The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 7th 2016

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of October 7th 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)          Here’s Why Software Patents Are in Peril After the Intellectual Ventures Ruling

This ruling is yet another of a series which suggests the traditional business of patent troll may be fading into the sunset. Software patents have always been an abomination and their misapplication had enriched many a lawyer. I am a big supporter of the patent system but it appears it went off the rails 20 years ago and needs to be turned around. Mind you that would take political action.

“The most important part of the decision, which has created a stir among the patent bar, is a concurrence by Circuit Judge Haldane Mayer. In striking down a key claim from U.S. Patent 5987610, which claims a monopoly on using anti-virus tools within a phone network, Mayer says it is time to acknowledge that a famous Supreme Court 2014 decision known as “Alice” basically ended software patents altogether.”

2)          Toyota’s Robot-Car Line In The Sand: 8.8 Billion Test Miles To Ensure Safety

After the first publicly announced death associated with Tesla’s “Autopilot” system (there had been one prior to that) Tesla got a lot of publicity by falsely claim “Autopilot” was twice as safe as a human driver (ignoring the earlier fatality) (see also The folks at Toyota have apparently done the math and the answer is a bit bigger than you might think.

“TRI is bringing to life Toyota’s vision of autonomous driving, which follows a double approach. The first type of application is ‘Chauffeur Mode,’ where the car is fully autonomous,” Toyoda said in remarks at the company’s Paris press conference. “It has the potential to offer mobility to those who would not otherwise have it, such as older people and those with special needs. In order to accomplish this safely, it is estimated that some 14.2 billion kilometers (8.8 billion miles) of testing, including simulation, are required.”

3)          Exclusive: Yahoo secretly scanned customer emails for U.S. intelligence – sources

This bit of unsurprising news came out this week. It is unsurprising because the Snowden revelations prove the US tech firms enthusiastically collude with US intelligence. Needless to say, absent (updated) proof the other email providers are denying they would do such a thing. ( Frankly it is hard to believe US intelligence targeted one of the least popular email providers in isolation.

“Yahoo Inc last year secretly built a custom software program to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials, according to people familiar with the matter. The company complied with a classified U.S. government directive, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts at the behest of the National Security Agency or FBI, said two former employees and a third person apprised of the events. Some surveillance experts said this represents the first case to surface of a U.S. Internet company agreeing to a spy agency’s demand by searching all arriving messages, as opposed to examining stored messages or scanning a small number of accounts in real time. It is not known what information intelligence officials were looking for, only that they wanted Yahoo to search for a set of characters. That could mean a phrase in an email or an attachment, said the sources, who did not want to be identified.”

4)          With HDDs On The Ropes, Samsung Predicts SSD Price Collisions As NVMe Takes Over

Samsung offers facts and figures which pretty much line up with my own analysis of what is going to happen though their projection of the “crossover point” is probably farther into the future than my own. I would not buy a laptop without an SSD or unless I knew I could upgrade it immediately after purchase so I expect the PC industry will adopt SSDs as soon as they can. Oddly enough, HDD stocks have rebounded despite the obvious likelihood the industry will collapse over the next few years.

“Unfortunately for HDDs, there is roughly a $40 price floor that they simply cannot get under. That’s the minimum dollar amount needed to provide the HDD casing, motors, heads, and other components–regardless of how low the capacity is. SSDs can scale well below $40 in smaller capacities, which is important in the cost-sensitive notebook market. SSDs have already displaced HDDs in 40% of new notebooks, and Samsung predicts that it will reach 55% penetration in 2018. Samsung’s prediction is slightly lower than other industry estimates, which indicate that 52% of notebooks will have an SSD next year.”,32762.html

5)          Tesla’s Cozy Relations With Banks Have Lost That Loving Feeling

This is more an article about the abysmal state of Wall Street research than it is about Tesla. Even that doesn’t bother me so much (after all – it is an opportunity as well) if the impact was mostly felt by institutional money managers who are well aware of the “conflicts”. The real tragedy is that individual investors do not fully appreciate how the system works and invest their hard earned money on the basis of “analysis” primarily designed to be an advertisement or quid pro quo for banking services.

“Elon Musk is losing some of his big Wall Street cheerleaders just when he needs them the most. Goldman Sachs Group Inc., one of Musk’s top bankers, has reversed course and cut its recommendation on the entrepreneur’s flagship Tesla Motors Inc., following a similar move by another big booster, Morgan Stanley. Goldman’s decision, announced Thursday, comes as Musk is under growing pressure to rally investors for a new fundraising round. … Both Goldman and Morgan Stanley have been big owners of the stock. Their analysts have, on occasion, recommended the shares right around the time that the firm’s underwriters were lead managers on a new round of funding.”

6)          Three Challenges for Artificial Intelligence in Medicine

AI in the “real sense” (i.e. no killer robots) should be a very useful technology in medicine provided the conclusions are double checked by a human (see item 8 for why). The medical profession is pretty conservative for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that lives are at stake. One thing that bugs me about the article is the discussion of the perverse (dis)incentives within the US medical system as those should work strongly in favor of AI outside the US. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“In fact, although we’re surrounded by fantastic applications of modern AI, particularly deep learning — self-driving cars, Siri, AlphaGo, Google Translate, computer vision — the effect on medicine has been nearly nonexistent. In the top cardiology journal, Circulation, the term “deep learning” appears only twice [2]. Deep learning has never been mentioned in the New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, BMJ, or even JAMA, where the work on MYCIN was published 37 years ago. What happened?”

7)          Oculus lowers minimum Rift specs using “asynchronous spacewarp” tech

I remain skeptical as to whether VR will become as mainstream as many predict however one of the problems with the early software was that it required a sizeable investment in computing and graphics. This may have led to over excitement for graphics stocks like NVIDIA (which is, bizarrely at an all-time high). Lowering computing requirements is good for Facebook because it will probably increase the penetration of Oculus. It is not so good for graphics and PC companies however.

“Hence, the Oculus Rift officially supports PC hardware that’s less powerful than it did before. That includes a new $499 Oculus Ready PC from CyberPowerPC and AMD. Oculus is also certifying four Oculus-ready laptops from the likes of ASUS, Alienware, Lenovo, Aorus. Iribe promised that, within a few years, there will be hundreds of laptops that meet that Oculus Ready spec. For now, though, Iribe said “PC VR is more affordable than ever.”

8)          Why AI Makes It Hard to Prove That Self-Driving Cars Are Safe

This is more a general discussion of the challenges of testing AI based software solutions. The idea here is that AI makes use of “training” and that training is necessarily incomplete. The outcome is not deterministic because it depends on the training and the sequence in which is presented. That is no so bad when you are classifying cats and dogs but problematic when lives are involved.

“To make things more concrete, imagine if you test drive your self-driving car and want it to learn how to avoid pedestrians. So you have people in orange safety shirts stand around and you let the car loose. It might be training to recognize hands, arms, and legs—or maybe it’s training to recognize an orange shirt. Or, more subtly, imagine that you’ve conducted the training during the summer, and nobody wore a hat. And the first hat the self-driving car sees on the streets freaks it out. … Google researchers once tried identifying dumbbells with an artificial neural network, a common machine learning model that mimics the neurons in the brain and their connections. Surprisingly, the trained model could identify dumbbells in images only when an arm was attached.”

9)          Smartphone, PC Shipments Slow as Markets Mature

I would not pay money for industry research but the fact Gartner et als are forecasting slowing growth in smartphones tells you things must be blindingly obvious. One important note is that these figures are unit sales, not revenue, and a mature market is characterized by significant pricing pressure in developed markets (i.e. the US, EU, etc), and increased relative unit sales in the developing world – where smartphone prices are well below $100.

“Total mobile phone shipments are on pace to fall 1.6 percent in 2016, and while the smartphone segment continues to grow, it is expanding more slowly than in previous years, and is expected to reach 1.5 billion units in 2016. This year, the Android market is expected to continue to be bolstered by Chinese vendors offering more affordable premium devices. Despite the availability of Apple’s recently released iPhone 7, Gartner expects a weaker year-over-year volume performance from Apple in 2016, as volumes stabilize after a very strong 2015. As a result, the research firm expects the total smartphone market to only increase 4.5 percent, with premium smartphones declining 1.1 percent in 2016.”

10)      Toyota is going to sell a very small ‘buddy robot’ for $400

A while back I saw a short news item on the angst of Japanese who had bought a “robotic dog” which was discontinued by its manufacturer. The owners were spending large sums of money having the devices repaired, often by sacrificing other units. The entire story was baffling so perhaps it is a cultural thing I simply cannot understand. The ad is interesting even though it is in Japanese. Again, the cultural angle seems important.

“Following Kirobo’s successful space jaunt, the car company decided to back the development of a smaller version of the already small robot, calling it – rather appropriately – Kirobo Mini. It unveiled the diminutive droid at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show. Toyota announced on Monday that Kirobo Mini will go on sale in Japan next year for 39,800 yen (about $390), though a 300-yen (about $2.95) monthly subscription fee will also be necessary. Besides the robot itself, you’ll also receive a “cradle” that’s designed to fit inside a car’s cup holder, ensuring that the robot travels in style wherever you take it. Just don’t forget it’s there when you’re drinking a hot coffee.”


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