The Geek’s Reading List – Week of January 29 2017
Welcome to the Geek’s Reading List. 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 www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
1) AT&T Plans DirecTV Now Over 5G in Austin
5G wireless may or may not be good for smartphones but it is a potential replacement for wired broadband services. More to the point, it opens up a vast amount of spectrum, much or which is unlicensed. This may allow the emergence of a competitive broadband industry in the US and Canada – provided the lobbyists and corrupt regulators don’t sabotage it.
“AT&T is gearing up for a trial to deliver DirecTV Now in Austin via 5G wireless broadband in the first half of 2017. The cell network giant said it also planned to test “additional next-generation entertainment services of fixed 5G connections.” AT&T said the trial will comprise multiple sites and devices and focus on how fixed wireless millimeter wave technology handles heavy video traffic.”
2) Google doubles down on Chromebooks in education with two new devices
Chromebooks are similar in performance to tablets but they have a keyboard and target low-cost. This makes them quite suitable for the education market where the lower cost and better durability means kids are less likely to destroy them. Chromebooks have been quite successful and seem to be taking an increasing share fo the market. Note that the criticism of Chromebook apps applies equally well to iPads, which are extremely expensive fragile devices once touted as ideal for education.
“Google is announcing two new Chromebooks specifically designed for the education market. Chrome OS has been strong in education for some time, outperforming the Mac, iPads, and Windows so much that by some estimates it represents half the market. The company is putting together a slew of Chrome OS-related announcements to try to solidify that lead, but at the center are two Chromebooks that are designed for students. The first is the Acer Chromebook Spin 11, essentially a convertible variant of the ruggedized Chromebook 11 N7. Internally, the specs are very little changed and unlikely to appeal to consumers — an 11.6-inch touchscreen, Intel Celeron processor, and a couple of storage and RAM options.”
3) Trump signs executive order stripping non-citizens of privacy rights
The tech world was dominated by US politics this week. Don’t get me started. This move was interesting because of the excitement it caused and the sheer stupidity of the move. The Orwellian USA PARTIOT and its successors eviscerated privacy in the US. The Snowden revelations showed the national security state went even further. The EU might have been pleased to delude itself into believing it had protected its citizens privacy though and agreement with the US but it utter nonsense: if you keep data on a server connected to the Internet that data is likely compromised. If you keep data on the cloud that data is compromised.
“With a stroke of his pen, the president just potentially invalidated a transcontinental data flow agreement between the US and EU which took years to negotiate. The US-EU Data Shield agreement is an authorization framework which enables companies to transfer the personal data of Europeans to the US while ensuring that the companies operate within compliance of Europe’s more stringent privacy laws. It effectively ensured that a European’s personal data — that is, any personal data originating from the EU, not just that of EU citizens — would be protected to the standards that the EU demands whether the data is sitting on a server in Paris, France or Paris, Texas.”
4) Dropbox Kept Files Around for Years Due to ‘Delete’ Bug
Part two of why you have to be very careful when using cloud services: Dropbox offers a commodity cloud storage application and, it turns out, it can’t even get that right. There was no particular reason to believe that Dropbox ever real disposed of files properly but now we find out they didn’t and seemed to know about it for years. Remember that you aren’t storing stuff on Dropbox, you are sharing it with them. Be very, very, careful. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.
“Dropbox engineers have fixed what appears to be a very ancient bug that during the past two weeks has resurfaced previously deleted folders for several Dropbox users. According to multiple support threads started in the last three weeks and merged into one issue here, users had complained about old folders that they deleted years ago, magically reappearing on their devices.”
5) Explaining the upside and downside of D-Wave’s new quantum computer
The other day I was thing “funny I haven’t heard anything about D-Wave in a while” and then this past week there was a flood of stories about their latest “quantum” computer. (On a side note, transistors are also “quantum” devices). In any event, despite the hype and hysteria, it appears this machine is 1,000 faster than normal computers at simulating annealing. Whoop dee freaking do: a general purpose computer would never be as fast as a tree simulating a tree either. The net benefit to this obscure advantage is only 30x – at least until somebody tweaks the simulation algorithms again. The performance delta between a quantum computer and a regular computer is the same order as that between a nuclear explosion and a chemical explosion – it is not subtle.
“In a pair of papers, D-Wave researchers have compared the new architecture to various simulated annealers, including annealers that incorporate quantum properties and make use of GPUs for additional speed up. The take-home message that D-Wave wants you to hear is that this thing is a processing beast, around 1,000 times faster than a normal computer. This is just a comparison of the annealing time, though. The total time taken is only a factor of 30 better, and it’s dominated by the time it takes to initialize the problem and read out the solution. These are also just demonstration problems that are not directly applicable in real-world applications.”
6) A lack of alternatives to Qualcomm is hurting the ecosystem
Interesting nuggets regarding Qualcomm’s business model but I think it overstates the company’s position. Patents, especially high tech patents, are a rapidly depreciating asset and Qualcomm walled off 2G and 3G before the standards bodies realized how big a market wireless would be. There is a good chance they will have limited success in 5G. As for SoCs, Qualcomm uses the freely licensable ARM architecture. While they may remain at the cutting edge, mobile innovation is slowing and other vendors will eventually supply “good enough” parts.
“Qualcomm owns patents for a number of hugely important mobile technologies. The company earns money from every phone sale, even those that don’t use a Qualcomm chip, as 3G CDMA and 4G LTE data technologies are based primarily on the company’s IP. If your phone has a CDMA or LTE modem, even one designed and manufactured by another company, Qualcomm takes a cut. The company does not have the same dominant IP portfolio for 4G as it does for CDMA, but it’s still the major earner for the company. For financial year 2016, Qualcomm generated a pre-tax profit of $6.5 billion from 3G and 4G royalties, compared with $1.8 billion from MSM chip sales in the same year. In other words, 85 percent of the company’s earnings before tax are created by wireless technology royalties.”
7) HP expands laptop battery recall after reports of overheating and property damage
Lithium ion battery fires are very impressive and hard to extinguish. There are suggestions a pilot’s iPhone/iPad may have taken down an Airbus recently, with the loss of 66 lives (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/_TP_/article/did-pilot-s-phone-batteries-cause-egyptair-crash-trr663ghv?ni-statuscode=acsaz-307). What I find interesting is that consumer product recalls for smartphones and laptop batteries get a lot of coverage but fires in electric vehicles usually do not. Suffice it to say that if you have a bad accident in an EV there is a very high probability it will catch fire. You will not get out alive. Car fires are relatively rare in gasoline powered cars because of a variety of safety systems which would not work with a battery.
“Overheating and exploding batteries seem to be a problem as of late. Samsung recently captured headlines for its own debacle with the Galaxy Note7, and now HP is continuing its recall of laptop batteries that could pose a risk to consumers. The latest recall affects 101,000 units, and a previous recall in June 2016 affected another 41,000 batteries. The affected laptops were said to include a lithium-ion battery containing Panasonic cells that malfunctioned, leading to “overheating, melting and charring and causing about $1,000 in property damage,” the US Consumer Product Safety (US CPSC) report said.”
8) IBM promises Trump-friendly domestic jobs, but is firing U.S. workers: report
I was wandering through a store recently and noted all the “new lower price” stickers. It occurred to me that they never put a sticker saying “new higher price” nor do they tell you the lower price applies to a smaller bottle. In any event, IBM is a senescent company which has missed every significant tech trend since the PC. They are slowly fading away despite spending billions per year on value destroying acquisitions. Who needs real engineering when financial engineering is more fun?
“As companies fall all over themselves to hype creation of U.S. jobs, IBM is catching flak for promising thousands of new ones while firing folks right and left, a new report said. Company CEO Ginni Rometty said in a December USA Today op-ed that her firm would hire 25,000 people for U.S. positions in the next four years, 6,000 of them this year. “She didn’t mention that International Business Machines Corp. was also firing workers and sending many of the jobs overseas,” said a Jan. 23 report from Bloomberg. Big Blue wrapped up its third round of 2016 firings — or “resource actions” in IBM HR parlance — in late November, and job losses for the year likely totaled in the thousands, current and former employees told Bloomberg.”
9) Apple Investigating Issue With AirPods Randomly Disconnecting During Calls
I’m sure nobody expected Apple to invent Bluetooth headsets and get it right the first try, right? Actually there are some reports of these same models of iPhone disconnecting from other Bluetooth headsets (i.e. the ones on the market before Apple invented them) so the issue might actually be with their operating system.
“Apple is investigating multiple reports from iPhone owners of AirPods randomly disconnecting and reconnecting during calls, MacRumors has learned. A MacRumors forum thread and a long thread on Apple’s Support Communities website have been generated by AirPods users who are regularly experiencing Bluetooth connection dropouts during phone calls, despite the fact that the wireless earphones almost never lose their connection when used to listen to music or anything else.”
10) New findings highlight promise of chimeric organisms for science and medicine
This work is pretty impressive but it has been mostly miss-reported. The idea is to grow the organs of one species inside another species using stem cells and genetic modification. There has been the usual clucking about “ethical issues” but I suspect the people waiting for transplants might feel a bit differently about the issue: this does not create some sort of sentient man-bear-pig but potentially human compatible organs ready for transplant.
“In a tour de force paper published in the January 26, 2017, issue of the journal Cell, scientists at the Salk Institute report breakthroughs on multiple fronts in the race to integrate stem cells from one species into the early-stage development of another. Combining cutting-edge gene-editing and stem-cell technologies, the scientists were able to grow a rat pancreas, heart and eyes in a developing mouse, providing proof-of-concept that functional organs from one species can be grown in another. They were also able to generate human cells and tissues in early-stage pig and cattle embryos, marking the first step toward the generation of transplantable human organs using large animals whose organ size, physiology and anatomy are similar to humans’.”