The Geek’s Reading List – Week of March 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) WikiLeaks: The CIA is using popular TVs, smartphones and cars to spy on their owners
This really shouldn’t surprise anybody but yet another branch of the US government has been exploiting vulnerabilities to spy on people instead of having those vulnerabilities fixed. Now, I know what you are thinking: why would the CIA want to close up an information channel? Well, it turns out that there are all kinds of smart people in the world and some of those don’t work for the CIA. Some might even work for, say, the Russians or the Chinese or even organized crime and they know about those vulnerabilities as well. I had to chuckle when one commentator said that Americans don’t have to worry because the CIA is not allowed to spy on them. Right …
“The latest revelations about the U.S. government’s powerful hacking tools potentially takes surveillance right into the homes and hip pockets of billions of users worldwide, showing how a remarkable variety of everyday devices can be turned to spy on their owners. Televisions, smartphones and even anti-virus software are all vulnerable to CIA hacking, according to the WikiLeaks documents released Tuesday. The capabilities described include recording the sounds, images and the private text messages of users, even when they resort to encrypted apps to communicate.”
2) Microsoft Pledges to Use ARM Server Chips, Threatening Intel’s Dominance
ARM has been going to disrupt the server business for the past 10 years or so. That does not mean it won’t happen: one thing about cloud services is that the computes are more or less abstracted, unlike traditional client/server systems. This means you really don’t care if you have 100 ducks or two strong horses, provided the performance is there. So maybe this isn’t just another effort by Microsoft to negotiate price with Intel – maybe this time it’s for real.
“Microsoft has developed a version of its Windows operating system for servers using ARM processors, working with Qualcomm Inc. and Cavium Inc. The software maker is now testing these chips for tasks like search, storage, machine learning and big data, said Jason Zander, vice president of Microsoft’s Azure cloud division. The company isn’t yet running the processors — known for being more power-efficient and offering more choice in vendors — in any customer-facing networks, and wouldn’t specify how widespread they eventually will be. “It’s not deployed into production yet, but that is the next logical step,” Zander said in an interview. “This is a significant commitment on behalf of Microsoft. We wouldn’t even bring something to a conference if we didn’t think this was a committed project and something that’s part of our road map.”|”
3) IBM will sell 50-qubit universal quantum computer “in the next few years”
IBM may indeed have a real quantum computer, and it may even cost the same as a D-Wave “quantum computer”. I suspect that quantum computing as a service (QCaaS – registered trademark) may be the only way to go since the infrastructure needed to care and feed for a quantum computer is immense. You don’t just need the cryogenics: if something is delivering results at several orders of magnitude faster than prior approaches you need to be able to handle that data with regular computers. Plus, there are probably very few commercially relevant applications for QCs and a scarcity of people who understand the math needed to program the things.
“IBM will build and sell commercial 50-qubit universal quantum computers, dubbed IBM Q, “in the next few years.” No word on pricing just yet, but I wouldn’t expect much change from $15 million—the cost of a non-universal D-Wave quantum computer. In other news, IBM has also opened up an API (sample code available on Github) that gives developers easier access to the five-qubit quantum computer currently connected to the IBM cloud. Later in the year IBM will release a full SDK, further simplifying the process of building quantum software.”
4) Apple Losing Out to Microsoft and Google in U.S. Classrooms
I’ve always thought it strange that underfinanced schoolboards selected overpriced Apple products for anything, let alone to put then in the hands of kids. Chromebooks are wildly popular in education because they are capable and cheap – with the emphasis on cheap. I believe that kids with less exposure to Apple products early in life are less likely to seek them out as adults, but time will tell.
“Use of iPads and MacBooks in U.S. schools hit a new low last year, with Apple struggling to make further inroads into the education sector, according to new figures (via The New York Times). According to research company Futuresource Consulting, in 2016 the number of devices in American classrooms that run iOS and macOS fell to third place behind both Google-powered laptops and Windows devices. … Out of 12.6 million mobile devices shipped to primary and secondary schools in the U.S., Chromebooks accounted for 58 percent of the market, up from 50 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, school shipments of iPads and Mac laptops fell to 19 percent, from about 25 percent, over the same period, while Microsoft Windows laptops and tablets stayed relatively stable at about 22 percent.”
5) Facebook asks BBC for sexual images found in Facebook groups; calls police when BBC complies
Ah, Facebook. Pretty much evil incarnate. So the story is that BBC did an investigation of child porn posted on Facebook and brought the image to their attention. When BBC determined that those images were still on Facebook, it kinda said “guys …”. Facebook asked for proof and then called the cops on BBC for supplying it. Long story short, if you come across illegal content on Facebook you should probably call the police yourself.
“Facebook, like just about any other social network — and, indeed, countless websites — is home to all manner of objectionable and even illegal content. A BBC investigation found that Facebook was failing to remove sexualized images of children from groups after they were reported, calling into question Facebook’s moderating procedures. Accounts for convicted pedophiles also remained online after they were reported. When the BBC pointed out to Facebook that less than 20 percent of the reported images were removed, Facebook asked to see the images that were being investigated. When the BBC complied with the request, Facebook reported the corporation to the police for distributing illegal images. The social network’s response to the investigation has been derided as “extraordinary”.”
6) Google’s smarter, A.I.-powered translation system expands to more languages
Translation and voice recognition are two “killer apps” for AI. Hard coded approaches don’t work particularly well and you need some form of feedback to tweak the system so it “learns” from its mistakes. I don’t use translate enough to notice but Google Assistant is miles ahead of previous voice recognition tools – at least once you’ve figure out all the privacy settings, etc., on your new phone.
“Neural translation is a huge leap over prior translation systems, as it’s able to take advantage of the progress made in the machine learning field to make translations more accurate, and sound more like the way people speak the language. What makes the difference is that the system doesn’t translate each part of a sentence piece by piece, but looks at the sentence as a whole. This helps the system figure out the broader context and the most relevant translation. It then rearranges and adjusts the sentence using proper grammar. In addition, the Neural Machine Translation system learns over time and improves, resulting in better and more natural translations the longer it works.”
7) Dangerous backdoor exploit found on popular IoT devices
I have to wonder if there are any IoT devices which don’t have backdoors (well – except the ones put in by the CIA/NSA). As I’ve noted in the past, the companies making IoT devices are not usually tech companies even if there is a tech company name on the box. Backdoors may be installed for benign (i.e. testing) or malignant purposes but they are there nonetheless. It may sound silly (who cares if my lightbulbs get hacked) until somebody grabs all your banking information off your network through an IoT device.
“The backdoor is in the Telnet admin interface of DblTek-branded devices, and potentially allows an attacker to remotely open a shell with root privileges on the target device. What’s perhaps even more worrying is that when Trustwave contacted DblTek regarding the backdoor last autumn – multiple times – patched firmware was eventually released at the end of December. However, rather than removing the flaw, the vendor simply made it more difficult to access and exploit. And further correspondence with the Chinese company has apparently fallen on deaf ears.”
8) Turner, Warner Bros. to Launch Boomerang Cartoon Streaming-Subscription Service for $5 Monthly
Another week, another streaming service. Turner and Warner have a massive catalogue of content, much of which is kid friendly, and getting even a modest monthly fee out of parents to let their kids have access to it makes perfect sense. While a lot of this content is syndicated, there is considerable merit to “on demand access”, especially for kids, and the lack of ads is a huge plus for most parents.
“Boomerang also will be the exclusive home to new original series including Warner Bros. Animation’s Dorothy and the Wizard Of Oz, which follows the ruby-slipper adventures of its brave and feisty princess protagonist, and Wacky Races, an overhaul of the late-’60s Hanna-Barbera series. The ad-free SVOD service also will be the only place to watch new episodes of Scooby-Doo, Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry. Also featuring such favorites as The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Popeye and many others, the service will launch domestically in the spring on web, iOS and Android devices for $4.99 per month (with a 7-day free trial) or $39.99 a year (with a 30-day free trial).”
9) Nielsen: Millennials Registering Less TV Time, More Streaming
This is another data point in an ongoing demographic shift: whereas youth pined for their own TVs in the past they are more than content to watch video on their smartphones or laptops. Consuming media through these devices means a wider array of content rather than the standard network and cable channel fare. Hence increased opportunities for streaming services such as that reference in the above article: if you think about it when millennials have kids they’ll want to stream cartoons.
“According to Nielsen, millennials spend about 27 percent less time watching traditional TV than viewers over the age of 35. Nielsen’s inaugural Millennials on Millennials report finds that TV-connected devices—DVD players, VCRs, game consoles and digital streaming devices—compose four times the percentage of millennials’ total video minutes than adults 35 and older. TV-connected devices account for 23 percent of millennials’ total time with video, compared with just 6 percent for consumers 35 and older. This group spends 66 percent of average weekly gross minutes watching traditional TV, compared to 89 percent reported among those over 35.”
10) Snapchat wanted $150,000 to NOT run NRA ads on gun control group videos
Nice content you got there gov’ner – pity if something should ’appen to it. This is actually one of the issues with online content: you might end up with ads which contradict your message. There is nothing wrong with that if you end up getting paid for the content but another thing altogether if your content is advocacy. Needless to say, very few advocacy groups have the money the NRA does. The real message is don’t use Snapchat to get your message out.
“Everytown for Gun Safety is an advocacy group that focuses on gun safety and violence issues. According to Mic, it reached out to Snapchat in 2016 to enquire about an advertising campaign for its #WearOrange event, held on National Gun Violence Awareness Day. … A Snapchat representative, Rob Saliterman, responded to Everytown with a quote of $150,000. This would allow Snapchat users to engage with the event using custom filters and lenses created specifically for it. But here’s where it gets particularly sordid. Because what Saliterman, who works as Snapchat’s Head of Political Sales, didn’t realize is that the Snapchat news team had reached out to Everytown, offering to feature the event as a Live Story for free. Realizing that another department within Snapchat had undercut him, he fired off an email suggesting that Everytown pay up, lest National Rifle Association (NRA) adverts appear on their videos.”