The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 2nd 2016

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of September 2nd 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)          VW says 300-mile range EV will charge in 15 minutes and cost less than gas version

Ah, EVs. You can pretty much say what you want. It turns out batteries have very low specific energy meaning most of the weight of the car will be the battery. With a purported 300 mile range you’d need at least something like a 70 kilowatt hour battery. To charge a 70 kWh batter in 15 minutes would require 280 kilowatts. At 85% efficiency (which is very high for a fast charge), you’d need about 320 kilowatts. That doesn’t sound like much but that is about 1,500 amps at 220 volts, or the equivalent to a few hundred houses’ typical power consumption. The 15% efficiency loss is almost 50 kW, which is about 45 megajoules, or more than burning a liter of diesel fuel, and that is a lot of heat.

“Two factors rank high on the list of reasons why people hesitate to buy all-electric cars: range per charge and high price relative to petroleum-powered models. A top Volkswagen exec touted a new electric vehicle (EV) planned for the 2018-2019 model year with a 300-mile range. Now the CEO of VW Group says plans include a 15-minute charge time and a price lower than gas models, according to Engadget.”

2)          The Million Dollar Dissident: NSO Group’s iPhone Zero-Days used against a UAE Human Rights Defender

There is probably a lot more to this than appears. Recall that Apple publicly refused to help law enforcement access a known terrorist’s phone. Subsequent to the Snowden revelations it is reasonable to assume that the more obscure the back door the more likely it is to have been “government sponsored” through one way or the other. Just sayin.

“We accessed the link Mansoor provided us on our own stock factory-reset iPhone 5 (Mansoor had an iPhone 6) with iOS 9.3.3 (the same version as Mansoor).  When we clicked the link, we saw that it was indeed active, and watched as unknown software was remotely implanted on our phone.  This suggested that the link contained a zero-day iPhone remote jailbreak: a chain of heretofore unknown exploits used to remotely circumvent iPhone security measures.  To verify our observations, we shared our findings with Lookout Security.  Both research teams determined that Mansoor was targeted with a zero-day iPhone remote jailbreak. The chain of exploits, which we are calling the Trident, included the following (see Section 4: The Trident iOS Exploit Chain and Payload for more details) …”

3)          Elon Musk and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good $779 Million Day

This article is sort of a summary of recent events. One highlight is the destruction of a SpaceX rocket and, most importantly, its payload, on the launch pad (yeah, the launch pad is gone as well). Bizarrely, SpaceX has managed to get people to believe rocketry is “new” despite it dating back to the 1940s, and at the same time getting them to think launch costs are the most important thing. Launch costs are very important but space craft are, by far, most of the cost of a mission. Losing one space craft every 14 missions is not a compromise many operators want to make when alternatives with extremely safe records are available. One other thing: note the “additional $489 million” of his stock pledged. This comes after a recent $600 million stock sale. Pledging stock is the same as selling it except the optics are no so bad. At least somebody wants to diversify away from Musk Inc..

“He suffered one Thursday, when his fortune, on paper, shrank by $779 million, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. That was due to two factors: drops in the companies’ stock prices; and Wednesday’s regulatory filing showing he has put up an additional $489 million of his Tesla and SolarCity stock as collateral to secure personal borrowings. The pledged shares are stripped out of his total net worth calculation because they’re not immediately available to him. The borrowing is for personal liquidity; he doesn’t even accept the $37,584 minimum-wage salary Tesla is required to pay him.”

4)          Pinning Down Apple’s Alleged 0.005% Tax Rate Is Nearly Impossible

One of the first things we learned in accounting was “transfer pricing schemes” which is a means to reduce tax paid through sham transactions. This is what many large tech and pharma companies can do through Byzantine schemes to move intellectual property license fees to Neverland. That sort of behavior used to be universally condemned but now it is acceptable provided you like the company which does it. The EU’s move is understandable as Ireland was helping Apple and others avoid taxes on EU profits at the same time as Ireland was collecting subsidies from the EU. It’s probably not best to help somebody steal from the neighbor who is providing you with free meals. Either way, Apple’s mock outrage, crocodile tears, etc., show it is completely tone deft to the fact that society has to be funded by those who pay their taxes.

“The EU says the 0.005 percent effective tax rate applies to the profits of Apple Sales International, an Irish unit which regulators say is “responsible for buying Apple products from equipment manufacturers around the world and selling these products in Europe” as well as in the Middle East, Africa and India. The commission also cited another unit, Apple Operations Europe, which it said was responsible for manufacturing certain lines of computers for the Apple group.”

5)          Revealed: Google’s plan for quantum computer supremacy

Most of the press coverage around Google’s quantum computing efforts is around their purchase of a D-Wave machine, which gets short shrift in this article, but their most significant actual advances have come from actual quantum computers. This article outlines the company’s plans to build a large (real) quantum computer within the next few years.

“Last year, the firm announced it had solved certain problems 100 million times faster than a classical computer by using a D-Wave quantum computer, a commercially available device with a controversial history. Experts immediately dismissed the results, saying they weren’t a fair comparison. Google purchased its D-Wave computer in 2013 to figure out whether it could be used to improve search results and artificial intelligence. The following year, the firm hired John Martinis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to design its own superconducting qubits. “His qubits are way higher quality,” says Aaronson. It’s Martinis and colleagues who are now attempting to achieve quantum supremacy with 50 qubits, and many believe they will get there soon. “I think this is achievable within two or three years,” says Matthias Troyer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. “They’ve showed concrete steps on how they will do it.””

6)          Google Is About to Take On Uber in a Big Way

My skepticism around Uber is well known even though I like the service. As this shows, Uber has essentially no barriers to entry to competition and certainly not against Google. Uber’s main success has been in getting around taxi regulations but it is clear that wherever they operate legally any other such service can as well.

“Google’s service, which will be available through the company’s Waze navigation app, would essentially work as a digital carpooling platform, linking paying ride-seekers with drivers headed in the same direction. The company has been testing the service on a small scale but is now ready to expand it more broadly across San Francisco, the Journal reports. Unlike Uber and its nearest rival, Lyft, Google will not yet take a cut of drivers’ fares. That means it won’t make money anytime soon — but thanks to Google’s lucrative advertising business, that doesn’t necessarily need to happen right away.”

7)          1,650lb 3D printed aircraft tool sets Guinness World Record

This is exactly the sort of thing 3D printers can excel at: small production run products and components, especially those already described in CAD files. This particular piece would not normally be subject to an enormous amount of stress but I can see the day when injection molds, etc., are also made with 3D printing.

“ONRL said it printed the tool in only 30 hours using carbon fiber and ABS thermoplastic composite materials. “The existing, more expensive metallic tooling option we currently use comes from a supplier and typically takes three months to manufacture using conventional techniques,” said Leo Christodoulou, Boeing’s director of structures and materials in a statement. “Additively manufactured tools, such as the 777X wing trim tool, will save energy, time, labor and production cost and are part of our overall strategy to apply 3D printing technology in key production areas.” According to ONRL, the tool was 3D printed on the lab’s Big Area Additive Manufacturing machine and Guinness World Records judge Michael Empric measured the trim tool, proved it exceeded the required minimum of 0.3 cubic meters, or approximately 10.6 cubic feet, and announced the new record title.”

8)          Smartphone Owners Wait Years to Replace Handsets

The study is a bit dated but not likely out of date. It confirms my thesis that smartphone replacement cycles are getting longer and longer, and that will be more so when consumers are confronted by the loss of smartphone “subsidies” which exposes the true price of the device for them. The good news is that prices will come down a lot to offset the slower replacement cycles.

“A plurality of respondents—30%—said they upgraded their smartphone once every two years, which used to be the typical length of a wireless service contract that came with discounted-upgrade privileges. But major wireless providers have phased out such offers in favor of payments plans that ultimately have smartphone users shelling out for the full sticker price of their handsets (plus interest). That could be one reason why even more respondents wait longer than two years: 42% of the overall respondent base said they waited three years or longer before trading up.”

9)          To build a better battery, Dyson will spend $1.4 billion, enlist 3,000 engineers

I made the mistake of actually buying a Dyson vacuum cleaner once so I tend to associate “expensive, low quality, short lived” with Dyson rather than “innovative”. Nevertheless the guy has made a lot of money for himself so most people seem to hold a different opinion. While his criticism of lithium ion battery technology is spot on there is no reason to believe that throwing money at the problem will improve it. Enormous sums of money have been lost to novel batteyr development over the years.

“And Dyson is not planning incremental improvements. His opinion is that current Li-ion batteries don’t last long enough and aren’t safe enough — the latter as evidenced by their propensity to spontaneously catch on fire, which is rare but does happen. Dyson believes the answer lies in using ceramics to create solid-state lithium-ion batteries. Dyson says he intended to spend $1.4 billion in research and development and in building a battery factory over the next five years. Last year Dyson bought Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Sakti3, which focuses on creating advanced solid-state batteries, for $90 million. The global lithium-ion battery market accounts for $40 billion in annual sales, according to research firm Lux as cited by Forbes.”

10)      Fully Autonomous Cars Are Unlikely, Says America’s Top Transportation Safety Official

I am not sure I agree with the conclusion but he makes some good points. One point which is think is not so good is the question of whether a car would make the “right” choice in an entirely unlikely scenario and one where a human driver would not likely have the time to even realize they were making a choice. Either way, safety automation is a numbers games and the path to full autonomy will save tens of thousands of lives a year in the US alone.

“Auto accidents kill more than 33,000 Americans each year, more than homicide or prescription drug overdoses. Companies working on self-driving cars, such as Alphabet and Ford, say their technology can slash that number by removing human liabilities such as texting, drunkenness, and fatigue. But Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, says his agency’s experience investigating accidents involving autopilot systems used in trains and planes suggests that humans can’t be fully removed from control. He told MIT Technology Review that future autos will be much safer, but that they will still need humans as copilots.”


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