The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 8th 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 8th 2014


I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.

I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 10 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.

They were not intended, at the time, 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. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!

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


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1) Hotel fines $500 for every bad review posted online

Setting aside the question of whether or not this is legal (one could argue credit card fraud) it should be a textbook example of how not to manage reputation. Any establishment this worried about bad reviews probably deserves them. I’d steer clear of any place with such a policy.

“A hotel in tony Hudson, NY, has found a novel way to keep negative reviews off Yelp and other sites — fine any grousing guests. The Union Street Guest House, near Catskills estates built by the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, charges couples who book weddings at the venue $500 for every bad review posted online by their guests.”

2) Free Mobile Data Plans Are Going to Crush the Startup Economy

Well, boo hoo. Various startups have made a business distributing software (music, etc.). This isn’t exactly rocket science: once the business model has been shown to be viable it makes sense that the owners of said software will cut deals such that they replicate the service. In this case, carriers are getting a cut but eventually even they will be bystanders.

“The deal sounds great: Stream unlimited music without any data charges. The offer from T-Mobile includes popular services such as Spotify, iTunes, and Pandora. These apps will no longer count against your data plan, the company announced recently, no matter how much you stream across its 4G LTE network. Or consider Sprint’s new offer, via its Virgin Mobile pre-paid service: unlimited access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest for just $12 per month. Unlimited access to all four is $22 monthly, and $5 more also gets you unlimited music.”

3) Extracting audio from visual information

Spies have used lasers modulated by vibrating windows to eavesdrop for some time: its a great system because you can use an invisible infrared beam and thus leave no trace of your presence. This method is similar as the video analysis is extracting the modulation of ambient light by sounds. The challenge is that frame rates need to be pretty high to get any fidelity, however, one can rest assured spies will be so equipped.

“Researchers at MIT, Microsoft, and Adobe have developed an algorithm that can reconstruct an audio signal by analyzing minute vibrations of objects depicted in video. In one set of experiments, they were able to recover intelligible speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag photographed from 15 feet away through soundproof glass.”

4) Robotic suit gives shipyard workers super strength

The problem I would see with this approach is the meaty bits inside the suit are prone to getting cut and/or squished by the heavy stuff being moved about. What you probably need is a full body suit complete with interlocks and other safety systems. Or a forklift.

“AT A sprawling shipyard in South Korea, workers dressed in wearable robotics were hefting large hunks of metal, pipes and other objects as if they were nothing. It was all part of a test last year by Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, at their facility in Okpo-dong. The company, one of the largest shipbuilders in the world, wants to take production to the next level by outfitting staff with robot exoskeletons that give them superhuman strength.”

5) Dear NASA: Fuel-Free Rocket Thruster Is Literally Too Good to Be True

We covered the report that NASA had confirmed the operation of an “impossible” drive system in last week’s GRL. Subsequently there has been a large amount of criticism of that confirmation, which is actually a good thing. This particular commentary seems to pivot mostly on the idea that since it is impossible, there must be something wrong with the experiment, which is a valid comment, except, of course that it may be that the people doing the experiment (which was itself a replication of previous experiments) are not completely stupid. Most likely, this is some sort of mistake and the drive does not, in fact, work. Nonetheless, it would be interesting if it did. This article is a rebuttal of some of the comments made in this and other critiques.

“That’s a simplified version of a fundamental law of physics, known as the conservation of momentum. That law governs all sorts of phenomena, including rocket engines, collisions between electrons, and car wrecks. It’s well established by a huge number of experiments, so it’s not something you can jettison lightly. Yet, that’s what a new proposed thruster is supposed to do, and while no reputable physicists are taking it seriously, a small semi-independent lab under the NASA umbrella has given it an official stamp of approval.”

6) Scientists introduce new cosmic connectivity: Quantum pigeonhole paradox

Like most quantum experiments I have no idea what this means or what the ramifications are. It does sort of sound like the theory that a positron (an antimatter electron) is an electron traveling backwards in time, though I ma not even sure if I understand what that means either.

“In the 20th century, two revolutions in physics shook the world. One of them was relativity, discovered by Einstein. It revealed that spacetime is not what we experience in everyday life. For example, if you travel close to the speed of light, then you will age more slowly than somebody who stays on Earth. The second revolution was quantum theory, the microscopic theory of particles, such as electrons, atoms, or photons. Quantum theory showed that nature is not deterministic — as Einstein put it, “God plays with dice.” After a century of careful testing, most physicists believe that the “chanciness” or “capriciousness” of the microscopic world is fundamental.”

7) Wikimedia refuses to remove animal selfie because monkey ‘owns’ the photo

You have to look at this article just to see the ‘selfie’ of the monkey. While Wikimedia takes an interesting position on this question I doubt the courts will side with them. After all, if I place a camera in the woods and a bear strolls by, I own the picture because I own the camera even if the bear’s actions triggered the camera.

“Slater now faces a legal battle with Wikimedia after the images were added to the collection of royalty-free images. Wikimedia Commons is a collection of over 22 million images and videos that are in the public domain. Wikimedia’s position is that because the monkey took the photo, he “owns” the photo. However, non-humans cannot own copyrights — which is why Wikimedia placed the photo in the public domain.”

8) Jack Campanile’s tumour removed without radiation or surgery at SickKids

Fortunately this tumour is believed to have been benign, which may have affected the choice of treatments (after all, if the treatment was unsuccessful its not like it would have spread or anything). It is not clear from the article whether this technique could be used more broadly. If so, this could represent a major breakthrough because radiation treatments or surgery can have various short and long term side effects. One issue I could see is that hours in an MRI is quite expensive.

“A Brampton, Ont., teenager has become the first person in North America to have a benign tumour near his hip removed without radiation or surgery. Doctors at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto used high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) waves, guided by an MRI machine, to burn off the tumour of 16-year-old Jack Campanile two weeks ago.”

9) CRISPR Corrects Blood Disorder Gene

Gene replacement has been attempted before using viruses to effect the editing but this can be problematic as it can be hard to confine the viruses to specific tissues. This experiment modified stem cells which went on to produce ‘cured’ red blood cells. Unfortunately, the experiment was done in vitro so it is not certain this will result in a cure. However, once the technique is prefect, it is possible the modified stem cells could be reimplanted in a patient’s marrow, resulting in a long term cure.

“The genome-editing method involving CRISPR and Cas9 has been called into duty for a wide variety of jobs, from cutting integrated HIV out of the human genome to turning off genes in primates. In a new development published today (August 5) in Genome Research, researchers have used CRISPR/Cas9 in human cell lines to rewrite a mutant gene that causes a blood disorder called β-thalassemia.”

10) The Russian ‘hack of the century’ doesn’t add up

The computer security/antivirus business survives on paranoia, even if much of that paranoia may be appropriate. Here we have company which claims to have discovered a major hack of passwords then conveniently offers a fix (which isn’t really a fix) for the nominal sum of $120. A cynic might suggest that your $120 gets you a log in code which gets you into a website that randomly spits out a “you have been hacked” response. Or maybe you pay to disclose all your information to these researchers.

“Yesterday, The New York Times dropped an exclusive account of what reporter Nicole Perlroth called “the biggest hack ever.” By the numbers it certainly held up: 1.2 billion accounts, covering 500 million unique email addresses over 420,000 websites. The data had been captured by a Russian hacker group called CyberVor, and revealed by Hold Security. But as the smoke clears, the hack seems to be less of a criminal masterwork than the article might have you believe.”

11) Tektronix Uses DMCA Notice To Try To Stop Oscilloscope Hacking

You might think a company like Tecktronix would have a better grasp of the impact of DMCA takedown notices. I am pretty sure you can now find this information all over the Internet, and in particular in places where DMCA doesn’t apply. Of course, Tektronix might have a vested interest in keeping such information quiet as there is a good chance expensive features of its products can be unlocked through this and similar approaches.

“Another day, another abuse of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions to stop things that have nothing whatsoever to do with copyright. As pointed out by Slashdot, the Hackaday site recently had a post about how to clone some Tektronix application modules for its MSO2000 line of oscilloscopes. The post explained a simple hack to enable the application module to do a lot more. And… in response, Tektronix sent a DMCA takedown notice demanding the entire post be taken down.”

12) The Surface Damage Is Mounting At Microsoft

When you are the world’s biggest patent troll you can use the money you shake out of innovative companies on projects such as the Surfacce tablet. Setting aside for a moment the fiasco which is Windows 8, Microsoft has been unable to legitimately establish a footprint in either the mobile or the tablet space. As the mobile industry faces margin compression and demand for tablets dries up, perhaps the company is hoping somebody its enormously expensive offering will fill the gap. Pity they gave up leading in the 1990s …

“With close to $2 billion down the tubes and a new CEO more interested in operating systems than devices, the days of the Microsoft Surface tablet could be numbered. Microsoft has lost $1.7 billion on Surface tablets since the series first launched in 2012, Computerworld’s Gregg Keizer reports. In a breakdown of the company’s SEC filings, Keizer calculates that the Surface business lost $363 million in the July 2014 quarter, its largest single-quarter loss yet.”

13) It’s Official – the Sony Reader is Kaput

Speaking of once great companies, Sony is a prototype for what happen happens when you stop innovating. Time was Sony had expensive but high quality and leading edge products but now they just have expensive products. It has been a long time since I saw a Sony Reader and now I know why. Perhaps they could team up with Microsoft and attack the tablet business.

“Sony has confirmed today that they will not be making another ebook reader – not even for their sole remaining market in Japan. There will be no PRS-T4, and reports that the remaining stock of the Sony Reader PRS-T3 will be sold until it runs out. That device was was launched last fall in Europe but never shipped in the US, so I’m not sure how many people actually have one.”

14) NetScout Sues ‘Pay-to-Play’ Gartner

Its about time somebody sued Gartner but I doubt NetScout’s has much chance of prevailing. I have no idea as to whether they actually shake down companies as alleged but I wouldn’t put it past them. Basically Gartner research, and almost all “independent” industry research I have seen is complete crap and not worth a plug nickle. The sad thing is business strategies and investment decisions are made on that research. Gartner et als are exploiting the fact people don’t know any better and I doubt you can sue over that.

“Service assurance vendor NetScout is taking on Gartner, suing the consulting and research giant for unfair trade practices and claiming Gartner’s well-known “Magic Quadrant” ratings are heavily skewed in favor of the clients that pay it big consulting bucks. “Gartner, an information technology (‘IT’) research giant, markets itself as an ‘independent and objective’ company offering actionable technology research from an ‘unbiased source.’ In fact, Gartner is not independent, objective or unbiased, and its business model is extortionate by its very nature,” the NetScout Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: NTCT) lawsuit states.”

15) 10 waterproof Android phones for those rainy days

My friend Duncan Stewart and the team at Deloitte predicted interest in ruggedized devices (, a prediction I fully support. After all, with prices headed down manufacturers have to do something to differentiate themselves and ruggedization is a cheap way to add value. The interesting thing about this article is the narrow selection of vendors with a product offering but that will change.

“Who says electronics and water don’t mix? Smartphones that can handle the rain, a dunk in the bath, or a tumble into a puddle are one of 2014′s biggest trends, and there are more on the way. We’re not only talking about underpowered, basic phones covered in chunky rubber either; over the past 12 months we’ve seen flagship phones become less afraid of the wet stuff, too.”

16) Home Depot Invests in Home Automation

Maybe its different in other places but I have enough trouble finding an employee in a Home Depot, let alone finding one who knows anything about where what I am looking for is or how to use the products they offer. I doubt any technology sold by them would be well supported or even work and I am a pretty knowledgeable guy so I can just imagine how it would work out for the typical consumer.

“Most of the big chain home improvement stores seem to be trying to carve a small slice of the automation market share out for themselves. Lowes debuted their “Iris” Home solutions kits earlier this year and while the response has been mediocre, it’s more telling that Home Depot has now opted in to the field as well with their promotion of the “Wink” app and the Wink enabled devices.”

17) From cameras to keycards, everyday devices killed off by the smartphone

I don’t agree with all items on the list: the smartphone replaced cameras only to the extent that people don’t seem that their priceless memories are now low resolution and shot through a lens which would have been high end on a Kodak Instamatic; and smartphones only replace low end computers to the extent you don’t need a computer. Still the article shows how disruptive the smartphone has been to so many businesses.

“Hotel keycards are to become the latest thing to be killed off by smartphones, as the Hilton chain announces a $550m investment in replacing key cards with smartphone technology. But the list of dead and dying technologies smartphones have left in their wake is long.”

18) Nerve implant retrains your brain to stop tinnitus

Tinnitus can be debilitating and this technique sounds encouraging, however, an invasive procedure which helps half the patients who get it does not sound like the sort of thing which is likely to catch on. I can’t help but wonder how they find out if a rat has tinnitus.

“GOT that ringing in your ears? Tinnitus, the debilitating condition that plagued Beethoven and Darwin, affects roughly 10 per cent of the world’s population, including 30 million people in the US alone. Now, a device based on vagus nerve stimulation promises to eliminate the sounds for good by retraining the brain.”

19) Tablets really are the new PCs; nobody needs to buy them any more

Well, yes and no. Markets saturate and the tablet market is saturating because the devices have limited utility and, once you’ve got one, you don’t need to replace it until it breaks. The PC was different in that as the capability of the device increased, its utility increased, resulting in ever greater demands on the hardware and premature replacement. Once software innovation stopped in the late 1990s that virtuous cycle ground to a halt as I had predicted. A similar situation will evolve with smartphones though it’ll take a long time before everybody on the planet has a smartphone. The big question I have is who buys computers or tablets from Best Buy?

“The tablet market is tapped out. We saw signs of this when Apple reported that its iPad sales were down year-on-year and we’re seeing a similar message from retailers. Re/code’s Walt Mossberg recently talked to Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly, who said that tablet sales had “crashed.” Global tablet sales are still rising—though less quickly than they once were—but in developed markets the tablet boom may be over. As Apple CFO Luca Maestri said in the company’s earnings call, iPad sales were still growing in developing markets. The slowdown is all in the developed world. Samsung also reports that profits are down after tablet demand fell.”

20) IBM Chip Processes Data Similar to the Way Your Brain Does

The article appears to discuss a research project at IBM rather than a commercial project. Neural networks have been around for some time those this seems pretty cutting edge. The challenge with neural networks is programming them or, more correctly, mapping problems onto neural nets as solutions. Actual brains have the benefit of being structured such that they are mostly self programming once they get going. I suspect HP’s memristors will lead to breakthroughs in neural network design, however, they still won’t solve the programming problem.

“A new kind of computer chip, unveiled by IBM today, takes design cues from the wrinkled outer layer of the human brain. Though it is no match for a conventional microprocessor at crunching numbers, the chip consumes significantly less power, and is vastly better suited to processing images, sound, and other sensory data.”