The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 17 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) Google Fiber 2.0 targets the city where it will stage its comeback, as AT&T Fiber prepares to go nuclear
Wireless broadband has been largely confined to rural applications but that s in the process of changing. As costs come down and performance goes it is becoming a cost effective alternative to the “last hundred meters” problem of deploying urban broadband. A large cost of hooking a customer up has been getting a cable from the backbone to the consumer. This generally entails digging up lawns or even streets. Wireless “last 100 meters” is very cheap and quick to deploy and it should open up many markets to competition. Eventually even the backbone will be wireless as 5G technology is developed. Operation on unlicensed bands will make it even cheaper.
“While these three metros look like the beachheads where the company will relaunch its gigabit broadband service, Louisville in particular looks like the place where Google Fiber will prototype its next generation architecture, using a mix of fiber optics for the internet backbone and fixed wireless for the last mile to connect customers. This has the potential to supercharge deployments by bypassing the hardest, slowest, and most expensive part of the process–digging ditches and climbing poles to connect cables to every single residence.”
2) What is a WISP?
This provides a bit more information regarding wireless broadband (as distinct from mobile broadband). My ISP operates a network which uses LTE technology on non-mobile bands to deliver 20 MBPS, unlimited, for about $40 per month. Even in the country tower costs are minimal and installation of customer access points takes a few hours at most. The radio equipment itself is software based so the quality of service can (and has) improved over time. It is a matter of time (maybe a year or two) that the quality of service exceeds that of urban broadband an therefore becomes much more competitive in those markets due to the low installation costs.
“WISP stands for wireless internet service provider, and sometimes gets referred to as “fixed wireless.” This is an alternative to a wired internet hookup, with the internet being delivered wirelessly. While traditionally used in more rural areas, where a wired connection is not available, there is a trend to use WISP technology as a competitor to cable and fiber offerings.”
3) Hackers Have Stolen Millions Of Dollars In Bitcoin — Using Only Phone Numbers
This is actually a form of identity theft and the bitcoin angle is just a hook for people who think bitcoin matters. It sort of does because it is a bit like somebody breaking in and stealing a gold nugget in that it becomes untraceable and irrecoverable. After all it isn’t even clear that “stealing” bitcoin is, per se, illegal. Of course that only matters if you are dumb enough to consider bitcoin a store of value – identity theft by migrating a phone number can be used to empty your bank account as well.
“In a larger wave of bitcoin scams that have hit everyone from everyday people to hospitals, Kenna’s experience is only one of a spate of recent hackings of high-profile cryptocurrency industry players such as venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, C-level executives and others who have had their phone numbers hijacked, some of whom have also suffered financial losses, several of whom have been threatened or ransomed, and one of whom was put in physical danger. Their experience is part of a larger trend. In January 2013, the Federal Trade Commission received 1,038 reports of these incidents, representing 3.2% of all identity theft reports to the FTC that month. By January 2016, 2,658 such incidents were filed — 6.3% of all such reports that month. There have been incidents involving all four of the major carriers.”
4) The travel-only Gmail account: A practical proposal for digital privacy at the US border
There has been an increasing number of stories about people – both citizens and foreigners – crossing into the US and having their mobile devices “scanned” for, presumably, politically dangerous content. Some have even been denied entry for having “prayer apps” installed (you can guess these were not Christian prayer apps). Whatever you might think about think from a national security perspective, anybody with any sensitive information such as passwords, otherwise secured corporate information, etc., might consider getting a cheap “burner” phone for travel rather than crossing with their personal device.
“xkcd’s well-circulated wrench scenario, pictured above, is demonstrated hauntingly well by this week’s story of Sidd Bikkannavar, a US-born NASA engineer who was coerced into breaching the security of his government-issued phone in order to enter the United States. US Customs and Border Patrol detained Bikkannavar, who like me has Global Entry, upon entering and demanded he unlock his cell phone for searching. About 30 minutes later, he got his phone back and was free to go. He’s still unaware what took place during that time. What follows is my plan, and the thinking behind it, for avoiding such an invasion myself. (TL/DR: Wipe your phone before getting on the plane.)”
5) 99.6% of new smartphones run iOS or Android; RIP Windows and Blackberry
This is not altogether surprising: Microsoft Mobile couldn’t figure out email (seriously – email) for the longest time and Blackberry was late to understanding the ramifications of the web. In technology you are either a leader or dying and iOS and Android are the leaders. Microsoft will do just fine but Blackberry will essentially evaporate, though its ultimate fate is probably to be acquired. Why anybody owns the stock is beyond me, but then again hard disk manufacturers’ stock prices have gone up as their revenues have declined. They are doomed as well but investors don’t seem to care.
“Remember those crazy days in 2011 and 12 when we thought that the mobile market might become a three-horse race between Android, iOS, and Windows Mobile, with Blackberry bringing up the rear? Well, I have bad if unsurprising news: by the end of last year, 99.6 percent of all new smartphones ran either Android or iOS—a return to the status quo that Ars first wrote about way back in 2009. According to the latest figures from Gartner, both Android and iOS expanded their share of the market in 2016, while sales of Windows and Blackberry continued their free fall to the base of the cliff. Gartner, a research company that derives its figures from a range of sources, says that just 1.1 million Windows smartphones were sold in Q4 2016, down from 4.4 million in Q4 2015. Similarly, Blackberry device sales fell from 906,000 to 208,000.”
6) The Snapchat IPO Just Got a Lot Cheaper
The fantastic HBO series “Silicon Valley” has a narrative that for start-ups their stock is their product. No company has perfected that nonsense than Uber, but Snapchat has to come close. This is a company whose losses exceed its revenues and there is no reason whatsoever to believe it will earn a penny. It is one of dozens of messaging apps, and the reason there are so many messaging apps is simply that they are trivial to make. Many mobile users have multiple messaging apps and are extremely fickle. As to why the stock is the product? Well, the private equity investors have poured billions into this house of cards and the IPO means they’d rather you own the stock than them. Nobody would play the game if they couldn’t find a greater fool.
“Snap now hopes to price its stock at $14 to $16 per share, valuing the company at about $22 billion at the high end, but at $19 billion on the low end. That’s as much as 24% less than the $25 billion valuation for which Snap was reportedly aiming, which was also the Snapchat company’s private-market valuation as of its latest funding round. And that means that Snap’s future shareholders won’t be taking quite as much risk by buying into the maker of the disappearing message app, which lost $515 million at its bottom line last year. At a valuation of $19 billion, Snap stock would trade at 47 times sales, not quite as sky high as the price-to-sales ratio of 62 that we previously computed.”
7) Toshiba facing bankruptcy, total disintegration thanks to bad bets on nuclear power
Well, that didn’t take long: you play stupid games you win stupid prizes. Time was the Japanese government and other trading organizations would make sure that, one way or another, Toshiba would survive. I am not so sure that is the case nowadays. Remarkably, the stock is only at the levels of a years ago so presumably there is still hope. Efforts to sell off a small part of their world class semiconductor operation may or may not be successful, but it is doubtful it’ll solve the problem.
“Current expectations are that Toshiba will have no choice but to file for bankruptcy, sell a significant amount of assets, and attempt to survive that way. Given the fallout of these events, you might be wondering why Toshiba doesn’t just sell its nuclear business — but according to The New York Times, it’s had no luck finding a buyer. Last month, the firm announced it would spin off its microchip business, with an estimated value of $13 billion to $17 billion if Toshiba sold its entire stake. That would pay off the company’s immediate debts, but would leave it holding the bag on an incredibly expensive, underwhelming nuclear business with no prospects for near-term improvement.”
8) Valve ‘comfortable’ if virtual reality headsets fail
About a years ago industry analysts like IDC were falling all over themselves trying to come up with ever more optimistic forecasts for the VR business. One report suggested it would be “bigger than the PC industry” which is a little hard to grasp: lots of people have a PC at work and one at home and it is a bit of a stretch to imagine employers are going to let employees sit at their desk and “work” in VR. I think it is rather telling that firm numbers are not available – if the business was that big vendors would be falling all over themselves disclosing sales figures.
“”We’re optimistic,” he told Polygon. “We think VR is going great. It’s going in a way that’s consistent with our expectations.” He added: “We’re also pretty comfortable with the idea that it will turn out to be a complete failure.” Gauging the success or failure of VR has proved hard because neither Valve nor rival headset maker Oculus have released sales figures. Leaked figures late last year suggested 140,000 Vive headsets had been sold. Sony has said only that orders for its PlayStation-based VR headset have been “massive”. It has also been difficult to obtain information about users of phone-based headsets from Samsung and Google. Last year, analyst firm IDC said it expected consumers to spend about $2.6bn in 2016 buying 9.6 million headsets.”
9) Ethicists advise caution in applying CRISPR gene editing to humans
Genetic modification of humans is a pretty dangerous thing. This is not just because of the risks to society but the risk to the subjects as well: what if selecting your baby’s eye color causes them to develop brain cancer when they turn 25? The good thing about CRISPR is that it is very cheap and very effective. The bad thing about CRISPR is that it is very cheap and very effective and anybody with basic lab expertise can use it. Governments ignore international treaties and do all kinds of things (like run doping programs for athletes and, no, it isn’t just the Russians who do it. CRISPR is not yet reliable enough to be used as part of an in vitro fertilization protocol but you can bet it’ll be used on humans soon enough.
“The latest iteration of this ongoing CRISPR debate is a report published Tuesday by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. The report, a series of guidelines written by 22 experts from multiple countries and a variety of academic specialties, presents a kind of flashing red light for CRISPR. The report did not recommend an absolute prohibition of gene editing on the human “germline” if such interventions can be proved safe. This would involve genetic changes to eggs, sperm or embryos that would persist in an adult and could be inherited by future generations.”
10) First Gene Drive in Mammals Could Aid Vast New Zealand Eradication Plan
You know what scares me more than genetically engineering humans? People who believe that engineering a species to its extirpation (i.e. local extinction) is a good idea are very dangerous indeed. I can sympathize with people who want to cure malaria or rid an island of an invasive species but, unless crops, which tend to need careful maintenance to survive, a wild GMO can spread to places you don’t expect. After all – if mice got on an island they can get off an island as well. The two species in particular (mosquitos and mice) happen to be at the base of the terrestrial food chain. The environmental havoc which could be unleashed by a genetic “bomb” would be hard to overstate.
“Scientists working in coordination with a U.S. conservation group say they’ve established an evolution-warping technology called a “gene drive” in mammals for the first time and could use it to stamp out invasive rodents ravaging seabirds on islands. … A man-made gene drive was first demonstrated in fruit flies only in 2015. Within a few months the concept had been extended to mosquitoes, and already the technology is viewed as promising enough to have landed $75 million from Bill Gates, whose foundation is betting that extinguishing mosquitoes could eradicate malaria from Africa.
So it was only a matter of time—less than two years, it turned out—before the technique was adapted to mammals.”