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“But that doesn’t mean it isn’t unconscionable for Apple to continue to sell outdated products to people who may not know any better.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.”


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