The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 12 2017

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 12 2017


Welcome to the Geek’s Reading List. These articles and the commentary are not intended to be taken as investment advice. That 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)            The US standards office wants to do away with periodic password changes

I have always wonders why we are supposed to change our passwords frequently. If anything it encourages people to create easy to remember passwords like Foobar1 (or if the password changer won’t let you do that 05Foobar) and, since most penetrations occur from social engineering it isn’t likely to help security in any event.

“New guidelines from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), expected to be released this summer, suggest that periodic password changes are no longer necessary. The report also recommends changes to several other password policies that have become antiquated in the modern computing environment: Allow at least 64 characters in length to support the use of passphrases. Encourage users to make memorized secrets as lengthy as they want, using any characters they like (including spaces), thus aiding memorization. Do not impose other composition rules (e.g. mixtures of different character types) on memorized secrets.”

2)            Artificial Intelligence Fails on Kentucky Derby Predictions

It is not clear that “Unanimous AI” is actually about an AI but rather about the completely wrong idea that the collective has “wisdom” (seriously: there is one right answer an a large number of wrong ones so if you rely on a crowd the best you can hope for is occasionally correct). Nevertheless this makes an important point about most of the nonsense surrounding AI: we would never have heard of Unanimous AI if it had been wrong the first time, just like we never hear of the doubtless countless failures of AI in real world applications. The times when it gets things right get written up and that’s all you ever hear about.

“A platform that crowdsources the insights of experts to make predictions on events has come up short in its second attempt to call the Kentucky Derby. It got last year’s race exactly right. Unanimous A.I., a company touting the power of collective intelligence to provide insights into the future, correctly predicted the top four finishers of the 2016 Derby: Nyquist, Exaggerator, Gun Runner, and Mohaymen. Anyone who bet their prediction of the top four finishers would have scored a so-called “superfecta” that paid out on odds of 540 to 1. That success earned Unanimous this year an official handicapping partnership with Churchill Downs, the racetrack where the Kentucky Derby is held, and the company once again used its AI platform to analyze input from “some of the best racing minds in the world.””

3)            HP laptops covertly log user keystrokes, researchers warn

You really have to wonder what people are thinking when they do stuff like this. The best case scenario is that Conexant released some software with a debug setting in software while the worst case software is that they did it intentionally. Either way if you own an HP laptop you should get this fixed. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“HP is selling more than two dozen models of laptops and tablets that covertly monitor every keystroke a user makes, security researchers warned Thursday. The devices then store the key presses in an unencrypted file on the hard drive. The keylogger is included in a device driver developed by Conexant, a manufacturer of audio chips that are included in the vulnerable HP devices. That’s according to an advisory published by modzero, a Switzerland-based security consulting firm. One of the device driver components is MicTray64.exe, an executable file that allows the driver to respond when a user presses special keys. It turns out that the file sends all keystrokes to a debugging interface or writes them to a log file available on the computer’s C drive.”

4)            Cisco And Oracle Applaud The Looming Death Of Net Neutrality

Cisco and Oracle are both dinosaur companies who get a lot of money from carriers so this position is hardly a surprise since they are saying something their major customers would want them to say. That said, the ISP business in North America is somewhat of a pathetic, uncompetitive joke and providing a means for ISPs to make free money will simply allow them to reduce their spending further, meaning Oracle and Cisco had better be careful what they wish for.

“Both Oracle and Cisco (not coincidentally major ISP vendors) have come out in full-throated support of the FCC’s plan to kill net neutrality. FCC boss Ajit Pai has been making the rounds the last few weeks in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, trying to drum up support of his attack on broadband consumer protections. Pai met with Cisco, Oracle, Facebook and Apple in a number of recent meetings, but so far only Oracle and Cisco have been willing to enthusiastically and publicly throw their corporate fealty behind Pai’s extremely-unpopular policies.”

5)            Britain’s entire health network hit by major hacking attack

Ransomware is an increasingly popular form of malware being used against businesses and public institutions. You have to be a pretty sad human being to target the health sector but nobody ever accused hackers of having a soul. I can’t help but wonder if full, off-line backups are a prudent countermeasure. To add insult to injury some reports claim the “exploit” being used is courtesy of the NSA.

“The UK’s National Health Service appears to have suffered a major hacking attack. Ransomware, a form of virus that encrypts personal files and then demands payment to decrypt them, appears to have infected computers in hospitals and doctor’s offices across the country. The full extent of the attack is unknown, but the BBC is reporting that hospitals in London, Blackburn, Nottingham, Cumbria and Hertfordshire have been affected. The NHS uses a national computer system to help administer the service, and it appears that it has been infected, rather than just individual computers. In a statement, NHS Digital said: “We’re aware that a number of trusts that have reported potential issues to the CareCERT team. We believe it to be ransomware.””

6)            Everything You Need to Know About 5G

5G wireless could change things a lot, in particular as it should allow the emergence of fixed wireless ISPs and real competition in North America. Another angle is that governments are freeing up a massive amount of unlicensed spectrum for use in 5G. The video is worth a watch although I am pretty sure their explanation of beam forming and full duplex are wrong or grossly oversimplified.

“If all goes well, telecommunications companies hope to debut the first commercial 5G networks in the early 2020s. Right now, though, 5G is still in the planning stages, and companies and industry groups are working together to figure out exactly what it will be. But they all agree on one matter: As the number of mobile users and their demand for data rises, 5G must handle far more traffic at much higher speeds than the base stations that make up today’s cellular networks. To achieve this, wireless engineers are designing a suite of brand-new technologies. Together, these technologies will deliver data with less than a millisecond of delay (compared to about 70 ms on today’s 4G networks) and bring peak download speeds of 20 gigabits per second (compared to 1 Gb/s on 4G) to users.”

7)            Analysis predicts extremely disruptive, total transition to EV / autonomous vehicles in 13 years

As usual, industry isn’t worth the electrons on the web page but this sort of nonsense influences a lot of people. For the record there is virtually zero chance of a commercially available autonomous vehicle being on the road by 2030, let alone 2020. Even then the US fleet is about 260M vehicles and about 16.5M new cars are sold per year. Roughly speaking this means it takes about 16 years to “change out” the fleet so even if 100% of cars were autonomous and EVs by 2020 (vs zero today) this is unachievable.

“Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030 suggests that within 10 years of regulatory approval, by 2030, 95 percent of U.S. passenger miles traveled will be served by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles (AEVs). The primary driver of this unfathomably huge change in American life is economics: The cost savings of using transport-as-a-service (TaaS) providers will be so great that consumers will abandon individually owned vehicles. The report predicts that the cost of TaaS will save the average family $5600 annually, the equivalent of a 10 percent raise in salary. This, the report suggests, will lead to the biggest increase in consumer spending in history.”

8)            Tesla’s Solar Roof Sets Musk’s Grand Unification Into Motion

Step right up folks! The carnival barker has his latest scheme and he is now taking deposits. As a guy who built his house I can tell you that most houses lack the capacity to support something like glass shingle. The fact that actual roofing companies don’t sell them should be another hint. As for the solar business, well it may be that governments want to subsidized new roofs for rich people but, obviously that can only continue as long as few people have them. I’d find it a lot easier to believe in solar if solar companies didn’t go bankrupt with such staggering regularity. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“Tesla has begun taking orders for its transformative new solar roof. The pricing is competitive, and it marks the final piece in Elon Musk’s vision for a grand unification of his clean-energy ambitions—combining solar power, home batteries, and electric cars. “These are really the three legs of the stool for a sustainable energy future,” Musk said. “Solar power going to a stationary battery pack so you have power at night, and then charging an electric vehicle … you can scale that to all the world’s demand.” Tesla opened up its online store and began taking $1,000 deposits for two of four options unveiled in October: a smooth black glass and textured-glass roof tiles. From most viewing angles, the slick shingles look like standard roof materials, but they allow light to pass through from above onto a solar cell embedded beneath the tempered surface. The first installations will begin in the U.S. in June, though orders are being accepted from countries around the world for 2018.”

9)            A federal court has ruled that an open-source license is an enforceable contract

I used to follow a company which note that its products were based on GPL licensed software but which didn’t actually release the source code as required by the license. Oh well: it was sold to a European firm at much more than it was worth so there. This is actually interesting legal precedent: as long as this holds the many companies abusing the GPL might find themselves sued.

“The enforceability of open source licenses like the GNU GPL has long been an open legal question. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals held in a 2006 case, Jacobsen v. Katzer, that violations of open source licenses could be treated like copyright claims. But whether they could legally considered breaches of contract had yet to be determined, until the issue came up in Artifex v. Hancom. That happened when Hancom issued a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the company didn’t sign anything, so the license wasn’t a real contract.”

10)        The Amazing Dinosaur Found (Accidentally) by Miners in Canada

This is a story about the “Suncor ankylosaur”, an unbelievably well preserved fossil found in a Suncor oil-sands mine near Fort McMurray. This is a short documentary on the work they did to extract the fossil. The amazing thing is not just that it was incredibly well preserved but also that it was discovered on a mine site where the crew had almost unlimited access to staff, material, and equipment for its extraction.

“At first glance the reassembled gray blocks look like a nine-foot-long sculpture of a dinosaur. A bony mosaic of armor coats its neck and back, and gray circles outline individual scales. Its neck gracefully curves to the left, as if reaching toward some tasty plant. But this is no lifelike sculpture. It’s an actual dinosaur, petrified from the snout to the hips. The more I look at it, the more mind-boggling it becomes. Fossilized remnants of skin still cover the bumpy armor plates dotting the animal’s skull. Its right forefoot lies by its side, its five digits splayed upward. I can count the scales on its sole. Caleb Brown, a postdoctoral researcher at the museum, grins at my astonishment. “We don’t just have a skeleton,” he tells me later. “We have a dinosaur as it would have been.””


The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 5 2017

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 5 2017


Welcome to the Geek’s Reading List. These articles and the commentary are not intended to be taken as investment advice. That 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)            Qualcomm Said to Seek U.S. Import Ban for iPhones

Under US law there is very little chance Qualcomm will be awarded an injunction and any such injunction would almost certainly be set aside on appeal. Qualcomm is playing with fire here: it has just handed Apple a very good reason to diversify away from Qualcomm, placing further pressure on Qualcomm to settle for lower royalty rates.

“Incensed over Apple Inc.’s decision to stop paying it billions of dollars in licensing fees for smartphone chips, Qualcomm Inc. plans to retaliate by asking a U.S. trade agency to ban the imports of iPhones, according to a person familiar with the company’s strategy. Qualcomm is preparing to ask the International Trade Commission to stop the iPhone, which is built in Asia, from entering the country, threatening to block Apple’s iconic product from the American market in advance of its anticipated new model this fall, according to the person, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private.The ITC is a quasi-judicial agency in Washington that has the power to block the import of goods into the U.S. and processes cases more quickly than federal district courts — the venue in which the companies are accusing each other of lying, making threats and trying to create an illegal monopoly.”

2)            Driving EVs Will Mean 200 Million Fewer Cars in U.S. by 2030, Study Claims

Yeah. Good luck with that. This is 2017. There will almost certainly not be any commercially available self-driving cars on the road within the next 15 to 25 years (at least if you define a self-driving car as a car which can drive without human intervention in all weather on all roads). If, as, and when that happens, it will take about 20 or more years before 95% of passenger miles will be made using those vehicles. Let me know in 13 years.

“The new report, conducted by independent research group RethinkX and released Thursday, suggests that within a decade of the governmental approval of self-driving road vehicles—or around the year 2030, by the group’s best guesstimate—95 percent of passenger miles traveled in the U.S. will be conducted in autonomous electric cars that can be summoned on demand, a la Cruise Automation’s San Francisco Chevy Bolt. Those cars, the study says, will make up 60 percent of the vehicles on the road in America by that point. And since each of those shared self-driving EVs can replace multiple privately-owned cars, the study predicts the number of passenger vehicles on the road will fall precipitously—from about 247 million vehicles in 2017 to just 44 million.”


3)            IBM warns of malware it shipped on flash drives

I once worked for a company which accidently shipped malware on floppies, likely due to a combination of employees using pirated software and poor quality assurance. Mind you that was a small private company so they had an excuse. How a company like IBM could do the same thing 25 years later is another issue altogether.

“IBM is urging customers to destroy flash drives it shipped to storage system customers because they contain malware. The company warned in an advisory Tuesday that an unspecified number of USB flash drives shipped with the initialization tool for Storwize systems contain malicious code. IBM instructed customers who received the V3500, V3700 and V5000 Gen 1 systems to destroy the drive to prevent the code from replicating. “When the initialization tool is launched from the USB flash drive, the tool copies itself to a temporary folder on the hard drive of the desktop or laptop during normal operation,” IBM said in its advisory. The malicious code is part of the Reconyc Trojan malware family, which typically targets computers in Russia and India, according to data from Kaspersky Lab.”

4)            Oddities start to emerge from deeper analyses of LHC data

It has been said that the most exciting words in science are not “Eureka!” but “that’s odd”. The LHC generates massive quantities of data which will take a very long time to sort out. It stands to reason that most of the analysis is directed towards answering known questions like is there a Higgs Boson, but the real discoveries will come when anomalies from the standard model are uncovered.

“The Large Hadron Collider has generated a staggering amount of data in its years of operation; it’s enough data that we’ll be analyzing it for years after the collider shuts down. In the meantime, priority has gone to searches for big-ticket items like the Higgs boson (tick) and dark matter particles (MIA). But with time, some other analyses have managed to get done, and they’re beginning to turn up unexpected results.”

5)            Scientists Surprised to Find No Two Neurons Are Genetically Alike

This is a surprising finding but not altogether unexpected: there are a lot of cells in the body and random mutations happen. Most such mutations are corrected, entirely benign, or result in cell death. That neurons appear to be so different from each other suggest there may be yet another dimension to intelligence beyond synapses and biochemistry and pushes understanding the brain back even further. Thanks to Avner Mandelman for this item.

“Accepted dogma holds that—although every cell in the body contains its own DNA—the genetic instructions in each cell nucleus are identical. But new research has now proved this assumption wrong. There are actually several sources of spontaneous mutation in somatic (nonsex) cells, resulting in every individual containing a multitude of genomes—a situation researchers term somatic mosaicism. “The idea is something that 10 years ago would have been science fiction,” says biochemist James Eberwine of the University of Pennsylvania. “We were taught that every cell has the same DNA, but that’s not true.” There are reasons to think somatic mosaicism may be particularly important in the brain, not least because neural genes are very active.”

6)            Gene Editing Strategy Eliminates HIV-1 Infection in Live Animals, Temple Researchers Show

I could probably write a CRISPR newsletter and have more interesting assortment of stories than the GRL has. In summary, CRISPR allows highly precise gene editing and has a wide variety of applications including inserting the mechanism into viruses or bacteriophages which can be highly targeted, and using those to seek out and alter specific cell types. If anything most coverage of CRISPR underestimates its long term potential.

“A permanent cure for HIV infection remains elusive due to the virus’s ability to hide away in latent reservoirs. But now, in new research published in print May 3 in the journal Molecular Therapy, scientists at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University (LKSOM) and the University of Pittsburgh show that they can excise HIV DNA from the genomes of living animals to eliminate further infection. They are the first to perform the feat in three different animal models, including a “humanized” model in which mice were transplanted with human immune cells and infected with the virus.”

7)            Fix your crappy ads and I’ll stop blocking them

I suspect the GRL might be bounced by a number of subscribers whose employers use “net nanny” software which will bounce this email because of the word “crappy”. I think this article is good summary: digital ads are the wild-west: often include scams or fraud, and no serious effort is made to control their quality. The best and easiest approach is to block all ads and keep your sanity. Unless and until some quality control is implemented the trend toward ad-blocking will continue.

“Ad-block users are finding an increasing number of sites blocking access. I wonder if any of them asked themselves why we block ads? Do they suppose we’re anti-capitalist scum fundamentally opposed to the idea of marketing? It sometimes feels that way. But I’m not opposed to marketing, and I feel the internet has a lot of missed opportunities. Unfortunately, most ads are intrusive, poorly targeted, scummy and have a host of technical issues. Basically they’re just crap. And that’s why I block them.”

8)            Analyst: The Cord-Cutting Future Has Arrived

This is something I predicted about 20 years ago in a short piece I wrote as a stock-analyst. Essentially the traditional broadcast model was driven by the broadcaster (including cable) determining what you were going to watch and when you were going to watch it. This eventually led to all kinds of abuses such as bundling, and so on. The real story here is one of opportunity: as more and more alternatives come available there will be access to more content, not less content and consumers will finally watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it.

“With most results now in, the U.S. pay TV industry lost about 762,000 video subs in the first quarter of 2017, a worst-ever result for the period, according to a new report from MoffettNathanson. “For the better part of fifteen years, pundits have predicted that cord-cutting was the future. Well, the future has arrived,” MoffetNathanson’s Craig Moffett declared in his Q1 2017 Cord-Cutting Monitor. He noted that video losses from Q1 was more than five times as large as last year’s loss of 141,000. “It leaves the Pay TV subscriber universe shrinking at its worst ever annual rate of decline (-2.4%). And it was the worst ever accelerate in the rate of decline (60 bps),” Moffett explained, adding later that the incremental number of cord-cutter and cord-never homes has grown to more than 6.5 million since 2013.”

9)            Apple-Picking Robot Prepares to Compete for Farm Jobs

While the media (and many economists) are horrified at the prospect of massive job losses due to automation it is a useful reminder that agricultural employment has plummeted over the past 100 years, primarily due to automation. After all, a “McCormick Reaper” is nothing more than a mechanical scyther. Agricultural productivity has skyrocketed and resulted in massive redeployment of labor over the years and yet our standard of living skyrocketed and food cheaper than ever. Get over it: robots are just another phase of the industrial revolution. They are a good thing.

“Today apple orchards rely on people to pick their crops. Dan Steere, cofounder and CEO of Abundant, says recent tests in Australia, where apple season is under way, proved that the company’s prototype can spot apples roughly as accurately as a human, and pull them down just as gently. The machine deposits apples in the same large crates that human pickers use. “The results convinced us that we’re on the right path to scale up to a full commercial system,” says Steere. His company is planning more tests of its prototype in Washington this fall and aims to have a multi-armed system on sale to growers in 2018. “Our commercial system will pick at rates that match crews of tens of people,” says Steere.”

10)        The AI Cargo Cult: The Myth of a Superhuman AI

It is interesting to note that none of Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Max Tegmark, Sam Harris, and Bill Gates are AI experts (and I would question whether more than a couple are among the “smartest people alive today”) but the article is a good read. I believe there are many uses for AI but it has significant limitations – not the least of which being that it is not generally cross functional, heuristic, and makes highly confident pronouncements which can be absolutely wrong. Fear of AI is fear of the fiction that is how AI is reported. Thanks to my friend Duncan Stewart for this item.

“That’s the most common question I get whenever I give a talk about AI. The questioners are earnest; their worry stems in part from some experts who are asking themselves the same thing. These folks are some of the smartest people alive today, such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Max Tegmark, Sam Harris, and Bill Gates, and they believe this scenario very likely could be true. Recently at a conference convened to discuss these AI issues, a panel of nine of the most informed gurus on AI all agreed this superhuman intelligence was inevitable and not far away. Yet buried in this scenario of a takeover of superhuman artificial intelligence are five assumptions which, when examined closely, are not based on any evidence. These claims might be true in the future, but there is no evidence to date to support them.”