The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 14 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) Printed titanium parts expected to save millions in Boeing Dreamliner costs
This is one of the few times I’ve seen direct figures associated with 3D printing in manufacturing. They are actually credible: titanium is expensive and hard to machine so keeping waste and machining to a minimum makes some sense – especially given the small production volumes in aircraft manufacture. If the material were aluminum, which is cheap and easy to cast and machine, it would almost certainly make no sense.
“Boeing Co hired Norsk Titanium AS to print the first structural titanium parts for its 787 Dreamliner, a shift that the Norwegian 3-D printing company said would eventually shave $2 million to $3 million off the cost of each plane. The contract announced on Monday is a major step in Boeing’s effort to boost the profitability of the 787 and a sign of growing industrial acceptance of the durability of 3-D printed metal parts, allowing them to replace pieces made with more expensive traditional manufacturing in demanding aerospace applications. Strong, lightweight titanium alloy is seven times more costly than aluminum, and accounts for about $17 million of the cost of a $265 million Dreamliner, industry sources say.”
2) Roku TVs will eavesdrop on your shows to serve up ads
It is scarcely surprising Roku is doing this as consumers seem to long longer ascribe any value whatsoever to privacy. Besides, the US government is allowing ISPs to sell your browsing history (https://techcrunch.com/2017/03/28/house-vote-sj-34-isp-regulations-fcc/) so it really looks as though privacy is dead. This is not as benign as it seems: imagine if, in the 1960s, someone had proposed to record and sell the names of every book or newspaper article people read.
“Roku fans have another treat this week aside from getting Sling TV’s Cloud DVR functionality. Assuming you opt in, the latest software version (7.6) will use Automatic Content Recognition to listen to what broadcast programming you’re watching and suggest other stuff to watch based on that, as a way to “enhance” your couch potato session. “Additional viewing options may include the ability to watch from the beginning, watch more episodes of the same show and/or view suggestions for similar entertainment available to stream,” the section about Roku TVs reads.”
3) Delivery robots: a revolutionary step or sidewalk-clogging nightmare?
Delivery robots at least make some sense, unlike delivery drones. Frankly I find it hard to believe the streets and sidewalks would be clogged with them: if you think about it the goods being transported would be delivered through vans, delivery people, and so on, so there should not be an increase in traffic. Whether or not these make sense it is hard to believe the current examples of small, slow, electric robots would work outside of very specific applications such as a few blocks around a pizza parlor or grocery store in an urban setting.
“Sidewalk-traversing robots are one of several possible solutions to the pesky problem of “last-mile” logistics. Venture capitalists have poured millions into startups employing an army of independent contractors to provide instant gratification to urbanites. But the humans in this equation remain a significant cost, and innovators are looking to obviate them with automated solutions. Amazon, UPS, and Google are all working on an airborne method, which certainly makes for splashy PR stunts. But in cities, ground-based delivery services are a more practical solution. Drones simply don’t make sense for urban environments, said Matt Delaney, one of Marble’s three co-founders who called robots “the only sane solution”. He argued that delivery robots could improve quality of life for people like his grandfather, who lost his driver’s license and has to hire someone for tasks like picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy.”
4) SLUMPING PC MARKET SHOWS A GLIMMER OF HOPE IN 1ST QUARTER
With memory prices skyrocketing, PC price/performance is almost certainly deteriorating. It is certainly possible the rate of decline in PC sales may slow because of, for example, an improving US economy, but the logical thing for buyers to do is postpone purchases for 6 months pending normalization of pricing. Regardless, it is hard to see a “glimmer of hope” in 1 % rise in unit sales.
“PC shipments in the first quarter rose by about 1 percent from last year, based on calculations from the research firm International Data Corp. The modest gain marks the first quarterly increase in five years, a stretch that has seen people increasingly turn to mobile devices for their computing needs. Another breakdown released by Gartner Inc. painted a gloomier picture. That research firm estimated PC shipments fell by 2 percent in the first quarter. The rival reports measure the market in different ways, accounting for their contrasting conclusions. Both IDC and Gartner concurred on this point: About the only signs of life are in the corporate market, where PCs remain an essential tool. Businesses have recently been replacing larger numbers of outdated machines.”
5) Half-baked security: Hackers can hijack your smart Aga oven ‘with a text message’
This is real amateur night at the zoo type stuff. I know because I’m working on an IoT application which uses emails as a control based on the eUpdate software I developed with I was a sell side analyst. At least with emails you don’t need a cloud intermediary. That said, this application is appallingly stupid: not only can you figure out the target address, the system is based on mobile phone technology, meaning it comes with a monthly fee.
“The vulnerable iTotal Control models of the upmarket cookers contain a SIM card and radio tech that connects to mobile phone networks. This allows the Brit-built roasters to receive texted commands: these messages can be sent directly to appliances from phones, or via an app or Aga’s website, from anywhere in the world. This means you can order your fancy baking oven to heat up before you leave from work, for instance. According to UK IT security consultants Pen Test Partners (PTP), this feature can be hijacked by villains to meddle with the slow cookers without the owners’ permission. The iTotal Control ovens pick up messages using a Tekelek-branded comms module and a GSM SIM card from UK cellular network EE – which costs £6 ($7.50) a month to keep active. Controlling an Aga by text is a rather odd approach because many of the hefty ovens are out in the sticks without decent cellular reception. The design was implemented by an Irish outfit called Action Point.”
6) Honda Miimo Robot Lawn Mower Comes to US
Honda makes some good lawn equipment but this is not likely to an example. Note that all the videos show the device essentially mowing a putting green rather than an actual lawn. The unit is battery powered meaning it probably could not mow more than a few square meters of actual lawn if it didn’t get stuck. I read somewhere that robot lawnmowers are a big market in Europe. I’m guessing that is because their lawns are only a few square meters. The idea is a good one, but the implementation is not. Don’t waste your money.
“Honda is bringing its robot lawn mowers to backyards in the United States starting in June 2017. Honda introduced two Miimo robot lawn mowers that will be available at select Honda Power Equipment dealerships nationwide, excluding California. The Miimo HRM 310 robot lawn mower ($2,499) can mow for up to 30 minutes on a single charge. It will recharge in 30 minutes and is designed for areas up a half acre. The Miimo HRM 520 robot lawn mower ($2,799) lasts a bit longer (60 minutes), takes an hour to charge and is designed for areas up to 0.75 acres. Battery life and cutting area are the main differences between the two models.”
7) Google benchmarks its Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) chips
Artificial Intelligence/Deep Learning is one area of technology which is improving rapidly and has some valid uses even though most of the coverage surrounding it is complete fiction. The algorithms are relatively recent and tend to be run on Graphics Processors (GPUs) which are very good at certain types of processing. This has led investors to bid up GU company stocks, even though those companies are mostly in the business of supplying gamers. Typically what happens as new algorithms are developed is that hardware is crafted which runs those algorithms optimally. That is why GPUs and DSPs were developed. Within a few years AI will not be run on GPUs but on AI/DL accelerators which may or may not be incorporated into other CPUs.
“In Google’s tests, a Haswell Xeon E5-2699 v3 processor with 18 cores running at 2.3 GHz using 64-bit floating point math units was able to handle 1.3 Tera Operations Per Second (TOPS) and delivered 51 GB/sec of memory bandwidth; the Haswell chip consumed 145 watts and its system (which had 256 GB of memory) consumed 455 watts when it was busy. The TPU, by comparison, used 8-bit integer math and access to 256 GB of host memory plus 32 GB of its own memory was able to deliver 34 GB/sec of memory bandwidth on the card and process 92 TOPS – a factor of 71X more throughput on inferences, and in a 384 watt thermal envelope for the server that hosted the TPU.”
8) Broadcasters Put New Ad-Skipping Restrictions on YouTube TV
You can certainly understand the desire by broadcasters to make their ads un-skippable: there was an effort a few years ago to make DVR ad skip illegal. However that immediately reduces the attractiveness of a DVR. I typically DVR the news so I can skip all the garbage (celebrities, sports, talking heads, propaganda) and watch it in about 25% of the time. If this idea takes hold I’d be forced to watch as much advertising as content.
“YouTube last week launched YouTube TV in a handful of markets (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, and Philadelphia), providing access to more than 50 live TV channels for $35 per month. And while Google and YouTube are hoping that the company’s new YouTube TV live streaming service makes waves in the streaming space, the inability to skip commercials may annoy some potential customers. If a show is available on-demand, viewers won’t be able to skip ads, even if they recorded the episode on DVR notes the Wall Street Journal.”
9) NASA Finds Evidence of Hydrothermal Vents on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus
This is big news and not entirely unsurprising. The fact there is liquid water and geothermal activity vastly increases the odds these bodies harbor life. After all, life emerged on Earth shortly after it was possible to sustain life on Earth, suggesting abiogenesis is a highly probable outcome rather than an extremely rare event. Since the plumes from Enceladus go out into space, and any such plume would likely carry simple life forms if any existed it should not be that difficult to go out and take a sample and return it to Earth.
“Once they knew there was a large ocean and likely a rocky core, the team speculated that if the moon is warm enough for liquid water, then it might have enough geologic activity for hydrothermal vents. And if there are vents, then there could be life—even out in the distant solar system almost a billion miles from the sun. Now we have reason to believe there are indeed hydrothermal vents on the watery moon Enceladus. “What we have is this chain of evidence, not just one thing but a number of things that point toward the very real possibility of these hydrothermal vents,” says Spilker. Most of that evidence came from the flybys Cassini made through Enceladus’s geysers. The craft used two science instruments, the Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) and Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS), to analyze samples from the plumes. Sure enough, the spacecraft picked up clues that point to hydrothermal vents.”
10) What Apple vs Qualcomm could mean for the iPhone’s future
Qualcomm actually makes some pretty nice chips even though a lot of its financial performance is associated with royalties it claims from increasingly out of date Intellectual Property. It is pretty clear that smartphone sales are flat/declining and prices are headed down. As a general rule you don’t keep making more and more money out of a declining market: there is going to be pushback. In this case, being sued by your biggest customer is a bad sign. Mind you Qualcomm’s bizarre decisions to acquire NXP Semiconductor for $47B makes me think they’ve gone off the deep end: it’s a bit like Intel deciding to get into the virus scanner business (which they did).
“Furthermore, Qualcomm levies a licensing fee on Apple regardless if its chips are used in a phone. This means Apple pays Qualcomm once to license its patents and pays again to purchase Qualcomm’s silicon. For comparison, most component suppliers bundle their intellectual property license fee with the sale of their chips. Apple isn’t the only one upset with Qualcomm. The San Diego-based company has come under fire in recent years for monopolistic practices. Just two years ago, Qualcomm paid $975 million to China for anti-competitive practices. In December 2016, Qualcomm was hit with a $873 million fine in South Korea for the same thing. Then in January this year, Qualcomm was charged with anti-competitive practices in the US by the Federal Trade Commission.”