The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 10 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!
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1) Facebook is closing hundreds of its Oculus VR pop-ups in Best Buys after some stores went days without a single demo
Well this is rather odd. VR is (was?) supposed to be bigger than the PC industry. I can understand why people don’t go into a Best Buy but you’d think they would at least be interested in a demonstration of a novel display technology. All in it looks like the VR bubble is deflating.
“Multiple “Oculus Ambassador” workers BI spoke with said that, at most, they would sell a few Oculus headsets per week during the holiday season, and that foot traffic to their pop-ups decreased drastically after Christmas. “There’d be some days where I wouldn’t give a demo at all because people didn’t want to,” said one worker at a Best Buy in Texas who asked to remain anonymous. Another worker from California said that Oculus software bugs would often render his demo headsets unusable.”
2) Big blues: IBM’s remote-worker crackdown is company-wide, including its engineers
IBM is a once great company which employs lots of smart people. Unfortunately, their management is only adept at financial engineering and broad based incompetence. This is a company which has missed every technology since the PC despite spending tens of billions on acquisitions. IBM is far from the top of the list in terms of choices for engineering talent and moves like these will move it down closer to the bottom so soon I probably won’t have to point out they have lots of smart people working for them. Just to show you how wonky the stock market is presently, IBM’s revenues have been declining for years but the stock is the highest it has been since Q4 2014.
“IBM has pitched all this change to employees as a way to improve the working environment and office culture. In a video message to her troops, seen by The Register, chief marketing officer Michelle Peluso said “there is something about a team being more powerful, more impactful, more creative, and frankly hopefully having more fun, when they are shoulder to shoulder.” El Reg, however, has heard that within the IBM rank and file, the move is being seen as more of an excuse to cut a portion of the workforce, and in particular one specific portion. Multiple sources believe that the move will disproportionately affect older workers who have already put down roots with a home and family in a specific area. Thus, this decision to move people across the country might be by design to cut loose older and more expensive workers. By requiring that workers move to hub cities such as San Francisco, Austin, or New York, IBM could both rid itself of older workers and make the jobs more appealing to younger, lower-salaried professionals.”
3) A Record 14 Weeks (Did Apple Really Have a Record Quarter?)
This is an interesting read on Apple’s results: the logic is sound in that a materially longer quarter should result in materially greater revenues, although the relationship is not necessarily direct, especially in the holiday season so one more week may have more or less than an 8% impact on revenues. That said the stock is near an all-time high despite negative revenue growth in a mature market. It is beyond me how a portfolio manager, let alone a retail investor, could justify owning any stock, let alone a tech stock, in that situation.
“Apple stated that Q1 FY2017 was an all-time record for quarterly revenue. The media dutifully and mostly uncritically spread this “great” news for Apple. But the headlines were fake news. Technically the claim is true, the revenue was an all-time record. True but misleading. Although Apple didn’t lie as such, you might say there was a sin of omission, and a definite spin of the facts. Most Apple fiscal quarters are 13 weeks long. Once in a while, however, they need a 14 week quarter. You might call it a “leap quarter”. … What a difference a week makes! Rather than record revenue, we have another down quarter for Apple. The lone bright spot was services; everything else was a year/year decrease. A 14 week quarter is 8% longer than a 13 week quarter. You can’t even begin to compare them usefully without making adjustments.”
4) This Technology Could Finally Make Brain Implants Practical
Long story short this technology uses magnetic fields instead of direct electrical stimulation to fire neural pathways. Direct electrical stimulation is probably easier to do precisely but it has the problem of potentially creating scar tissue, etc..
“Next month, tests will begin in monkeys of a new implant for piping data into the brain that is designed to avoid that problem. The project is intended to lead to devices that can restore vision to blind people long-term. Researchers at Harvard Medical School will use a new kind of implant that will go beneath the skull but can rest on the surface of an animal’s brain, instead of penetrating inside the organ. An array of microscopic coils inside the hair-like device can generate powerful, highly targeted magnetic fields to induce electrical activity at particular locations in the brain tissue underneath. The implant will also be tested when placed inside brain tissue.”
5) NASA’s new electronics can survive the heat of Venus
Unfortunately they don’t really say what the electronics do or how they perform, just that they are “semiconductors”. Of course, even if these devices only perform as well as a primitive (circa 1980) device you could make a pretty powerful system – provided the power requirements are reasonable. This technology make have uses in hostile environments here on Earth long before they reach Venus.
“The previous landers enclosed the electronics in thermal- and pressure-resistant vessels, which also add significant weight to the payloads. NASA’s team, led by electronics engineer Phil Neudeck, developed silicone carbide semiconductor integrated circuits. When placed in the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig, which simulates Venus conditions, the circuits survived for 521 hours. This, NASA says, is 100 times longer than any previous Venus mission electronics.”
6) Could 5G TV Spur Fixed 5G Deployments?
5G wireless could revolutionize broadband in North America, which has 3rd world infrastructure despite paying the highest prices in the world. Most of the impact of 5G will be in fiber/wireline replacement not mobile devices, especially early on since the customer equipment will be big and power hungry, plus fixed applications don’t have to deal with many of the same problems as mobile applications. Another great thing with 5G is that it will lead to an era of spectrum surplus, in contrast with the spectrum shortage which has existed since the days of Marconi.
“Delivering pay-TV over fixed 5G would be “very much in line with carriers’ rural broadband plans,” said Rudd. Carriers are accustomed to delivering multi-play services including broadband and video in order to maximize revenues generated from network investment – and being able to deliver pay-TV as well as broadband over a 5G fixed wireless link could help carriers such as AT&T and Verizon build a business case for deploying 5G in a fixed configuration in areas where the carrier cannot justify an investment in fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP). Rudd noted that British Telecom is looking at 5G fixed wireless as a means of meeting broadband deployment goals and that 5G TV may be part of those plans. She also noted that Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam has talked about using fixed 5G to deliver “services similar to FiOS,” hinting that 5G TV also is part of that carriers’ plans.”
7) Traditional TV’s surprising staying power
This is a good and objective write up on the status and current trends in “TV”. Of particular note is the chart about 2/3rds of the way down which shows demographic shift in TV viewership. The viewing habits of 18 year olds today are an important indicator of what 28 year olds will do in 10 years.
“Pay and broadcast television, still the foundation of video entertainment at home in much of the world, is being eroded from two sides. At one end, people are watching videos free on large social platforms like Facebook, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook), YouTube and Snapchat. Each of these platforms now claims billions of views a day. Free videos are supported by advertising, which will begin to eat into the TV advertising market, currently worth $185bn.”
8) Forward, a $149 per month medical startup, aims to be the Apple Store of doctor’s offices
The great thing with Silicon Valley start-ups is that it doesn’t matter whether they make money or not, just whether they can sell the stock. Presumably $149/month sounds like an attractive price especially given the astounding cost of US medical care, but it’s hard to see how they’d make money if they actually have to do any procedures. Mind you they highlight snake oil like naturopathy and vitamins so I wouldn’t darken their door if I was bleeding out.
“One might be tempted to compare Forward to something like One Medical, a startup with a series of well-branded medical offices popular in the Bay Area. But Forward goes far and above with a state-of-the-art 3,500 square foot office equipped with six exam rooms, the latest medical instruments and an onsite lab for testing within minutes. Forward also offers a proprietary A.I. to help its doctors quickly source through medical information and compare it to your health data. Beyond the lobby lay the exam rooms, complete with ergonomic chairs, a futuristic display screen and a myriad of medical instruments dipping into Star Trek Enterprise territory.”
9) Phone Bot to Target Windows Support Scammers
This is a fun story about a guy who has created a bot designed to waste the times of scammers who phone people up and try any number of schemes to separate them from their money. I can’t help but wonder if this might be a generalized solution to scams like “duct cleaning”, IRS/Revenue Canada scams, “charity” money raising scams, and all manner of fraudulent schemes using call centers.
“The man who developed a bot that frustrates and annoys robocallers is planning to take on the infamous Windows support scam callers head-on. Roger Anderson last year debuted his Jolly Roger bot, a system that intercepts robocalls and puts the caller into a never-ending loop of pre-recorded phrases designed to waste their time. Anderson built the system as a way to protect his own landlines from annoying telemarketers and it worked so well that he later expanded it into a service for both consumers and businesses. Users can send telemarketing calls to the Jolly Roger bot and listen in while it chats inanely with the caller.”
10) Get Uber’s self-driving trucks off the road: watchdog
I don’t know the motives of this non-profit but I agree with the sentiment. Self-driving vehicles can be dangerous even though the technology, once perfected, will be much safer than human drivers. That said the companies experimenting with self-driving vehicles are not doing charity – they are in it for the money (or in Uber’s case to boost its share price). Dangerous experimental vehicles need to be carefully regulated and if they aren’t people will die.
“A southern California non-profit that has long raised concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles has asked the DMV to look more closely at the operations of Otto, a self-driving truck company that Uber bought last year for $670 million. Otto made headlines in October when it completed a 120-mile beer run with a large semi-tractor in Colorado. A few months ago, Uber announced it would begin testing self-driving Volvo SUVs in this hilly city, but a day later that process was halted after the DMV said Uber had not applied for the proper permits. Uber moved its fleet to Arizona.”