Tuesday, May 1, 2007

U.S. Supreme Court invalidates my father's patent

Yesterday our family received a blow. My father's patent for a welding cart, granted in the early nineteen forties has been invalidated in a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court. Fortunately I was able to shrug the blow off easily since to the best of my knowledge we had never made a nickel from the whole enterprise in the first place. Yet the story is nevertheless interesting:

As a matter of fact the direct cause of yesterday's ruling was a patent for an automobile accelerator pedal combined with a sensor that sends signals to an electronically controlled engine as to the speed desired. The company that held this patent sued another company for patent infringement; this second company had developed a similar device. The court, in effect overturning decades of patents already granted, said no to the first company which held the patent: to be patentable an invention must solve a problem, be novel, and not simply be a combination of two or more pre-existing patents. In short, it must be: "non-obvious".

Brazing is a common form of welding in which metal is heated by a gaseous fuel, acetylene, with its heat then intensified using another gas, oxygen, finally, when things are hot enough, bronze is added and melted to effect a "weld" between the pieces to be joined. Both of these gases are supplied in heavy, cylindrical, metal "bottles" which are under very high pressure. Surely everyone will have seen these heavy bottles being delivered by truck to shops around the country. The acetylene bottle is rather short and squat, while the oxygen bottle, for no obvious reason, is rather skinny and tall. The problem my father solved to earn his patent was this:

One day at work, an oxygen bottle tipped over and the valve at its top ruptured, thus accelerating the heavy, steel bottle, under the force of the high pressure gas, right through a masonry wall and up Washington street scaring the bejeesus out of horses and pedestrians and causing all manner of pandemonium and damage.

His solution was simply to stabilize the two bottles in a cart with hard rubber wheels and handles which permitted them to easily be rolled around to where the work was to be done. He added little places on the cart where the welding "torch" could be stored, the hoses be neatly rolled up, and other various accessories could be properly put away. It was quite clever—I was made to clean many of them before they were sold to other welders. But it was, in a real sense, an "obvious" design; nearly any good welder could have figured out something like this. Yet he was granted a patent on the idea, as have been numerous others for other clever, but obvious, ideas since then.

Now the lawyers, those pen and paper craftsman, can obviously proceed.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Tragedy and grief

The great train wreck…

… one of the worst ever in this country -- happened on April 26, 1946, in Naperville, [Illinois] where the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy's Exposition Flyer, racing at 85 mph, rammed into the back of the railroad's Advance Flyer, which was stopped in the Naperville station. The wreck killed 45 people and injured more than 100.

SCN Media August 2005

I remember this tragedy very well because my father was a welder and my mother was a nurse. He had to help to cut apart the steel cars to free the injured and in the recovery of bodies, and she assisted in the medical help that could then be provided—we would call it triaging today. But this was 1946, and while it made the front page of the Chicago Tribune the next day, and it certainly had a mention in papers in other cities, that was pretty much it from a news perspective.

I recount this story to compare it to the tragedy this week that occurred at Virginia Tech, where a shooter killed 31 students and a teacher, and then himself. I can mention that one of my granddaughters attends this school.

In this instance, as you are all no doubt aware, thousands of people, nearly the entire resources of the country's news media were, and remain, almost entirely mobilized for this tragedy. Officials and dignitaries up to and including the president of the United States feel compelled to articulate the nation's pain and sympathy. Classes are canceled for the week while grief counselors from around the country focus on Blacksburg Virginia to begin the work of working through this catastrophe. The aim of this massive effort: to ease mental anguish and trauma for the tens of thousands involved personally in this event, however peripherally, and for those millions who simply share the sense of grief and sadness that has been so amplified through the vast resources of modern day news.

The question that an old man like me asks himself is this: Is all this angst a good thing? I suppose a case can be made that sympathy for one's fellow man, more absent then present in history, can never be all bad. But I wonder: Does there come a point when this orgy of tragedy and grief, of sharing and sadness, becomes counterproductive?

It seems to me that this grief and sympathy is of a piece with the western world's increasing intolerance of risk, and our short attention span for the effort of protecting ourselves from people in the world who do not yet share, and perhaps cannot yet afford, our pampered psyches, people proven much more dangerous than the shooter at Virginia Tech.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Libertarians, bloggers and free markets

Today, Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit of blogger fame, whom I have always thought to be a libertarian, said this in a post on his site:

I DON'T LIKE THIS: "Internet radio broadcasters were dealt a setback Monday when a panel of copyright judges threw out requests to reconsider a ruling that hiked the royalties they must pay to record companies and artists. A broad group of public and private broadcasters, including radio stations, small startup companies, National Public Radio and major online sites like Yahoo Inc. and Time Warner Inc.'s AOL, had objected to the new royalties set March 2, saying they would force a drastic cutback in services that are now enjoyed by some 50 million people. "

While it is literally true that "a panel of copyright judges threw out requests to reconsider a ruling that hiked the rookies they must pay to record companies and artists…," this is highly misleading. Here is what was actually done, as quoted from the article he links to:

Small broadcasters [which is to say Internet broadcasters] have received relief from Congress in the past, benefiting from a law passed five years ago that gave them a break on royalty rates. The legislation allowed them to pay about 12 percent of their revenues instead of having to calculate per-song, per-hour rates like larger companies had to.

In other words, the court, an arm of the government, has seen fit to lift artificial restrictions on the free market and permit buyers and sellers to negotiate the terms of their contracts on their own, an odd position for libertarian not to like. Maybe Glenn is not the libertarian I thought he was.

The article itself was not very informative about precisely what has transpired: Did the judges find that the law was unconstitutional? Did the law expire and the Internet broadcasters wished to extend its term? We'll never know with reporting like this. Like the mainstream media, bloggers too have their own axes to grind: in this case my impression is that their wish is that the Internet wants to be free.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Scrotum is as scrotum does

The New York Times reviews a new children's book, The Higher Power Of Lucky. On the first page of the book, "the book's heroine, a scrappy 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble, hears the word through a hole in a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog, Roy, on the scrotum."

This seems to have created an "issue" for librarians: stock the book or don't stock the book. Most of the librarians seemed to be against it. But a gusher of literally hundreds of irate comments flowed like sperm into the New York Times concerning this tender issue. They were overwhelmingly against "censorship" and felt that there should be no question but that teachers should take the bull by the scrotum and charge ahead, happy in the fact that the book took the direct approach to an ordinarily touchy subject.

Now, being quite an old geezer and, I might add, one with a scrotum myself, I'm not particularly disturbed by the word. But I do have a certain amount of sympathy for those in the line of fire, the librarians and teachers who will have to have to explain the term to a bunch of ten year old boys and girls en masse. My children went through a stage, though, as I recall, it was earlier than ten, when to everything I said they rather monotonously, over and over, replied, "Why?"

Putting myself hypothetically in front of the class as the reader I can easily imagine the answer to the first question, "What is a scrotum?"

"Why, my dears, a scrotum is simply a sack made of skin that holds the testes of most male mammals." (So far so good.)

"What are testes?"

"Well, testes are just glands that makes sperm." (Maybe they won't notice.)

"What are sperm?" (Bad guess.)

"Sperm are just little things that when the male puts them in a female they can make a baby." (Here we go.)

"How does he get them in there?" …

Next thing you know you've got yourself a sex-ed class. Now there's nothing necessarily wrong with that, except for the fact that you signed on as an English teacher. And what if mom and dad would rather explain it all themselves when the time is ripe?

But no, the readers of the New York Times see this as an opportunity to correct centuries, nay millennia, of subterfuge and, like the brothers in the commercial who want Mikey to try the new cereal, they have only a sperm sized compassion for those who must deliver this correction.

Be careful of this man

In the Wall Street Journal today (online) Steven Rattner laments the failure of newspapers to make money. People— especially young people—simply don't like to read them much anymore, preferring alternative sources of information:

Perhaps most worrisome is the loss of young readers, who have drifted away steadily since the early 1970s, long before there was an Internet, when more than 70% of 18- to 34-year-old Americans read a daily newspaper. Last year that figure stood at 35%.

His solution? "We could create a pool of money (possibly from a license fee similar to how the BBC is funded)."

And how is the BBC funded? They simply tax every household with a television set $260.00 a year and give it to the BBC so that they can make whatever programs they wish, regardless of demand.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Europeans and Americans at work

The last few years I have been fortunate enough to spend winters on an island in the Caribbean instead of my much colder home city of Pittsburgh. The place I stay is frequented largely by western Europeans. They get long vacations but most don't make a great deal of money and this place, relatively inexpensive, is ideal for them. And since many of them speak English I've had many interesting conversations with them. I have been particularly struck by their feelings about their work: most don't enjoy it and feel that their relatively long vacations are a just reward for slaving away the rest of the year.

Now many people in the United States don't enjoy their work either but, on the other hand, many more in the States seem to like their work more than do the Europeans I've spoken with. There's nothing scientific about this impression that I came to have so I was more than a little interested in a rather more thorough study of the matter by Edmund J. Phelps, the Nobel prize winner in economics in 2006. He wrote about this issue in an article in the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal yesterday, Entrepreneurial Culture: Why European economies lag behind the U.S. The article seems to be written in a style best suited to academics, so here I will try to summarize the main points that he makes, particularly those which focus on the opinions I took away from the Europeans I spoke with, though I don't believe I'm putting any words in his mouth.

He writes that, "Far fewer firms break into the top ranks in [western, continental Europe than in 'Anglo Saxon' countries such as the US and Britain], and fewer employees are reported to have jobs with extensive freedom in decision-making--which is essential at companies engaged in novel, and thus creative, activity." And he goes on to write why this may be so:

Participation rises [when jobs are relatively fulfilling and engaging] and productivity climbs to a higher path. Thus I see the sort of economic model operating in the Continental countries … which typically exhibit a Balkanized/segmented financial sector favoring insiders, myriad impediments and penalties placed before outsider entrepreneurs, a consumer sector not venturesome about new products or short of the needed education, union voting (not just advice) in management decisions, and state interventionism to be a major cause--perhaps the largest cause--of their lackluster performance characteristics. … There is the solidarist aim of protecting the "social partners"--communities and regions, business owners, organized labor and the professions--from disruptive market forces. There is also the consensualist aim of blocking business initiatives that lack the consent of the "stakeholders"--those, such as employees, customers and rival companies, thought to have a stake besides the owners.

In other words the culture itself in continental Western Europe acts in such a way that workers are viewed, and view themselves, as cogs in a grand machine rather than permitting them to be micro-entrepreneurs themselves. In my view this is certainly is the effect of European Marxism and, in general, socialism which was designed in an age when workers were seen in exactly that light and the hierarchical organization in which they were embedded did not want workers to think for themselves but simply to concentrate on the drudge work at hand and fill their quota.

The continental western European culture should be contrasted with the way work is viewed in the United States where there is a much higher level of self employment, an acceptance of risk, and appetite for the great rewards that such activity occasionally yields. But even in very large companies, since they tend not to be unionized—in the US, private unionization is less than 8%, with the highest rate in regulated industries such as transportation and utilities—there is the desire of management to push decision-making down to the lowest possible level and to encourage intracompany entrepreneurialism by workers. Phelps quotes this telling statement: "42% in France and 54% in Italy, versus an average of 73% in Canada and the U.S. … want jobs offering opportunities for achievement."


Monday, February 12, 2007

Fun with predictions

It's always fun to mess around with predicting an election nearly two years in the future. Here are my guesses, starting with:

The Democrats

Hillary Clinton. She's giving John Kerry a run for his money in the flip flop category. She's just not very likable, and she's a woman (yes it still matters), and even Hollywood's Democrats are beginning to figure all this out. And then there's Bill! What to do with him? She does have a lot of money and the ability to raise a nearly unlimited amount, so that might tip the scales in the primary but I can't see that she can overcome her high negatives in the final election.

Barack Obama. How far can a nice looking, ( I don't mean to say "clean"!) smooth talking, black guy with next to no experience, and who can't even get the support of blacks, get, really?

John Edwards. How far can a nice looking, smooth talking, white guy with next to no experience, get, really? On the other hand if Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton could pull it off, why couldn't he?

Joe Biden. If he can get his foot of his mouth and use it to run with it's not impossible, just unlikely.

John Kerry. Forget about it.

Chuck Schumer. Next time.

Al Gore. He's got one chance: if everyone else gets their socks tied up in a knot, he's their man, but with the primaries structured as they are, and as early as they are, that's a real long shot. But it would sure be a fun race. I long for the old days when candidates were actually selected at the conventions. It lent a lot of passion to what has now become a stage managed event.

The Republicans

John McCain. Nice to see a guy with morals. But the McCain Feingold act is a travesty, and he has other populist tendencies that scare the hell out of me. On the one hand it certainly shows strength of character when someone has survived years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, but strength of character can also be taken too far. Besides all that he's almost as old as me! That's scary too.

Mitt Romney. Haven't a clue. He's a big question mark. And that's not an advantage even this early in the game.

Rudy Giuliani. He's on wife number three, but he seems like the most sensible of the lot. If only he can get nominated, and I think he can get nominated because, after all, who else is there? Like Hillary, he can raise a lot of money. The southerners probably won't take a very well to a New Yorker, but I think they'll have to get over it.

The real facts of the matter probably depend more upon what happens between now and then, which in politics is a very long time indeed. Here are several scenarios:

The war in Iraq steadies out. Bush sinks a three pointer in the final minutes of the game. Good for Rudy because all the democrats are advertising their antiwar stances in one way or another.

The war in Iraq doesn't steady out. Iraq breaks up in a civil war. We leave or get out of the way. Bad for the US. Good for the Democrats, especially for Joe Biden who came out for separatism long before anyone else.

The terrorists succeed in doing something significant. Bad for the Democrats. Good for Rudy. He's made his bones on that front.

The economy tanks. Actually, tanking is probably the wrong term, but the strength of the economy has been up for quite awhile and is certain to go down at some point in time. The questions are how much and at what point in time? If it happens during the election period, it will obviously be good for the Democrats. Even John Kerry probably couldn't lose this one. If it happens after the election the new Democrats will have a tough row to hoe in 2012.

North Korea simmers on, unresolved. Probably. No matter.

We bomb Iran. A full-blown attack is highly unlikely and politically nearly impossible to sustain. Nevertheless, Bush isn't running for reelection and hot pursuit of the Iranian bomb suppliers into Iran is likely. The case for this adventure is being prepared even now. The question is whether it would be done overtly or covertly. If covertly, I doubt the Iranians would say a word.