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The Geek’s Reading List: Week of December 26th, 2014

Brian Piccioni thinks the idea that driverless cars will be commonplace in ten years is “nonsense”. He thinks it will take 20 to 30 years. A very, very slow week in tech news. Expect next week to be as bad. Again a significant portion of news was related to the Sony hack (yawn), however, we did see a lot of coverage of different aspects of driverless cars. As has become customary, Tesla made an earth shattering announcement (actually two) because we can’t have a week without a cynical attempt to garner attention.

Happy belated Winter Solstice celebration and Happy New Year!

Rockstar litigation, a high-water mark in patent wastefulness, is over

You might recall that one of the highlights of the Nortel bankruptcy was the auction of its patents. Auctions are interesting things because the “winner” is actually the loser, having decided to pay more than any other participant for the asset in question. Certainly publicly traded patent licensing companies actually got a valuation lift as a result of the stupid sum of money paid by the likes of Microsoft, Apple, and Blackberry (which, at the time, actually had cash flow to waste on this sort of stupidity). It is pretty clear that most of the money was wasted, though lots of patent attorneys made out like bandits as a result of the litigation. These days Blackberry is probably happier to have the money rather than the patents.

“In 2011, a group of five companies spent the remarkable sum of $4.5 billion to purchase thousands of patents from Nortel, a bankrupt Canadian telecom. Microsoft, Apple, Ericsson, Sony, and Blackberry formed “Rockstar Bidco,” successfully keeping the patents out of the hands of Google. … Now Rockstar is retiring from the stage. A group of more than 30 companies operating under the aegis of RPX, a defensive patent aggregator, paid $900 million to acquire the approximately 4,000 “patent assets,” a phrase that includes both US and international patents, as well as patent applications. The group of buyers includes companies involved in active litigation with Rockstar: most notably, Cisco and Google. RPX itself paid $35 million of the purchase price.”

The Future: A Cat Litter Box and DRM

I have a small herd of cats and bought a robot litter box. I didn’t know at the time it was made by a subsidiary of Black & Decker and, like most all of their products it didn’t work properly and broke at the first opportunity (typical of Black & Decker companies they did not respond to my inquiries about a warranty claim. Caveat emptor). It appears some people have had some success with certain robot litter boxes, however. This is the sage of a cat person who discovered theirs had built in “Digital Rights Management”. Fortunately, others have found a workaround.

“I took the SmartCartridge and realized I could just open it up, and fill it myself. Great, I’ll order new ones and get it by Tuesday and I’ll just fill this one up with water for now. So I filled it up with water, and put it into the machine. It didn’t stop beeping, it knew this wasn’t it’s SaniSolution. Somehow it knew. I wasn’t able to even force it to run without the solution. I did some Googling, and I found that the “Smart” in SmartCartridge is that it has an RFID chip inside of it to keep track of how much solution it has, and once it runs out, well, you can’t refill it. I honestly did not believe this and tore one of the cartridges apart, and there it was, looking back at me, a tiny chip holding up it’s little metal finger.”

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Tesla’s three-minute battery swap pilot for Model S cars sets a new bar for EV charging

When I first saw this I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to do – after all the Achilles Heel of any Electric Vehicle (EV) is the staggeringly expensive, and short lived battery. By swapping, owners would be getting a different battery (or at least not wearing out the one they had). What was Tesla thinking? Then I noticed the charge (which is probably going to be higher than the $50 mentioned in the article and it made perfect sense: since the batteries would never be empty, most owners would be paying much more than the equivalent of a tank of gas for much less than a tank’s distance, and they would be paying double for the battery, albeit one charge at a time. In other words, they would be paying for the depreciation of a battery with every swap, having already paid for a new battery when they bought the damned car. Talk about double dipping! Of course, there is even a back story over and above that: as several commentators have pointed out, the real motive may be to maximize California Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) credits, which are a major part of Tesla’s business model (which includes numerous other subsidies). See here. Like all “alternative energy” companies the goal is to milk taxpayers. Its even better when that privilege is paid for by hapless customers deluded into believing they are saving the world.

“Tesla is cutting the Gordian Knot of electric vehicles: the time it takes to recharge the batteries. In a Friday blog post, the company said it would begin piloting a battery swap program this week for “invited Model S owners.” According to Tesla, the automated swap of a spent battery for a fully charged one will take about 3 minutes, compared to about 20 minutes to charge a Model S at a Supercharger station. While it costs nothing to use a Supercharger station, however, the battery swap will have a price: “slightly less than a full tank of gasoline for a premium sedan,” according to the company. At Monday’s national average for premium fuel of $2.80 per gallon (and falling), and assuming a 20-gallon tank, let’s call that about $50 per swap.”

Google Unwraps First Fully-Functional Driverless Car Expected To Hit NorCal Streets In 2015

I saw an excerpt of industry research (which, unfortunately, I could not locate) which appeared to suggest driverless cars would be commonplace within 10 years. This is almost certainly nonsense, unless you have a very imaginative definition of what a driverless car is. Heck, industry analysts have to earn their pay and it isn’t through accuracy. Nevertheless, you might expect to see widespread availability of these vehicles within 20 years, though it is possible that might be reduced if highways and signage are modified to provide beacons for example. Nevertheless, within 30 years they should be commonplace.

“Google unveiled the first real build of the company’s self-driving vehicle prototype Monday. The car, first revealed to the world in May, was an early mock-up that lacked real headlights. A month earlier, Google said self-driving cars had already started to master the navigation of city streets and the challenges they bring, from jaywalkers to weaving bicyclists. Since then, the company has been working on a multitude of prototypes to integrate usual car functions such as steering and braking with self-driving technology like sensors that keeps cars in their lanes.”

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