The Geek’s Reading List – Week of January 30 2016
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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Happy New Year!
1) Apple’s Search for Better iPhone Screens Leads to Japan’s Rice Fields
Rumors suggest the iPhone 8 will have an OLED display, which is a feature which has been readily available on a variety of Android devices for several years now. Alas, Apple’s volume is such that supply of anything becomes an issue and it can take a lot more than money to catch up with certain features. As this article suggests they should have started putting the production capacity in place a few years ago – like Android vendors did.
“That push has also put a spotlight on suppliers of previously obscure technologies, testing their capacity to satisfy demand that drives sales of more than 200 million iPhones each year. A couple of years ago, Apple sought to use strong sapphire glass for iPhones, only to abandon the effort when a manufacturer couldn’t deliver enough of acceptable quality and went bankrupt. The scratch-resistant material is now featured on the Apple Watch. .Now OLED is the big goal. The technology has been included on top-end smartphones for years, including almost all of Samsung Electronics Co.’s high-end phones.”
2) Uber Freight Just Launched and Trucking Will Never Be the Same
In the excellent HBO series “Silicon Valley” a professional tech CEO informs the engineers that a tech company’s real product is its stock. That is most easy to see without Uber (though Tesla comes close). Since Uber (and Tesla) are prodigious destroyers of capital their continued existence requires a eternally increasing stock price because without that they won’t be able to raise the capital to keep the fires burning. This is why both firms trot out a never ending series of superficially exciting announcements. In any event, Uber’s core car service business is not inherently highly profitable but at least there was a brief window of opportunity due to a regulatory arbitrage. No such condition exists in the trucking industry. As for autonomous truck (they are coming) the likes of Daimler are going to dominate that space.
“Uber has launched a website for a service called Uber Freight. Little has been revealed about the company’s expansion from ride-hailing, but if the announcements it’s made over the last year are any indicator, chances are good that Uber Freight is meant to prepare the world for autonomous delivery trucks. Uber acquired a startup called Otto, which planned to bring the first self-driving trucks to market, in August. Since then the company has used its trucks to deliver 50,000 cans of beer and hundreds of Christmas trees in San Francisco. This new service won’t use those trucks, at least not at the beginning. Instead it will function much like Uber’s existing platform: Some people will sign up to drive items across the country, and others will join so they can send packages without having to sign a contract with established shipping companies. The service will likely bring “surge pricing” to trucking, too.”
3) Congressional Encryption Working Group says encryption backdoors are near unworkable
Encryption backdoors sure sound appealing provided a couple conditions are met: the “bad guys” aren’t smart and they lack the computing resources to exploit them. Alas, it turns out that the US does not have a monopoly on smart people an computing is a commodity, especially with cloud services. So, even if the NSA wasn’t riddled with double agents as it likely is, all backdoors do is give the bad guys easy access to trade and other secrets.
“Cryptography experts and information security professionals believe that it is exceedingly difficult and impractical, if not impossible, to devise and implement a system that gives law enforcement exceptional access to encrypted data without also compromising security against hackers, industrial spies, and other malicious actors. Further, requiring exceptional access to encrypted data would, by definition, prohibit some encryption design best practices, such as “forward secrecy,” from being implemented.”
4) IBM on track to get more than 7,000 U.S. patents in 2016
I’ve worked for companies which, like IBM, have incentive programs to file patents. The effect is not a burst of creativity from a slew a crappy patent applications. Since patents are almost always granted provided the applicant has deep enough pockets to pay his patent attorney you can impute exactly nothing about the prospects for a company from the number of patents it has been awarded. That said, IBM is a tech company which has missed out on every major tech market since the PC primarily because it has senior management who are utterly clueless. It ain’t for nothing revenues have declined for the past several years despite billions spent on dozens of acquisitions.
“IBM wants to put the patent war in perspective. Big Blue said that it is poised to get the most U.S. patents of any tech company for the 24th year in a row. In 2015, IBM received more than 7,355 patents, down slightly from 7,534 in 2014. A spokesperson for IBM said the company is on track to receive well over 7,000 patents in 2016. In 2016, IBM is also hitting another interesting milestone, with more than 1,000 patents for artificial intelligence and cognitive computing. IBM has been at it for more than a century, and it is seeking patents in key strategic areas — such as AI and cognitive computing. In fact, one-third of IBM’s researchers are dedicated to cognitive computing.”
5) Watch a Tesla predict a car crash 2 vehicles ahead
As with any Tesla related story, this looks very promising and exciting – after all we gotta keep that stock price up! This item was repeated dozens of times over the past week. Presumably the folks so enthusiastic about advanced automotive safety features know absolutely nothing about them. Nissan/Infinity has offered the same capability, which it calls “Predictive Forward Collision Warning” on most of its models for at least a couple years (http://www.nissan-global.com/EN/TECHNOLOGY/OVERVIEW/predictive.html). It has even advertised it extensively.
“In the clip, first uploaded to Twitter by Hans Noordsij, a group of cars can be seen traveling down the A2 highway in the Netherlands. The Forward Collision Warning on the Tesla beeps, and the emergency braking system kicks in. A brief moment later, the vehicle in front of the Tesla rear ends and SUV, which then flips before quickly coming to a stop.”
6) U.S. government begins asking foreign travelers about social media
Presumably the US security apparatus assume actual terrorists would provide links to their ISIS Twitter accounts. Realistically it is very unlikely they would so stupid. Most likely they are simply filling in the blanks and associating real people and their passports to the information gathering dragnet they already operate.
“The U.S. government quietly began requesting that select foreign visitors provide their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts upon arriving in the country, a move designed to spot potential terrorist threats that drew months of opposition from tech giants and privacy hawks alike. Since Tuesday, foreign travelers arriving in the United States on the visa waiver program have been presented with an “optional” request to “enter information associated with your online presence,” a government official confirmed Thursday. The prompt includes a drop-down menu that lists platforms including Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, as well as a space for users to input their account names on those sites.”
7) Cord-Cutters Dropping Cable Force Networks to Make Hard Choices
Consumers are shifting from cable TV broadcast to streaming for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is demographics as fewer younger people even bother with a cable subscription. Rising prices and falling quality are no doubt other reasons. As broadband becomes more available I predict this will accelerate. As the article suggests this will have a profound impact on certain business while it creates opportunity for others.
“Next year, other programmers will be forced to contemplate whether to merge with competitors or distributors like AT&T, the largest U.S. pay-TV operator. Network owners are under growing pressure as they lose customers to online services like Netflix. While about 98 million homes still get pay TV, the industry lost around 1 million subscribers in 2016, and almost no channel was untouched. Even popular sports like the NFL — the glue holding the cable bundle together — lost viewers. Channel owners are betting new online TV services like DirecTV Now, Dish Network Corp.’s Sling TV and an upcoming service from Hulu will stem the bleeding. Starting as low as $20 a month, they offer a low-cost alternative to the typical $85-a-month cable bill.”
8) Mining 24 Hours a Day with Robots
This is an update to an article we had regarding Rio Tinto’s experimentation with autonomous truck in its Australian mining operations. I am pretty sure these are not fully autonomous but are more like remotely operated drones. This allows the operator to be far away from the mine and live in city or suburb rather than the Spartan accommodations of a mining camp which brings labor costs down a lot.
“Rob Atkinson, who leads productivity efforts at Rio Tinto, says the fleet and other automation projects are already paying off. The company’s driverless trucks have proven to be roughly 15 percent cheaper to run than vehicles with humans behind the wheel, says Atkinson—a significant saving since haulage is by far a mine’s largest operational cost. “We’re going to continue as aggressively as possible down this path,” he says. Trucks that drive themselves can spend more time working because software doesn’t need to stop for shift changes or bathroom breaks. They are also more predictable in how they do things like pull up for loading. “All those places where you could lose a few seconds or minutes by not being consistent add up,” says Atkinson. They also improve safety, he says.”
9) Automatic brakes stopped Berlin truck during Christmas market attack
It turns out that limiting the effectiveness of a terror attack is one of the unexpected benefits of advanced safety features. This does not appear to be true automatic braking but rather a system whereby the brakes are applied after a collision much the same way airbags are deployed A real automatic braking system, which applies the brakes in anticipation of a collision, might have avoided the tragedy altogether.
“The truck that plowed into a Berlin Christmas market last week, killing 12, came to a halt due to an automatic braking system, according to German media reports on Wednesday. The automatic braking system potentially saved the lives of many more people in the recent terrorist attack. An investigation by newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung” and broadcasters “NDR” and “WDR” found the Scania R 450 semi-trailer stopped after travelling between 70 and 80 meters (250 feet). The system was reportedly engaged after sensing a collision.”
10) Lenovo switches to Windows 10 Signature Edition image for its future ThinkPad laptops
Windows 10 Signature Edition is a “bloatware” free version of Windows in that the only bloatware is Microsoft bloatware such as various demo versions, etc.. You can actually buy a wide variety of laptops directly from Microsoft with Windows 10 Signature Edition installed, often at very competitive prices. PC vendors are typically paid by bloatware companies to install bloatware on their products. Unfortunately, in Lenovo’s case, that meant distributing malware with their premium PCs which shot hole in their reputation as a trustworthy vendor for corporate users. This is most likely a marketing response to restore that reputation rather than an effort to move away from bloatware.
“Ahead of CES 2017, Lenovo today announced the major changes coming to its ThinkPad lineup of laptops and PCs. Most of them are very welcome changes and consumers are going to love the new improvements. First, Lenovo has decided to ship 2017 ThinkPad models with Microsoft’s Signature Edition Windows 10 right out of the box. So, users don’t have to worry about bloatware anymore. Signature Edition PCs are clean, fast and protected.”