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.””


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