Archive | March 2015

My Library on the Road: March 2015 edition

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We left Canada on March 2nd, and returned on the 29th. Nearly four weeks of business travel across Europe, Mid-East and Asia meant great client meetings and presentations, but also a lot of time for reading. Eight books and about 4,000 pages later…

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman, 1974

Justifiably a science fiction classic, it won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. Written by a Vietnam Veteran, it’s a superb exploration of the futility of war and what it looks like from the trenches. Additionally, the exploration of future weapons technology and the effects of time dilation from near-light speed travel are clearly handled and make for some nice plot twists. There’s even a love story. 9/10

Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey, 2011

Duncan cannot live by reading Proust alone. I love me some rip-roaring hard SF space opera! I have already read everything Peter F. Hamilton has written, so the back cover blurb “…in the grand tradition of Peter F. Hamilton” was good enough for me, and Hugo- and Locus-nominated helped too. Fun, exciting, kind of derivative…the main drawback was that this was only the first volume of four, and I wasn’t going the find the sequels in airport bookshops! I like the Detective Miller character – too bad he’s dead at the end. Or is he??? 7/10

Kerrigan in Copenhagen – Thomas E. Kennedy, 2013

I bought this in a Zürich bookstore a year ago, and thought I would read it when I was in the Danish capital! Great fun, this alcohol soaked narrative of a man writing about Copenhagen bars is literary, but not too much so. The trope of the middle-aged alcoholic man who beds an unlikely number of gorgeous women of all ages is too-familiar and also sexist (as the narrator admits) but it is redeemed (as is Kerrigan) by the powers of James Joyce, jazz, and Ulysses. Not to mention a green eyed Associate!  I probably wouldn’t buy any of the three other books Kennedy has written as part of the series set in Copenhagen, which tells you a lot. 6/10

The Abyss Beyond Dreams – Peter F. Hamilton, 2014

So there I was, in an English language bookstore in Zurich. And it turns out I HAVEN’T read everything Peter F. Hamilton has written, because the sneaky devil has a new book out, part one of two. 30 Swiss francs later, I am back into the space opera. This is about as good as most of his other series: reliable bang for your buck. Or franc. 8/10

Reamde – Neal Stephenson, 2011

I have loved the last few Stephenson books I have read, so was saving this one up. Wow! His best ever, Reamde is a technothriller that explores computer gaming, viruses, Russian mafia, Islamic terrorists and has several strong female leads. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. It is sort of like a Tom Clancy novel, if Tom 1) knew anything about computers; or 2) women; or 3) how to write well. Don’t get me wrong – Mr. Clancy does a good job of making you turn the page, but Neal is a genuinely good writer. It isn’t science fiction, but it MUCH more accessible than Neal’s last few books. You know that feeling of sadness you get when you realise that a book you enjoy will end one day? I got that around page 130 out of more than 1,040. 10/10

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, 1990

When Terry died this month, I thought I would give try this joint effort. This book has been around for 25 years, is wildly popular, and a real cult novel. And it is fine…but my problem is that I REALLY like Terry’s Discworld books and I REALLY like Neil’s writing. And they aren’t terrible co-authors, but the purity of voice is lost to me. Neil is someone who writes frightening and dark stuff, but is a fundamental optimist inside. Terry wrote humorous stories about fantasy characters in a world being carried on the back of elephants…and is screaming with rage inside. And that was before he was dying of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. The two together are less than the sum of their parts, IMO. 6/10

Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett, 2014

This is presumably the last book Terry finished before he died. We’ve all known he’s has Alzheimer’s since 2007, but he worked with his wife and although he couldn’t type his own manuscripts lately, the essential character of his writing still came through. I can’t say that of this book: it has all the familiar characters from the more recent Discworld novels (this is #40 in the series) but something seems to be missing. Perhaps because I know he was sick, but it wasn’t up to snuff. (That’s a dark joke…the previous novel was called Snuff.) 4/10

Shaman – Kim Stanley Robinson, 2013

Kim’s Red/Blue/Green Mars Trilogy is the best series of hard science fiction books looking at terraforming a planet. Hugos, Loci and Nebulae awards galore. Not always the best writing, but the science and imagination is so strong that it doesn’t matter. So KSR decided to write a novel about the people who decorated the Chauvet cave, about 25,000 years ago? And it’s not a bad story, it’s just that I don’t think he brings ANYTHING new to that genre of pre-historic fiction. Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear was written in 1980, and covered much the same ground, and about as well or better. 5/10

That was the last book, and disappointing to end on a low note.

However, I need to give a shout out to two great English language bookstores. Orell Füssli on Bahnhof Strasse in Zürich, and MPH in Raffles City in Singapore.

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Is the Carbon 3D printing technology a breakthrough, or just hype?

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I have been talking about 3D printing both in my job and on social media for 3-4 years now, so I had many people asking me what I thought about Carbon 3D’s new process, which made a big splash on the internet this week. Carbon says it is 100x faster than traditional 3D plastic printing, and the videos are ultra-cool: the company itself says that “We were inspired by the scene out of Terminator 2 (with) T-1000.”

To examine this new technology in more depth, I have pulled in Brian Piccioni, a technology analyst who has repeatedly ranked #1 in in North America and in Canada. I tend to be more of sceptic on 3D adoption, while Brian is more bullish, so I hope our two opposing viewpoints will let you reach your own conclusions.

DUNCAN: My first issue is that there are so many potential problems and not really enough data yet. Almost all of my research in 3D printing came from discussions with those in industry who are out there buying and using commercially available and affordable machines. So they overwhelmingly talk about what is realistic, proven, affordable, and in the market today, rather than what is possible. (I.e. doesn’t tend to be bleeding edge stuff like the Carbon 3D announcement.)

There’s not enough detail in the stories or on the website. We don’t even know when it will be for sale, or how much it will cost!

That makes me wonder about the material properties of the polymer they use. Are the printed objects strong, how do they handle heat, cold, humidity or time? Can they be painted or coloured? While most industrial prototypes are not used to support a bridge, they still do have certain material characteristics in order to be useful. The range of plastics produced by other, slower 3D printers is (these days) surprisingly strong and capable of all sorts of uses.

BRIAN:  Agreed. The first Stereo lithography or SLA prototype I had made at Eicon Techologies in 1991. It was as fragile as eggshell and cost a few thousand dollars for a two piece box about 4” by 3”. And somebody dropped it. More recently I had a couple of very large prototypes 4” by 16” printed by SLA in an ABS type plastic. Those cost only a few hundred dollars and look and feel exactly like an injection molded product, and are just as tough. We don’t know if the resin used by the Carbon3D material is fragile or tough. It may be something they can improve on…or it may be an inherent limitation for this kind of technology. We will see.

DUNCAN: Next, the video clips they show look amazing. But they are likely only going to film the demos or conduct the tests that their technology does particularly well at. Which is fair enough, but I am sure there may be other shapes or limitations where their advantage over existing technologies is not as great…what are they? Can this technology scale up to larger size models? Is it likely to be weirdly expensive even at scale? Is the polymer feedstock hard to make, store, or does it cost a lot?

BRIAN: Also agreed. Although the demo is impressive (fine resolution and good speed) the technology may have other significant limitations. That being said, if it really does offer this kind of quality/resolution and speed, even a 100% price premium might not matter.

DUNCAN: In the world of rapid prototyping (which makes up about 70% of the enterprise 3D printer market today) there is a huge advantage in being able to make something in 3-4 hours instead of 3-4 days/3-4 weeks. Making it in 3-4 minutes isn’t as useful: most design cycles just don’t require that kind of ultra-quick turnaround.

BRIAN: Well, not necessarily. For a lot of these things today, you start it up at night and go home so 20 minutes or 12 hours isn’t much difference. But many industrial type 3D printers are used in service centers to produce models for others. In this case, the faster the machine the more models you can make and therefore the greater your income. In general, being able to offer 1 hour turnaround is better than 1 day turnaround. I would also make the point that TODAY’s design cycles can’t make use of 10 minute print jobs…but that’s because there was no point. If Carbon’s technology works as advertised then the design process will evolve to take advantage of (to coin a phrase) rapid rapid prototyping. This reminds me of simulating a semiconductor chip years ago: the software could take hours to run a simulation, so the engineers would wander around and find something else to do. Once the simulation speeded up, they didn’t do that anymore and were able to get chips to market much faster.

DUNCAN: The main reason most people would need that kind of speed from a 3D printer is for final part manufacturing. Making a prototype or an intermediate part (tool, die, cast, mold, jig, etc.) is done in quantities of one and time to manufacture is usually not the critical factor. But if you want to make thousands of objects, getting the speed up is critically important: no current 3D printer that takes hours for making an object can compete with traditional manufacturing technique that makes thousands of objects per hour.

And here we come back to the basic problem of non-metal 3D printers. They (typically) make small, plastic objects out of a single material more slowly than and much more expensively than other plastic manufacturing techniques. The need for those kind of objects is low (of any shape), and the need for the kind of objects that have those characteristics and have shapes that can optimally (or only) be manufactured by 3D printers is even lower still. Hearing aid shells and foot orthotics remain the ONLY mass market needs for volume plastic-only customisation at this time.

BRIAN: Yes, hearing aid shells and shoe inserts may currently be the only volume markets but those are extremely high markup businesses with long turnaround times so slow, small size printers are good enough. If you introduce a high speed printer that can make larger parts, the potential for mass markets expands considerably. One could be quite imaginative, depending on the speed of the printer and the material quality. Many common car parts are plastic and could be printed on site assuming the machine, etc., was up to the task. Currently those parts are warehoused and take a typical 24 to 48 hour turnaround to get. So if you bring your car in for service and it needs a certain plastic part, the mechanic may take 15 minutes to fix your car after waiting a day or two for the part.

If you have a fast enough machine which can produce large enough parts out of good enough material and at the right price, the market will follow.

DUNCAN: That is a very good point…but there are a lot of assumptions in that sentence of yours! So I guess we will have to wait to see who is right. I have some concluding thoughts:

  1. As we watch Carbon 3D move towards commercialisation, I think we need to remain skeptical. A lot of press releases have come out from 3D printing companies…and they sound great. But if you check, the 3D final part produced was only a ‘test’, or was never actually used (the wrench on the Space Station). Or a 3D part was made once, as a proof of concept that it could be done, but doesn’t seem to be how they make the part most of the time.
  2. I worry about the finickiness of the liquid process Carbon uses. I could be wrong, but it looks super-sensitive to vibrations, level floors, and maybe even dust in the air. They may be faster, but if they need some kind of expensive clean room, the advantage may be less than we think. I also wonder if it can only be used for one very specific kind of plastic, or is this capable of being ‘ported’ to other materials?
  3. One of the worst things to happen to the 3D printing market was the positioning of it as “just like the Replicator on Star Trek.” Science fiction movies and TV shows are great, and using them as an example allows the public to rapidly grasp the concept. But it also leads to unrealistic expectations. 3D printers don’t make “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” and never will. They don’t make communicators or phaser guns. And they don’t make liquid metal killer robots capable of independent thought. They make single material objects with complex shapes at a reasonable price. That’s pretty amazing, but we need to keep our expectations realistic.

BRIAN: Absolutely! 3D printer breakthroughs are like battery breakthroughs and cancer cures: there is a new one every week, and yet, remarkably, very few ever make it to market. Of course, progress is being made although a lot of that is much slower than you would imagine. You are, of course, absolutely correct in being cautious: many products consist of plastic, metal, and, especially nowadays, electronics. It is unrealistic to expect any 3D printer will be able to crank out anything with that type of complexity, moving parts, and so on. Besides, isn’t it strange that in the 24th century the replicator doesn’t know that Picard always asks for hot, Earl Grey tea?

DUNCAN: Indeed. You’d think that a technological society that could create an Artificial Intelligent life form like Data would have figured that one out! Especially for the Captain…

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Canadian TV Cord Cutting Surges!

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In 2013, the number of Canadian homes that subscribed to pay TV (cable, telco or satellite) fell by 7,602 from 2012. That was on a base of about 11.15 million subscribers, so the decline was a whopping 0.07%. As I said at the time:

“if TV cord cutting is epidemic, then this is the smallest epidemic in history.”

According to the telecom publication The Wire Report (registration required), the 2014 data show a dramatic increase in the year over year decline: the number of subscribers for the large, public cable, telco and satellite providers fell by “almost 32,000.” While I will agree that the rate of decline is accelerating, a drop of 0.3% is a) probably not something the TV distributors should be freaking out over; and b) a whole heck of a lot smaller than the media keeps suggesting.

At the end of 2013, a poll of Canadians suggested that 16% were thinking about cancelling cable.  Other polls suggest that the number of Canadians who have actually cut the cord has doubled in the last year. How can the polls be so misleading?

Don’t get me wrong: polling is a fantastically useful tool…in the absence of final data. During an election campaign, polls give us a window into likely outcomes. But the only result that REALLY matters is once all the votes are cast and counted. Polls are based on limited samples, and require various adjustments.

Polls on cord-cutting are better than nothing. But at the end of every year, we have the actual, audited subscriber counts from large public companies. Those numbers are like the election count: they are the final and indisputable evidence of what people are actually doing.

I think it is likely that cord-cutting will increase again in 2015. But for the time being, can we cool down the rhetoric on this being a massive or widespread issue in Canada? As I said about another topic, cord-cutting isn’t merely niche behaviour at this point – it is a NICHE niche!

[One clarification. The numbers quoted above are based only on the large public TV distributors: Bell, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, Cogeco, Videotron, and so on. Those players represent over 90% of Canadian subscribers, so it is possible that cord-cutters are closer to 34-35,000.]

I was COMPLETELY wrong about waterproof phones

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Last May I wrote a blog post where I said that more than half of all smartphones would be waterproof by the end of 2015. This wasn’t a Deloitte Prediction, and I am really glad! Because not only will waterproof smartphones be less than 50% of sales, it looks like waterproofs will actually DECLINE year-over year!

At this week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the new Samsung S6 and S6 Edge were announced: they will be all metal and glass, and will not be waterproof (or allow for a replacement battery or increased storage.) The top of the line Samsung’s are among the world’s most popular phones, and since the S5 (and the S4) were waterproof, the percentage of waterproof phones isn’t just going to fall; it’s going to fall a LOT.

However, although I was wrong about the waterproof thing, this news actually reinforces a few things that I have been saying for years.

  1. The smartphone business is not about technology, it’s about fashion. There was nothing wrong with the plastic that was used on the S5, but the current view is that premium phones HAVE to be only metal and plastic, and consumers are willing to give up a lot in order to get the ‘right’ look and feel.
  2. Never listen to what people say, only what they do. There have been dozens of polls asking people what they want in a smartphone, and replaceable batteries and more rugged are consistently high on the list. But after disappointing sales of the S5, Samsung is making a bet that consumers don’t care about those issues as much as they claim to, and are going for the metal and glass option.
  3. Too early is still wrong. I am confident that the majority of smartphones will end up being waterproof by 2020. But I didn’t say that, and forecasts that don’t get the timing right are not helpful to anyone.