The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 1st 2014

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of August 1st 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

ps: slow news week and I have to travel, so an abbreviated list.


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1) Two South African Cancer Patients Receive 3D Printed Titanium Jaw Implants

This is another excellent example of a high value application for 3D printing. The problem with bodily joints is that each one is slightly different based on the life history of the patient. Bones, and jaws in particular, are also different from person to person: after all they grew there. 3D printed custom bone replacements could revolutionize joint replacements or even allow for replacement of long bones (arms, legs) for these reasons. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.

“Today we got word out of South African that the second and third 3D printed jaws ever, have been transplanted into two different patients who had been suffering with facial disfigurations after battling cancer. The procedures were done by Dr Cules van den Heever, who is well known in the field and has extensive experience implanting prosthetic jaws.”

2) Nonablative Laser Light Increases Influenza Vaccine Response 4 to 7-fold

This is another promising sounding medical innovation. Apparently, the idea is to stimulate an amplified immune response by causing minor tissue damage. This has been tried in the past with less than promising results. Since the procedure is safe and the laser is commonly available for essentially useless cosmetic procedures and is therefore approved and widely available, this proceedure might become commonplace.

“Influenza imposes a heavy annual health burden, and lies historically at the heart of a number of global pandemics that killed tens of millions. Medical researchers are searching for ways to strengthen or extend the power of influenza vaccines, stockpiled or not. Now a team of scientists in Boston have just developed a new method of using laser light to stimulate and enhance the immune response to a vaccine by a remarkable 4 to 7-fold against disease agents. Such treatments that assist vaccines but are not vaccines themselves are known as adjuvants.”

3) ‘Milestone’ for child malaria vaccine

Even a modestly effective malaria vaccine would be a huge advance for the developing world since malaria is so widespread. The fact this vaccine may be ready for regulatory approval is extremely encouraging.

“Experts say the world’s first malaria vaccine could be approved for use in 2015. Reporting in PLOS Medicine, researchers found that for every 1,000 children who received the vaccine, an average of 800 cases of illness could be prevented. And in continuing trials it went on to provide protection some 18 months after the injections were given. Manufacturers GSK have now applied for regulatory approval – making this the first vaccine to reach this step.”

4) German Utilities Bail Out Electric Grid at Wind’s Mercy

One of the many problems with ‘alternative energy’ (wind, solar) is that you can’t rely on sun or wind, and yet the grid has to be stable or you get brownouts or worse. Excess power production can be dealt with by heating stuff up, pumping water, etc., but there are no real solutions for sudden drop in production. German fossil fuel power producers are adapting plants to meet this challenge, which is fine and good, however, usually, thermal systems take some time to move to their optimal operating point. It would be interesting to have somebody do a ‘net benefit’ analysis from a cost or even environmental perspective. Of course, ‘alternative energy’ is good politics and that is all that matters.

“Germany’s push toward renewable energy is causing so many drops and surges from wind and solar power that the government is paying more utilities than ever to help stabilize the country’s electricity grid. Twenty power companies including Germany’s biggest utilities, EON SE and RWE AG, now get fees for pledging to add or cut electricity within seconds to keep the power system stable, double the number in September, according to data from the nation’s four grid operators. Utilities that sign up to the 800 million-euro ($1.1 billion) balancing market can be paid as much as 400 times wholesale electricity prices, the data show.”

5) Materials database proves its mettle with new discoveries

With the advent of nanotechnology, materials research has come back in vogue. Of course, not all novel materials are associated with nanotechnology: some are just combinations of known materials. It is rather surprising this hadn’t been done previously, but ‘big data’ type applications and cheap enough hardware are likely enablers.

“Trying to find new materials, to improve the performance of anything from microchips to car bodies, has always been a process of trial and error. MIT materials scientist Gerbrand Ceder likens it to setting out from Boston for California, with neither a map nor a navigation system — and on foot. But, he says, after centuries of doing materials research the old-fashioned way, a significant revolution is underway, thanks to a massive computerized database and simulation system that can sort through thousands of potential materials in the time it previously might have taken to study just one. The system is called the Materials Project; while only about three years old, it has already produced significant new findings.”

6) NASA’s JPL develops multi-metal 3D printing process

This is a twofer: materials science and 3D printing! Certain materials, especially metals, can alloy but are not very easy to join or weld so if you need the characteristics of both you end up having to use a mechanical fastener or similar approach. This can lead to other problems, most notably failure of the fasteners. NASA’s gradual alloy approach should allow for the development of, for example, lightweight parts with a high wear resistance out surface.

“The technology to 3D print a single part from multiple materials has been around for years, but only for polymer-based additive manufacturing processes. For metals, jobs are typically confined to a single powdered base metal or alloy per object. However, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory say they are in development of a 3D printing technique that allows for print jobs to transition from one metal to another in a single object. According the JPL researchers, these gradient metals have been created previously in a lab setting but NASA’s process is the first to make usable objects that take advantage of the mechanical and thermal properties of the various metals used.”

7) NASA validates ‘impossible’ space drive

A few weeks ago we had the possibility if negative mass, now we have a (potential) thruster which generates thrust without moving mass. Sounds funky, but, from what I can gather from this article, and I sure can’t understand the scientific paper, the device is based upon relativity, which is always a good starting point. The function of the device seems to have been independently confirmed but more work is needed.

“NASA is a major player in space science, so when a team from the agency this week presents evidence that “impossible” microwave thrusters seem to work, something strange is definitely going on. Either the results are completely wrong, or NASA has confirmed a major breakthrough in space propulsion.”

8) 2013 Tesla Model S Long-Term Road Test

For most cars the first 30,000 miles (50,000 km) are the most trouble free but, apparently, for a Tesla Model S owner – and Edmunds is not the only such report – it is a nightmare of major repairs and replacements. The idea that these are problems because the vehicle was an early production model is absurd: by the time they replace your drive train 3 times, that 4th drive train should have most of the bugs worked out. The Tesla Model S is clearly an unreliable vehicle but the problems listed are likely a result of the sort of engineering which would not have been acceptable at the Trabant factory. Bad engineering can be fixed (as always, the first step is to admit you have a problem) but the Achilles Heel remains the short lived, spectacularly expensive, battery pack. Nobody who knows anything about batteries believes the price or life expectancy of Lithium Ion batteries is going to improve any time soon. So, the next time you see a Tesla owner doing his part for the environment, ask yourself what the environmental impact of all those repairs might be. And for the love of all that is holy do not buy a Tesla until they have at least demonstrated the reliability of a car made in the former Soviet bloc. Thanks to my friend Luigi di Pede for this item.

“Cons: Extensive list of repairs necessary, interior amenities don’t match other luxury sedans in its price range, latest active safety systems not available, needs at least a Level 2 charger to make it useful as a daily driver. Bottom Line: The Model S is a fast, comfortable and technologically brilliant luxury sedan, but numerous problems with its touchscreen, tires and drivetrain make it hard to recommend.”

9) Android grabs record 85% smartphone share

This is as expected given Apple falling farther and farther behind the pack with respect to features. Even the comment by the analyst that “Millions of Android users worldwide will likely switch to the bigger-screen iPhones later this year” is laughable as Android is available on a wide variety of large screen phones, so why would somebody switch if Apple introduces one. The real concern for Apple shareholder should be margins: Apple’s premium pricing might have been justified when they were feature leaders, but now it is based upon relentless marketing. Eventually people figure it out.

“Google’s dominance of the smartphone market has reached new heights, with its Android operating system now accounting for a record 84.6% share of global smartphone shipments, according to research by Strategy Analytics. The growth in Android phones during the second quarter of this year came at the expense of BlackBerry, Apple iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone, the research firm said Wednesday.”

10) Why does my old iPhone seem to get slower before a new release?

This seems like a silly story, despite its wide distribution. It is credible a new release of iOS might place a greater drain on the hardware, however, it is equally likely users – and iPhone owners tend to be ‘special’ – are trying to convince themselves they ‘need’ a new iPhone in order to justify the latest and greatest.

“Does your iPhone feel like it gets slower the moment the latest Apple smartphone gets released? You’re not alone. Google Trends shows a spike in searches from people simply for “iPhone slow” the moment Apple releases its latest iPhone, showing that people perceive their older iPhones to suddenly slow down. The Havard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan presented Google Trends data on the New York Times to posit that this could be a deliberate, preprogrammed action, to spur people to buy new iPhones.”

11) Driverless cars heading onto British roads in 2015

We are seeing more and more governments modifying legislation to permit the operation of autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles. This is an important step in the development of the technology (after all, how can you test the vagaries of driving without actually driving) and, because accidents are bound to happen, provide some opportunity for case law to develop around the resulting litigation.

“Driverless cars will start appearing on British roads next year, ministers will announce on Wednesday. The Government wants to change the rules to allow companies to start running trials of cars that do not need a human driver on UK streets, industry sources said. It means the first computer-controlled vehicles will be seen on quiet British streets by January next year.”

12) Would you buy a self-driving car?

Not long ago the consensus was that, since people like to drive their cars, there would be limited interest in autonomous vehicles. I was never sure about that: my grandfather worked for a while as a milk man and, as my grandmother enjoyed telling it, the horse knew the route better than he did. This survey suggests considerable consumer interest, however consumers offering an opinion is not the same as spending money.

“While self-driving cars may seem like some far-off, futuristic technology, they are edging closer to reality. Not only are several mainstream car manufacturers working on either semi-autonomous or fully autonomous vehicles, but people are also warming to the notion of owning an automobile that can drive itself. A recent survey found that more than 75 percent of Americans said they’d consider buying a self-driving car. The survey was conducted by, the car insurance comparison-shopping website, which polled 2,000 licensed drivers, half men and half women, in June.”

13) Attackers install DDoS bots on Amazon cloud, exploiting Elasticsearch weakness

If there is a large computing resource, whether an insecure network or computing cluster, hackers will find a way to exploit it. One might think that cloud providers would have an audit process to keep track of bots or, more importantly, whether insecure software is being run on their computers. Apparently not. One can imagine that if DDoS bots can be installed on the cloud services other such malware (including credit card scrapers) can be as well.

“Attackers are exploiting a vulnerability in distributed search engine software Elasticsearch to install DDoS malware on Amazon and possibly other cloud servers.”

14) Valencia Linux school distro saves 36 million euro

This EU website has a list of examples of cities, etc., which have saved significant amounts of money by moving to Open Source software. One might be able to entertain an argument as to whether this Linux distribution, or LibreOffice, is ‘better’ than the Microsoft or Apple alternatives, but that is moot: if they are good enough for the task, and save money, transitioning to open source is a no brainer.

“The government of the autonomous region of Valencia (Spain) earlier this month made available the next version of Lliurex, a customisation of the Edubuntu Linux distribution. The distro is used on over 110,000 PCs in schools in the Valencia region, saving some 36 million euro over the past nine years, the government says.”

15) Service Drains Competitors’ Online Ad Budget

Frankly it is surprising this is not a more popular service. Yes, the company featured is using a botnet to provide the service, and that is illegal, however, a distributed, legal, cloud based system would probably just cost a bit more – after all, this is not a computationally complex problem so you wouldn’t need much. Heck, one could pay people to run the code on their smartphones. And it is win/win for the company and Google. Not so much for the competitor but that is capitalizm.

“The longer one lurks in the Internet underground, the more difficult it becomes to ignore the harsh reality that for nearly every legitimate online business there is a cybercrime-oriented anti-business. Case in point: Today’s post looks at a popular service that helps crooked online marketers exhaust the Google AdWords budgets of their competitors.”

16) Podcasting Patent Troll Realizes Podcasters Don’t Make Any Money; Desperately Tries To Escape Adam Carolla Lawsuit

The life of a patent troll can be a pretty easy one. Threaten people with bogus infringement claims and they’ll usually pay up, especially in the US, because the cost of litigation is likely going to be higher than the cost of a settlement. For true trolls – like Microsoft, for example – you don’t want to be in the position where you land in court because your likely trivial patents might be invalidated. Lucky for Microsoft, they have essentially infinite financial resources so few companies would ever challenge them. These guys were not so lucky.

“The company’s original patent lawsuits against podcasters were directed at Adam Carolla, HowStuffWorks and Togi Entertainment. The company chose poorly. Carolla isn’t exactly one to back down from a bully, and kicked off a big crowdfunding campaign to “save podcasting,” roping in a bunch of other podcasters to alert their audiences as well. The campaign has raised almost half a million dollars.”

17) Siberian Discovery Suggests Almost All Dinosaurs Were Feathered

It’s a little hard to see how the findings support the headline or the conclusions of the lead researcher, but it is rather cool to think that theropods were basically large chickens.

“Almost all dinosaurs were probably covered in feathers, Siberian fossils of a tufted, two-legged running dinosaur dating from roughly 160 million years ago suggest. Over the past two decades, discoveries in China have produced at least five species of feathered dinosaurs. But they all belonged to the theropod group of “raptor” dinosaurs, ancestors of modern birds.