one even though microwave backhaul can work in many cases. Absent a competitive infrastructure the technology will remain limited.

“Here’s what you need to understand: “5G” is a marketing term. There is no 5G standard — yet. The International Telecommunications Union plans to have standards ready by 2020. So for the moment “5G” refers to a handful of different kinds of technologies that are predicted, but not guaranteed, to emerge at some point in the next 3 to 7 years. (3GPP, a carrier consortium that will be contributing to the ITU process, said last year that until an actual standard exists, “’5G’ will remain a marketing & industry term that companies will use as they see fit.” At least they’re candid.) At the moment, advertising something as “5G” carries no greater significance than saying it’s “blazing fast” or “next generation” — but because “5G” sounds technical, it’s good for sales. We are a long way away from actual deployment.”

10)      Pay TV Providers Lost 700,000 Subscribers Last Quarter

Consumers with decent broadband now have alternatives to pay TV and cable. Netflix and other streaming services provide a cost effective alternative. Mind you as the article notes the industry’s response has been to continuously raise prices (and though it is not in the article, lower quality). I have zero interest in sports but even ESPN is losing a lot of subscribers ( due mainly to the same phenomenon.

“Moffett has consistently argued that the numbers are actually worse when you factor in how the housing market rebounded without a corresponding spike in pay TV subscriptions, suggesting that when many people move — they aren’t reconnecting traditional cable. Moffett’s research note also took aim at subscriber tracking metrics in a TV industry that hasn’t always been receptive to a candid look at the numbers. “The pay-TV industry is struggling with a measurement problem,” he said. “The most commonly cited numbers are Nielsen’s estimates of cable network subscribers.” “Company-reported numbers are, by contrast, lagged 30 to 90 days (based on the payables from their distributors), making changes in trend a bit harder to discern,” said Moffett. “And Nielsen’s numbers don’t include new OTT distributors like Sling and Sony Vue, which at this point, may represent 800,000 subscribers.””


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

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


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

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

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

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

This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at

Brian Piccioni



1)          First Click: Apple should stop selling four-year-old computers

Apple not only sells antique computers, it sells them at a massive premium and that is why they do it: they have convinced people they are technology leaders (they aren’t) and people are willing to pay up for old, cheap technology. This means great margins and low R&D costs. Eventually the chickens will come home to roost.

“But that doesn’t mean it isn’t unconscionable for Apple to continue to sell outdated products to people who may not know any better. Is the company really saving that much money by using 2012 processors and 4GB of RAM as standard? Even an update to Intel’s Haswell chips from 2013 would have brought huge battery life improvements. Apple is bound by the whims of its suppliers to a certain extent, and it may not always make sense for the company to upgrade its products with every single new chip or GPU that comes out. But there’s a certain point at which it just starts to look like absentmindedness, and many Mac computers are well past that point now.”

2)          Google Self-Driving Car Exec Talks Fatal Tesla Crash

The comments regarding the responsibility of the driver are apt, especially since Google continues to test cars themselves and any other comment would lead to liability if they said otherwise. Nevertheless what it is important are the comments below: drivers need special training to use experimental AV technology and a simple “I agree” is not enough.

““Back in 2012 we had a technology that was very similar. We let Google employees test it, after lengthy training sessions imploring them to pay attention at all times. We wanted to see how they were interacting with the technology. After three months we saw enough to say this is definitely a problem. People would take their eyes off the road for some period, look down at their phones and start texting while in the driver’s seat. Turning around to the back to get their laptop because they needed to plug their phone in. Right? When you’re hurtling down the road at 60 miles an hour in a two-ton vehicle? “That takes us to the fundamental conundrum of the L2 semi-autonomous solutions: As they get better and better, but not quite good enough for humans to zone out entirely, then risk increases. So we need to take the human out of the loop. With L4, which is our focus at Google, the idea is, you don’t need a steering wheel or controls because we’re going to take care of everything, and you just have to say, “I want to go to that destination,” and the car will take you there.””

3)          Bitcoin Bitfinex exchange hacked: the unanswered questions

Saying a bitcoin exchange has been “hacked” is a bit like saying Tony Soprano’s bank has been robbed. There is not regulatory structure for bitcoin exchanges and it is not even clear “stealing” bitcoin is illegal. There is good reason to believe many “hacks” were basically inside jobs. Better yet, despite the purported security of bitcoin, no “hacked” bitcoin has ever been recovered and no “hacker” ever been caught or prosecuted.

“The Hong Kong-based Bitfinex exchange was hacked this week in a security breach that drained 119,756 bitcoins from its customer accounts. The sum is believed to represent a significant proportion of the exchange’s bitcoin assets, with the stolen coins totalling 0.8 per cent of all bitcoins in circulation. … As yet, it is unclear how the hacker was able to compromise the multi-signature system, though some suggest the cosigning process may have been overly dependent on automated signoffs on transactions below a certain value threshold. Nevertheless, some legal experts say because the funds were technically segregated this will have reduced Bitfinex’s overall customer liability.”

4)          The chip card transition in the US has been a disaster

From a distance the wailing and gnashing of teeth associated with the US transition to chip cards is pretty amusing. After all this is something the rest of the world seems to have managed without hysterics. Despite what the article says they are, in fact, faster, more secure, and better for consumers. The silly comment about smartphone alternatives is telling: I like to dazzle my American friends by using my credit card “touch” wireless payment whenever possible. I believe that is supposed to be introduced in the US by 2050 …

“Over the last year or so in the US, a lot of the plastic credit cards we carry around every day have been replaced by new one with chips embedded in them. The chips are supposed to make your credit and debit cards more secure—a good thing!—but there’s one little secret no one wants to admit: The US’s transition to chip cards has been an utter disaster. They’re confusing to use, painstakingly slow, less secure than the alternatives, and aren’t even the best solution for consumers.”

5)          Digital Canada 150: Like ‘Broadband Britain’ but even worse

It is worth noting that 20 to 25 years ago Canada had a globally competitive telecommunications infrastructure. At the time we were also hosts to globally competitive telecommunications equipment companies like Nortel, Newbridge, Gandalf, RIM, and many others. About 15 years of corrupt regulation (I prefer to believe our politicians are corrupt rather than stupid) has pushed our infrastructure to 3rd world status and, unsurprisingly, there is not a single noteworthy telecom technology company in the country. It’s rather odd that size is given as the problem: but I don’t think the country was so much smaller when electric and telephone infrastructure was being build. Thanks to Nick Tang for this item.

“Here at TelecomTV we might, indeed we do, moan about the government’s plan for “Broadband Britain”. Over the years (far too many of them) much has been promised but delivery has been sporadic and partial, coverage piecemeal and the entire programme has been characterised by a lack of real forward-thinking, coherent planning and, all-in-all, has demonstrated a paucity of imagination and limited determination. But, then you look around and see that there’s always someone worse off than yourself. Just take a shufti at broadband Internet services in Canada. Examination of the state of Internet broadband there is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope and back in time to an era long past in Europe.”

6)          Why Internet Speeds Leave Americans Lagging

The US and Canada have abysmal broadband and mobile but they arrived at that position through different paths in particular in the US there are actual statutory barriers to competition in many areas. The root problem in both cases is simply that there is no competition and plenty of obstacles to competition. That keeps the carriers fat dumb and happy: at least until something changes.

“This isn’t just a mild annoyance while you’re watching Netflix. It is a serious problem for productivity with long-term implications for economic performance and American competitiveness. Businesses, hospitals, and schools all rely on the internet. Slower speeds mean none of them are operating as efficiently as is possible. To add insult to injury, Americans pay more for less; internet access is more expensive in America than in many countries with faster speeds. There are two main reasons this is the case: the inferior physical infrastructure of America’s internet, and the oligarchy of internet service providers (ISPs) that control it.”

7)          Federal government’s one-website project proving costly — and confusing

While governments enact policies which ensure broadband is expensive and of poor quality they enrich consultants by trying to move as many things as possible onto the Internet. This makes it harder and harder for some citizens to access government services: a happy outcome if you are the government. The debacle they describe is not unusual: this is the same institution which spend billions on a long gun registry a reasonable competent team could have developed for less than one percent of the final cost. Thanks again to Nick Tang for this article.

“The government’s bid to unify all of its departments under a web address is increasing workloads and pushing at least one federal department over budget, raising questions about the implementation of the project.”

8)          The Ransomware Epidemic Is Growing and Hurting a Lot of Businesses

Malwarebytes is not exactly a neutral party here but it does seem to be the case that ransomware is a growing problem. The article does point to the fact that traditional approaches to network security simply no longer work. Thanks to Tony Patterson for this item.

“Almost two-fifths of businesses in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Germany have been hit in the last year by a ransomware attack, according to a survey by security firm Malwarebytes. Even bearing in mind that Malwarebytes is not coming at this from a neutral standpoint—it sells defenses against ransomware—the results of its survey are startling. The company found that nearly 80% of U.S. companies suffered a cyberattack of some kind in the last year, with 47% experiencing a “ransomware incident.””

9)          Does dropping malicious USB sticks really work? Yes, worryingly well…

It turns out that many computer security breaches are the result of social engineering rather than complex technical feats. People do open email attachments and, what is more natural upon finding a USB key than to plug it in to your computer?

“Plugging in that USB stick you found lying around on the street outside your office could lead to a security breach. This is no secret, of course. We have all (hopefully) been aware of the dangers of inserting an unknown USB device into our computers for some time. Heck, the technique has even made it into the Mr Robot TV series. But what may not be widely known is just how successful the tactic can be for allowing hackers to compromise your computer systems. Research presented this week at BlackHat by Elie Bursztein of Google’s anti-abuse research team shows that the danger is alarmingly real …”

10)      Frequent password changes are the enemy of security, FTC technologist says

Frankly I think frequent password changes are nonsense, more or less for the reasons outlined in the article: people can’t remember a large assortment of truly random passwords so they adapt mnemonic schemes to cope. Humans are humans so the mnemonic schemes tend to be similar, which makes cracking the password much easier. If your old password was 11Hello2016, chances are your next password will be 12Hello2016.

“Shortly after Carnegie Mellon University professor Lorrie Cranor became chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission in January, she was surprised by an official agency tweet that echoed some oft-repeated security advice. It read: “Encourage your loved ones to change passwords often, making them long, strong, and unique.” Cranor wasted no time challenging it. … For one, a growing body of research suggests that frequent password changes make security worse. As if repeating advice that’s based more on superstition than hard data wasn’t bad enough, the tweet was even more annoying because all six of the government passwords she used had to be changed every 60 days.”

11)      Their time has come. A new type of electrical cell may displace the lithium-ion design

It has been a few months since the last world-changing battery announcement came out. To reiterate there are many parameters which much be optimized for a battery to be commercially successful and articles such as these tend to highlight just one. Either way the comments about lithium ion are telling: it isn’t progressing as much as some stock promoters would have you believe.

“The fundamental idea behind Dr Li’s device is not new. It is a version of what is known as a lithium-air battery, something that has been a desideratum of energy-storage research since the 1970s. In theory, such batteries could hold more than four times the energy per kilogram of lithium-ion batteries. Building them, though, has proved taxing. As their name suggests, they draw in air. The part they need is the oxygen, but other atmospheric components—water vapour and carbon dioxide in particular—often damage them.”

12)      IBM creates world’s first artificial phase-change neurons

As the name implies neural networks are similar to the circuits that make up the important parts of the brain. Like brains they have the potential to be very good at recognizing patterns and self-learning but artificial neural networks have been very hard to construct and program. Like a lot of IBM’s research it is not that clear whether this will ever get to market.

“IBM Research in Zurich has created the world’s first artificial nanoscale stochastic phase-change neurons. IBM has already created a population of 500 of these artificial neurons and used them to process a signal in a brain-like (neuromorphic) way. This breakthrough is particularly notable because the phase-change neurons are fashioned out of well-understood materials that can scale down to a few nanometres, and because they are capable of firing at high speed but with low energy requirements. Also important is the neurons’ stochasticity—that is, their ability to always produce slightly different, random results, like biological neurons.”

13)      Blackberry enters a new era, files 105-page patent lawsuit against Avaya

Ah, Blackberry I knew you when you were rich and famous. Avaya has been in business a very long time and almost certainly has a mountain of patents. They will just countersue.

“In making its case that Avaya should pay royalties, BlackBerry’s focus is squarely on its rear-view mirror. The firm argues that it should be paid for its history of innovation going back nearly 20 years. “BlackBerry revolutionized the mobile industry,” the company’s lawyers wrote in their complaint. “BlackBerry… has invented a broad array of new technologies that cover everything from enhanced security and cryptographic techniques, to mobile device user interfaces, to communication servers, and many other areas.””

14)      Samsung explains how the Galaxy Note 7 iris scanner works

It can be harder to spoof an iris reader than a fingerprint scanner so the idea might be a good one if you care that much about privacy while storing all your data in the cloud and having your every move tracked by Google and Facebook. The article doesn’t mention what the video does: it may not work reliably if you wear glasses or contacts. Removing glasses is easy, contacts not so much.

“The just released Galaxy Note 7 has become the first handset from Samsung to feature iris scanning technology, which could possibly pave the way for the company to do away with other security methods, such as PIN, pattern, simple swipe, and even fingerprint, even if that is quite unlikely. With iris scanning arriving in the Galaxy Note 7, you don’t need to touch the device to verify your identity and can access the phone by just looking at the screen. Our tests with the iris scanner in the were pretty positive, particularly given the number of times we have seen the same security feature in other devices failing to respond, or proving unreliable.”

15)      Good news—the robocalling scourge may not be unstoppable after all

I suspect dealing with robocalls would be pretty easy by applying big data techniques inside the telephone companies. A sudden increase in the number of automated calls (you can tell from the delay between answer and voice) from a non-whitelisted source and you are done. I really admire the technology they used in this study.

“Pindrop researchers reached the conclusion by creating a security honeypot of phone numbers that received more than 1 million robocalls. The researchers transcribed about 10 percent of the calls and analyzed the semantics with machine-learning techniques to isolate identical scams. The researchers combined those results with analysis that tracked 150 different audio features of each call. By studying the codecs, packet loss, spectrum, and frequency inside the audio and combining the results with the machine learning, the researchers were able to obtain a fingerprint of each different call center.”

16)      MIT and DARPA Pack Lidar Sensor onto Single Chip

Lidar sensors are very expensive but there is no real reason that will remain the case for long. The same used to be true regarding scanning laser levels and those are much cheaper today. This is an interesting approach but don’t get carried away – the technology is inherently limited due to the small size and probably explains the very limited range. Nonetheless, it might be useful for robotics.

“Our lidar chips are produced on 300-millimeter wafers, making their potential production cost on the order of $10 each at production volumes of millions of units per year. These on-chip devices promise to be orders of magnitude smaller, lighter, and cheaper than lidar systems available on the market today. They also have the potential to be much more robust because of the lack of moving parts. The non-mechanical beam steering in this device is 1,000 times faster than what is currently achieved in mechanical lidar systems, and potentially allows for an even faster image scan rate. This can be useful for accurately tracking small high-speed objects that are only in the lidar’s field of view for a short amount of time, which could be important for obstacle avoidance for high-speed UAVs.”

17)      Is NAND Shortage Going to Effect SSDs?

The hard disk industry seems to believe that NAND shortages will save their disruption by Soli State Drives. As this brief article points out, capacity will go to making SSDs instead of other low margin flash devices. Meanwhile the industry is rapidly ramping up capacity and SSD prices will plumet.

“As we all have seen in the past, price takedowns for SSDs (and thus NAND) have outpaced the actual cost takedowns that these vendors have been dealing with. However, this latest tightness in NAND supply (mainly as a result of 3D NAND delays and a transition to higher capacities in smart phones) should not have to much effect on the system OEM based SSD market, but rather the lower end consumer type devices taking NAND (think thumb drives, eMMC, etc.)”

18)      Mossberg: TVs are still too complicated, and it’s not your fault

Sorry but anybody who buys electronics from Best Buy gets no sympathy from me. For the most part this sounds like somebody who would shout “get off my lawn” at any moment. At the end of the day basic functionality is easy to set up and more obscure functions are harder to set up. That’s pretty much how everything works.

“The next day I headed for Best Buy with my grown son, who was being good to his dad, because like many in his generation (including his brother), he cares roughly zero about costly TVs. In the store, two sales people who helped us were nice, but not very informative. They knew little about how to compare among brands, except to rave about the costliest one (LG). And it took them multiple tries on multiple TVs to demo the streaming app menu for us — even after they had turned off the store demo mode. They couldn’t actually demo the streaming apps themselves. They falsely claimed that the sound would be very weak unless we bought an expensive sound bar.”

19)      Intel issues total recall for fitness tracker that could burn, blister your wrist

I didn’t even know Intel was in this particular gadget market. You have to wonder what sort of strategic thinking figured that a fitness tracker would be a good market to be in if you are already the de facto standard for PC CPUs. Oh well. It turns out the thing can hurt you so the net benefit to health isn’t necessarily positive. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“TECH giant Intel has today issued a total recall for an activity tracker that it warns could burn and blister arms, admitting the problem was something it cannot fix. A few weeks ago, the Intel-owned Basis company stopped sales on the Peak smartwatch that some reviews described as “the best activity tracker yet” when it was released. But today it has taken the major step of not only issuing a total recall for the product but it is also closing down the online service that lets people synch their fitness data in an effort to ensure people stop wearing the potentially dangerous device.”

20)      Scientists say hoped-for physics particle was just a blip

Well it was fun while it lasted. For a brief moment the physics world was a twitter about an unexpected result which meant a potential rewrite of the standard model. It was all a blip. Never mind.

“This bump, at an energy of 750 gigaelectronvolts (GeV), would have been six times heavier than the famous Higgs Boson particle, which gives items mass and was discovered in 2012. But following much speculation and many leaks to social media, scientists announced at the International Conference on High Energy Physics in Chicago that indeed, there was no actual bump in either of two experiments, one dubbed Atlas and the other CMS. “The intriguing hint of a possible resonance at 750 GeV decaying into photon pairs, which caused considerable interest from the 2015 data, has not reappeared in the much larger 2016 data set and thus appears to be a statistical fluctuation,” said a statement from CERN.”