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Friday, September 30, 2011

Spare Change Stimulus

Here's an easy way to release a lot of money into the economy.  Just set up a few of those spare-change counting machines in Federal Buildings across the country, but don't take a percentage off the top.  There is a lot of change out there doing absolutely nothing for anyone.  And many people don't take it in to the machines because the machines take 10 percent off the top, and that doesn't seem right.  If everyone in the country has ten dollars lying around, that's a few billion right there injected into the economy.  People would see it as both patriotic and remunerative.

Certainly there are some people who religiously spend their change as soon as they get it.  But there are many others who don't, and end up accumulating hundreds of dollars of the stuff.

As it turns out, coinstar already provides no-charge gift certificates, including to grocery stores, and possibly amazon.  So maybe it's a non-issue.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

College Scam

Ok, this scam is pervasive.  I don't pretend to have a solution, but the last post (about Khan Academy) might contain the seeds of one.  The bottom line is that college tuition has been increasing exponentially in recent years, at a time when a college education may not necessarily be what people need.  That's especially true of a liberal arts education.  I'm sorry, but you can learn liberal arts on your own time now.  You shouldn't be paying $50,000 a year plus room and board in order to listen to lectures -- and write papers -- on history, literature, philosophy, etc., unless you really really think you're going to be make it as a teacher in one of those fields.  You'll leave college with $200,000 in debt.  You'll pay it back eventually, but only by spending what's left of your youth in jobs that just are not fulfilling, and you'll be neglecting your civic duties at a time when your participation and energies are the most critical to the continued viability of your country.

That's the reason our politicians get away with so much.  You (and everyone else) are too busy trying to get by (e.g. make enough money to pay off your college loans) that you can't get engaged in your civic duty of closely supervising those who are running our governments (federal, state, and local).  The middle class -- what's left of it -- now has to work so hard to keep up with bills (including especially education bills), that it simply can't pay sufficient attention to what's going on in Washington.  Hence, legislation like the Dog Ate My Homework Act (see previous posts).

In the end, those people know that they'll be able to "buy" your vote by spending their campaign contributions to get their "message" to you so that you'll vote for them. 

Their calculus is not what it should be, i.e. what is best for the voters.  Instead, it's what can I do for my campaign contributors that will generate enough cash so that I can continue to persuade people to vote for me.   For any given piece of legislation, the question is whether I will be able to "buy" more votes with campaign money than I lose as a result of disappointment with my vote.

Again and again, and it gets easier every time for them.  Success in elections is a function of both incumbency and campaign funds, and there is a feedback loop between the two.  One way to address this is to simply adopt a rule of voting against incumbents.  Or a watered down version -- if everything else is roughly equal, vote against the incumbent.

Yes, employers look for college degrees, and the better the job, the better the degree they look for (better school, better grades, etc.).   But even the best of those sorts of jobs can be traps.  You'll make a decent income, but before you know it, you'll be 50, and you won't have done a darn thing to solve the mess the country has slid into.
My recommendation to anyone who is about to enter college:  Take a year off.  And spend that year trying to accomplish something you might otherwise never get a chance to accomplish.  Create a website.  Start a business.  Write a book.  Just do something. 

Khan Academy -- Go There!

There was a write-up of Khan Academy in last week's Economist.  I just now checked it out on YouTube.  Wow.  I wish I'd done that.  I'm sure glad he did.  He has over 2200 lectures on-line on all subjects, from elementary school to high school.  And he's good.  The lectures are entertaining and memorable.  And he never appears in them -- he uses software (described here; mostly inexpensive or free) to give the lectures.  I've always thought the lecturerer was a distraction anyway.  This way, the focus is on the "board," where diagrams, pictures, and equations appear.

The idea is to "flip" learning.  If the students watch the lectures at night -- at their own pace, rewinding or replaying as needed -- then class time can be devoted to the "homework."  The teacher can monitor how each child is doing on the homework, and can see where kids are stuck, and can either (1) walk over and help that child through the concept or (2) get another kid to provide the help.

If any adult knew and understood everything in those lectures, he or she would have an extremely strong grounding for college.  And there's really no reason college can't be taught the same way.  As the Economist points out, many college lectures are available for free.  For example, Open Yale and openmitcourseware,  And many more college-level lectures are available through companies like The Teaching Company, Modern Scholar, and Barnes and Noble's "Portable Professor."

Given the price of tuition nowadays -- and the fact that at the end of the day, nobody really remembers all that many of the "facts" that one learned in college -- why not just set up some classrooms, staffed by quasi-trained teachers, where the entire course is simply watching (or listening to) a lecture one night, and then coming into class the next day to (1) take a factual quiz on the subject matter, and (2) then move on into a discussion, which could include ways of applying whatever the lecture was about to everyday life and current problems, as well as in future jobs.  To the extent grading is necessary, perhaps there would be a second quiz that you could take at the end of class, and then your grades would be averaged.  And of course, additional tests could be given periodically.

Obviously, this won't work for every class.  A lot of classes involve substantial reading and writing (or computer programming) that needs to be done outside the classroom. 

But lots of classes could work this way.  I'm currently listening to
The Great Courses "Classics of Russian Literature" lectures by Northwestern's Irwin Weil, and it's great.  So great, that while it would be great to be in Weil's class, I could get by just listening to his lectures and actually reading a selection of the books he discusses.  The discussion leader need not be an expert on Russian literature; instead, just a person, possibly older than the students, who has an interest in the topic, and is just as interested in the students in learning it. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Dog Ate Homework And Term Limits

(Continued from last post)

Bottom line is that while everyone is looking to cut a million here or a million there, 51 senators -- i.e. the majority -- vote to hand $500 million (or so) of consumer and taxpayer money to one company.  And not even a solar energy company this time.

Why would someone vote for this bill (or, technically, against the amendment that would have taken it out of patent reform)?  There are lots of excuses, but in the end it almost certainly comes down to campaign contributions.  I've heard the arguments against term limits, and they are unpersuasive in view of the things our representatives do to get themselves reelected.  There ought to be an "anti-incumbent" party -- a new party (1) whose candidates all agree to serve only a single term, and who (2) make a special effort to get on the ballot in places where, even if they are not going to win, they can suck votes away from incumbents.

And that's another thing.  Why is it that the LONGER a congressperson stays in office, the more power he gets -- including more power to pander to special interests and to funnel money to his constituencies -- which in turn makes it increasingly easier for him/to get reelected?

I'm not saying there aren't some perfectly good long term legislators out there.  I'm just saying that on the whole we'd be a lot better off if our legislators didn't have to worry so much about getting reelected.

The list of 51 NAYS below -- the ones who voted FOR the dog ate my homework pharma giveaway act, are all candidates for removal in the next election.  It's hard to imagine a more irresponsible vote in this time of supposed budget cutting and fiscal need.

And I see Al Franken is among the NAYS.  How is that consistent with anything he campaigned on?

U.S. Senate Roll Call Votes 112th Congress - 1st Session
as compiled through Senate LIS by the Senate Bill Clerk under the direction of the Secretary of the Senate
Vote Summary
Question: On the Amendment (Sessions Amdt. No. 600 )
Vote Number: 126 Vote Date: September 8, 2011, 04:05 PM
Required For Majority: 1/2 Vote Result: Amendment Rejected
Amendment Number: S.Amdt. 600 to H.R. 1249 (Leahy-Smith America Invents Act)
Statement of Purpose: To strike the provision relating to the calculation of the 60-day period for application of patent term extension.
Vote Counts:YEAs47


Not Voting2
Vote SummaryBy Senator NameBy Vote PositionBy Home State
Alphabetical by Senator Name
Akaka (D-HI), Nay
Alexander (R-TN), Yea
Ayotte (R-NH), Yea
Barrasso (R-WY), Yea
Baucus (D-MT), Yea
Begich (D-AK), Nay
Bennet (D-CO), Nay
Bingaman (D-NM), Nay
Blumenthal (D-CT), Nay
Blunt (R-MO), Nay
Boozman (R-AR), Yea
Boxer (D-CA), Yea
Brown (D-OH), Nay
Brown (R-MA), Nay
Burr (R-NC), Nay
Cantwell (D-WA), Yea
Cardin (D-MD), Nay
Carper (D-DE), Nay
Casey (D-PA), Yea
Chambliss (R-GA), Yea
Coats (R-IN), Not Voting
Coburn (R-OK), Yea
Cochran (R-MS), Nay
Collins (R-ME), Nay
Conrad (D-ND), Yea
Coons (D-DE), Nay
Corker (R-TN), Yea
Cornyn (R-TX), Yea
Crapo (R-ID), Yea
DeMint (R-SC), Yea
Durbin (D-IL), Yea
Enzi (R-WY), Yea
Feinstein (D-CA), Nay
Franken (D-MN), Nay
Gillibrand (D-NY), Nay
Graham (R-SC), Nay
Grassley (R-IA), Nay
Hagan (D-NC), Nay
Harkin (D-IA), Nay
Hatch (R-UT), Yea
Heller (R-NV), Yea
Hoeven (R-ND), Yea
Hutchison (R-TX), Yea
Inhofe (R-OK), Yea
Inouye (D-HI), Nay
Isakson (R-GA), Yea
Johanns (R-NE), Yea
Johnson (D-SD), Nay
Johnson (R-WI), Yea
Kerry (D-MA), Nay
Kirk (R-IL), Yea
Klobuchar (D-MN), Nay
Kohl (D-WI), Nay
Kyl (R-AZ), Nay
Landrieu (D-LA), Nay
Lautenberg (D-NJ), Nay
Leahy (D-VT), Nay
Lee (R-UT), Yea
Levin (D-MI), Nay
Lieberman (ID-CT), Nay
Lugar (R-IN), Nay
Manchin (D-WV), Yea
McCain (R-AZ), Yea
McCaskill (D-MO), Yea
McConnell (R-KY), Yea
Menendez (D-NJ), Nay
Merkley (D-OR), Nay
Mikulski (D-MD), Nay
Moran (R-KS), Yea
Murkowski (R-AK), Yea
Murray (D-WA), Nay
Nelson (D-FL), Nay
Nelson (D-NE), Nay
Paul (R-KY), Yea
Portman (R-OH), Yea
Pryor (D-AR), Nay
Reed (D-RI), Nay
Reid (D-NV), Nay
Risch (R-ID), Yea
Roberts (R-KS), Nay
Rockefeller (D-WV), Not Voting
Rubio (R-FL), Yea
Sanders (I-VT), Nay
Schumer (D-NY), Nay
Sessions (R-AL), Yea
Shaheen (D-NH), Nay
Shelby (R-AL), Yea
Snowe (R-ME), Yea
Stabenow (D-MI), Yea
Tester (D-MT), Yea
Thune (R-SD), Yea
Toomey (R-PA), Yea
Udall (D-CO), Yea
Udall (D-NM), Nay
Vitter (R-LA), Yea
Warner (D-VA), Nay
Webb (D-VA), Nay
Whitehouse (D-RI), Nay
Wicker (R-MS), Yea
Wyden (D-OR), Nay
Vote SummaryBy Senator NameBy Vote PositionBy Home State
Grouped By Vote Position
YEAs ---47
Alexander (R-TN)
Ayotte (R-NH)
Barrasso (R-WY)
Baucus (D-MT)
Boozman (R-AR)
Boxer (D-CA)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Casey (D-PA)
Chambliss (R-GA)
Coburn (R-OK)
Conrad (D-ND)
Corker (R-TN)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Crapo (R-ID)
DeMint (R-SC)
Durbin (D-IL)
Enzi (R-WY)
Hatch (R-UT)
Heller (R-NV)
Hoeven (R-ND)
Hutchison (R-TX)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Johanns (R-NE)
Johnson (R-WI)
Kirk (R-IL)
Lee (R-UT)
Manchin (D-WV)
McCain (R-AZ)
McCaskill (D-MO)
McConnell (R-KY)
Moran (R-KS)
Murkowski (R-AK)
Paul (R-KY)
Portman (R-OH)
Risch (R-ID)
Rubio (R-FL)
Sessions (R-AL)
Shelby (R-AL)
Snowe (R-ME)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Tester (D-MT)
Thune (R-SD)
Toomey (R-PA)
Udall (D-CO)
Vitter (R-LA)
Wicker (R-MS)
NAYs ---51
Akaka (D-HI)
Begich (D-AK)
Bennet (D-CO)
Bingaman (D-NM)
Blumenthal (D-CT)
Blunt (R-MO)
Brown (D-OH)
Brown (R-MA)
Burr (R-NC)
Cardin (D-MD)
Carper (D-DE)
Cochran (R-MS)
Collins (R-ME)
Coons (D-DE)
Feinstein (D-CA)
Franken (D-MN)
Gillibrand (D-NY)
Graham (R-SC)
Grassley (R-IA)
Hagan (D-NC)
Harkin (D-IA)
Inouye (D-HI)
Johnson (D-SD)
Kerry (D-MA)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Kohl (D-WI)
Kyl (R-AZ)
Landrieu (D-LA)
Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Leahy (D-VT)
Levin (D-MI)
Lieberman (ID-CT)
Lugar (R-IN)
Menendez (D-NJ)
Merkley (D-OR)
Mikulski (D-MD)
Murray (D-WA)
Nelson (D-FL)
Nelson (D-NE)
Pryor (D-AR)
Reed (D-RI)
Reid (D-NV)
Roberts (R-KS)
Sanders (I-VT)
Schumer (D-NY)
Shaheen (D-NH)
Udall (D-NM)
Warner (D-VA)
Webb (D-VA)
Whitehouse (D-RI)
Wyden (D-OR)
Not Voting - 2
Coats (R-IN)Rockefeller (D-WV)

Vote SummaryBy Senator NameBy Vote PositionBy Home State
Grouped by Home State
Alabama:Sessions (R-AL), YeaShelby (R-AL), Yea
Alaska:Begich (D-AK), NayMurkowski (R-AK), Yea
Arizona:Kyl (R-AZ), NayMcCain (R-AZ), Yea
Arkansas:Boozman (R-AR), YeaPryor (D-AR), Nay
California:Boxer (D-CA), YeaFeinstein (D-CA), Nay
Colorado:Bennet (D-CO), NayUdall (D-CO), Yea
Connecticut:Blumenthal (D-CT), NayLieberman (ID-CT), Nay
Delaware:Carper (D-DE), NayCoons (D-DE), Nay
Florida:Nelson (D-FL), NayRubio (R-FL), Yea
Georgia:Chambliss (R-GA), YeaIsakson (R-GA), Yea
Hawaii:Akaka (D-HI), NayInouye (D-HI), Nay
Idaho:Crapo (R-ID), YeaRisch (R-ID), Yea
Illinois:Durbin (D-IL), YeaKirk (R-IL), Yea
Indiana:Coats (R-IN), Not VotingLugar (R-IN), Nay
Iowa:Grassley (R-IA), NayHarkin (D-IA), Nay
Kansas:Moran (R-KS), YeaRoberts (R-KS), Nay
Kentucky:McConnell (R-KY), YeaPaul (R-KY), Yea
Louisiana:Landrieu (D-LA), NayVitter (R-LA), Yea
Maine:Collins (R-ME), NaySnowe (R-ME), Yea
Maryland:Cardin (D-MD), NayMikulski (D-MD), Nay
Massachusetts:Brown (R-MA), NayKerry (D-MA), Nay
Michigan:Levin (D-MI), NayStabenow (D-MI), Yea
Minnesota:Franken (D-MN), NayKlobuchar (D-MN), Nay
Mississippi:Cochran (R-MS), NayWicker (R-MS), Yea
Missouri:Blunt (R-MO), NayMcCaskill (D-MO), Yea
Montana:Baucus (D-MT), YeaTester (D-MT), Yea
Nebraska:Johanns (R-NE), YeaNelson (D-NE), Nay
Nevada:Heller (R-NV), YeaReid (D-NV), Nay
New Hampshire:Ayotte (R-NH), YeaShaheen (D-NH), Nay
New Jersey:Lautenberg (D-NJ), NayMenendez (D-NJ), Nay
New Mexico:Bingaman (D-NM), NayUdall (D-NM), Nay
New York:Gillibrand (D-NY), NaySchumer (D-NY), Nay
North Carolina:Burr (R-NC), NayHagan (D-NC), Nay
North Dakota:Conrad (D-ND), YeaHoeven (R-ND), Yea
Ohio:Brown (D-OH), NayPortman (R-OH), Yea
Oklahoma:Coburn (R-OK), YeaInhofe (R-OK), Yea
Oregon:Merkley (D-OR), NayWyden (D-OR), Nay
Pennsylvania:Casey (D-PA), YeaToomey (R-PA), Yea
Rhode Island:Reed (D-RI), NayWhitehouse (D-RI), Nay
South Carolina:DeMint (R-SC), YeaGraham (R-SC), Nay
South Dakota:Johnson (D-SD), NayThune (R-SD), Yea
Tennessee:Alexander (R-TN), YeaCorker (R-TN), Yea
Texas:Cornyn (R-TX), YeaHutchison (R-TX), Yea
Utah:Hatch (R-UT), YeaLee (R-UT), Yea
Vermont:Leahy (D-VT), NaySanders (I-VT), Nay
Virginia:Warner (D-VA), NayWebb (D-VA), Nay
Washington:Cantwell (D-WA), YeaMurray (D-WA), Nay
West Virginia:Manchin (D-WV), YeaRockefeller (D-WV), Not Voting
Wisconsin:Johnson (R-WI), YeaKohl (D-WI), Nay
Wyoming:Barrasso (R-WY), YeaEnzi (R-WY), Yea

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Another IP Legislative Scam: EU Sound Recording Extension

Just heard that the EU had extended copyrights in sound recordings by 20 years.  They had been fixed at 50 years, but guess whose songs started coming out about 50 years ago.  Yup, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  Hard to believe, I know.  But those valuable copyrights were about the expire over there (here, our Congress has seen to it that they will last a full 95 years, I think).  And what's the solution?  Extend the copyrights, so these bands can enjoy another 20 years of revenues. 

Bottom line:  If they are still fighting for more after 50 years of copyright, you know they've made millions and millions based on the existing copyrights.  That's really all they deserve or need, isn't it?  The deal at the time they made the recordings was 50 years (probably less, actually -- I haven't checked).  What possible basis is there for changing the deal that was already made between the public and the artist in favor of the rich guy?

The reason, of course, is it's supposedly "unfair" to some already extremely-very rich artists.  But since when do deals get undone just because they are unfair?

More Intellectual Property Legislative Scams

Even though the United States is supposedly in a dire financial crisis, and we apparently need another $400 billion stimulus to help get us going again, that doesn't mean Congress won't unite to give hundreds of millions of dollars away to special interests when it can.

The special interest this time was The Medicines Company, which missed a crucial deadline by one day a few years ago, with the result that they could not obtain a certain patent term extension.  The surest way to prevent the patent from expiring was to get Congress to pass a special "The Dog Ate My Homework" law to retroactively extend that deadline for the Medicines Company.  Congress did just that, last week, as a small part of its larger patent reform package.  It's always hard to calculate how much money consumers and taxpayers lose when a drug stays on patent (since there is a period of time when generic manufacturers and the brand manufacturer team up to keep prices relatively high -- i.e. much higher than the perfect competition that should (and in many cases eventually does) prevail.  But the reports are that the mistake, if not fixed, would have cost the Medicines Company "hundreds of millions" of dollars (or "$500 million to a billion" dollars, per Greta van Susteren), and there was already a settlement in which Wilmer Hale -- the law firm responsible for the screwup -- was to pay The Medicines Company $18 million up front, and an additional $214 million if a generic were to come on the market prior to June 15, 2015.  That's all much-needed money that had all but landed in the laps of consumers and taxpayers (much the way windfalls repeatedly land in the laps of the already-moneyed interests), but Congress passed a law to snatch it right back.  In doing so, Congress was taking consumer money (which after all, is what pays for health care, including drugs like those of The Medicine Company) just as surely as it would have in a tax increase.  And yet the Republicans and Democrats both loved it, because they didn't have to call it a "tax."

The NY Times reported that "several dozen" of Wilmer Hale's lawyers went to work for the Obama administration.  Seems like a lot, but there was a lot at stake, I suppose.

To be fair, I should mention that the Medicines won a case in district court about how the deadline should be calculated.  But the decision in that case is under appeal, so their patent extension, until this Act of Congress, remained very much in doubt.

Here is Greta van Susteren's take:

So the question is -- if Congress was so willing to rip off consumers and taxpayers in this aspect of the patent reform legislation, why should we believe anything else they tell us about it?  As I've already mentioned, the move toward international harmonization (with the first-to-file rule) would seem to be opening the door all the wider for foreign interests (like the Chinese, which has a plan to exponentially increase their patent filings in the coming years) to obtain patents in the US that may well have the effect of slowing innovation, rather than promoting it.  Yes, it will help our multinationals get patents in China, but does that really help Americans, given that the multinationals aren't necessarily paying taxes here anyway?

And for patent geeks, the virtual removal of the "best mode" requirement was another giveaway.  Yes the "requirement" still exists, but now it's practically unenforceable.  Q:  What do corporations do when laws can't be enforced?  A:  Whatever they want.

In this case, the public loses again.  One of the benefits of the patent system was that patents are supposed to disclose cutting edge technology as it is being developed, and in particular to disclose the inventor's own preferred way of implementing the invention (i.e. the "best mode").  That's not an enforceable requirement any more, which means that patent documents will become more generic and less helpful to anyone trying to learn from them.  I.e. to the public.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Patent Reform and Job Creation

I admit I haven't really followed the patent reform job creation argument very closely.  But I'm pretty sure it's based on some serious fallacies.  I've now seen two different, conflicting arguments about why patent reform is good for jobs.  Some say that every patent that issues creates three jobs, although this seems to be based ona  Berkeley study that merely "showed" that each patent granted to a startup "created" three to five jobs, and the authors of that study say there's no basis for extrapolating that number.  Others say that reform will prevent bad patents and will do away with costly "interferences," and this will also help jobs (by addressing these innovation-stifling problems).  In other words, the notion is that issuing "high quality" patents quickly will create jobs.

Unfortunately, it's almost certainly not going to play out that way.  Most patents that are issued today are for inventions that were about to be invented by someone else.  In other words, patents rarely represent a great advance; they are usually just a new wrinkle.  Most patent litigation today does not involve "theft" of the invention; rather, the defendant has typically made the same "advance" independently.  That's not to say that these are "poor quality" patents; the standard for granting patents is just not all that high. 

Take the recently-touted eight millionth patent.  It involves a great innovation for helping blind people see.  But the company had already received a patent for that basic innovation; number eight million was just an extra wrinkle that will help that company defend its monopoly from competitors.  And of course, it was not happenstance that the eight millionth patent happened to involve a useful and interesting technology.  The patent office almost certainly selected this from a large pool of potential "number eight millions," most of which would have caused the public to wonder what the point of the patent system is.

While it is true that companies with patents have a built-in advantage over their competitors and that employees at these companies will have potentially more stable jobs, that hardly means that patents create jobs.  In fact, they can pose barriers to entry to the competitors who would also provide jobs.  It's simply impossible to quantify how many jobs are "suppressed" in this way by patents.

But here's the bigger problem.  By harmonizing the US patent system with that of other countries, the patent reform will make it easier for foreign companies to get patents in the US.  Already, they are getting a sizable share: 

In 2009, Japan got nearly 40,000 US patents, Germany and South Korea each got about 10,000, Taiwan got nearly 8,000, and China got about 2000.  The US issued about 190,000 patents in 2009.  So that's 70,000 out of U.S. 190,000 patent already going to these "competitors" of ours.  How many U.S. jobs does a German-owned U.S. patent create?

And the percentage of foreign-owned patents is only going to grow.   I don't even have to look up the statistics to know that each of the listed countries provides better education -- in particular science education -- to its people.  Ok, I checked the statistics: .  I see we are better at reading than Germany, but worse at science and math.  Other than that, I think we're worse at everything than all the other listed countries.  And China is way better than us across the board.

And of course, the current listing of 2000 US patents to China is a fraction of what we are going to see.  China had over a million domestic patent applications in 2010 (about 800,000 of these were for design or utility model patents, and thus cannot be compared to US utility patents.  But the remaining 200K can).  And China has announced plans to multiply its patent filings both domestically and abroad.

So over time, patent reform will only accelerate the trend of US patents being owned by foreign interests.  That can't be good for U.S. jobs, can it?

So what would real reform have consisted of?  The innovation-stifling impact of patents is that they last so darn long.  20 years from date of application (which typically means about 17 years from issuance).  This is designed to give the inventor a "reward" for disclosing the invention to the public.  But the result of that is unbelievable inefficiency in markets.  The most competent companies cannot practice the latest technology, because some other company (or even a so-called patent troll -- a company that simply owns patents and makes nothing) owns the patents.  The only way to break out of this is to litigate, but patent litigation costs millions of dollars.  Yes, patent reform includes provisions for challenging patents in the patent office, but these procedures will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

A solution would be to make patents valid for only five years, across the board, everywhere in the world.  That way, the owner would get a 5 year monopoly, which, with today's global markets, ought to be plenty.  And competitors would not have to fight to break the patent -- they could simply wait it out.  And then let the market work.

Where did the 20 year term come from?  Well, the term was originally 14 years from issuance, and then it went up to 17 years from issuance.  Then in 1995, in order to "harmonize" with other countries, it became 20 years from application.  But if it's just designed to provide a reward to inventors, why has it stayed essentially the same (and even increased) over two centuries?  Shouldn't the award be commensurate to the contribution?  And if the award in the 1800s -- where markets were local, patents were difficult to enforce, etc., -- was sufficient, why have we permitted it to grow so much?  AFter all, we -- the consumers of patented goods -- pay for the invention through suppressed competition and the attendant increased prices.

It would be nice for someone to do a study on that.  I.e. what was a patent "worth," in real dollars, in 1800, 1850, 1900, 1950, 2000, and 2010.  In other words, what are we giving the inventor for his innovation?  In 1850, it wasn't much.  But today, it's quite a lot.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Eating Animals

Recently finished listening to Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals."  I had already become a quasi vegetarian and vegan wannabe based on Jeffrey Masson's "The Pig Who Sang to the Moon -- The emotional world of farm animals" over a year ago.  Foer reinforced Masson with new facts that either I hadn't heard before or had forgotten.

I should probably listen to Masson again, but as I remember it, the book went through each and every farm animal -- cows, sheep, chickens, pigs, and maybe more -- and told stories about how essentially human they are.  All of them are as smart or smarter than most dogs.  And they feel pain, and have emotions, just like dogs and people. Yet factory farms treat them as insensate commodities; if profits could be maximized by keeping these animals in perpetual agony, that's what would happen.  In fact, for most pigs and chickens, life is something approaching perpetual agony, from birth to merciful (if often painful) death.  Dairy cows and laying hens live under dire conditions, so really one has to be a vegan to be completely ethical.

But here's my thought.  Both of these books have convinced me that the only ethical approach would be to abstain from all factory farmed meat, dairy, and eggs.  But I have not accomplished that.  Maybe I will, maybe I won't.  I have reduced my intake of those products by something approaching 90%.  I almost never eat meat, and I've cut back on dairy and eggs.  But sometimes (once a month or so), it's just too darn convenient to pull into a McDonald's and order a plain McDouble, for a dollar.  That little bit of occasional meat is probably even good for me.  If I could only persuade one other person to adopt a similar diet, the two of us would have a much greater impact than I would if I had been a pure vegan.  It's much much easier to use my diet than it would be to be a pure vegan, so it should be easier to persuade people to do so.  And if everyone adopts this diet, then factory farms will quickly dry up.

Here are some facts that I happen to remember from Foer:

1.  Chickens are killed after 42 days of life.
2.  Cows are killed at about the 1 year point.
3.  I don't remember about pigs, but pigs are probably the smartest of these animals, can be affectionate, and live truly terrible lives.  In many cases, not enough room to turn around, have to wallow in their own excrement, even though all their instincts cry out against doing so.
4.  Many acts of deliberate sadism (too brutal to spell out here) by slaughterhouse and farm workers toward animals have been documented (and caught on film).
5.  Cows are often not killed immediately, and go through the slaughterhouse disassembly line conscious, until finally they are sawed in half.
6.  Eating fish is not much of a solution.  They feel pain, and farmed fish are raised in awful conditions.  For caught fish, the problem is bycatch.  For every pound of tuna, or piece of shrimp, many many pounds of other animals are killed and simply thrown away.
7.  Laying hens are bred and given hormones to cause them to produce eggs at three times the normal rate, under cramped and unpleasant conditions.  They can't sustain that laying rate after they are one year old, so they are killed then.
8.  Male chicks are killed at birth (actually, I think I first heard this in Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking with Einstein" although it's probably in Jonathan's book too).
9.  Many -- probably most -- animals have their balls, beaks, claws, and/or tails cut off, for various reasons.  Never with anesthetics.  Branding is also painful, although that doesn't bother me nearly as much as it bothers Foer.  For me, compared to everything else, the very temporary pain -- searing though I'm sure it is -- of branding is practically de minimis.  We've all felt searing physical pain at one point or another, but we get over it pretty quickly.  Few of us humans have experienced anything comparable to the other abuses that animals routinely suffer.
10.  There is no good waste disposal system.  The animal excrement is a serious pollution problem and health hazard that is unsolved; it's an externality that is not included in the price of meat.
11.  Raising animals (instead of eating plants) may be the single largest contributor to global warming.

We can probably also blame the acceptance of factory farms for the fact that meat is so cheap compared to vegetarian food.  Still, it does not make any sense that vegetarian food costs so much.  There is probably a lot of fat there, for some entrepreneur to take advantage of.

I'll probably add more as I remember them.

Oh, and apparently Masson's book has become a documentary.  Haven't watched it yet:


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Santitas Frito Lay Scam

Santitas chips always seemed like a pretty good deal to me -- a one pound bag for about $2.  The lettering on the bag even proclaimed the good deal:  "$2 only".  Not available in the DC area, which didn't make a whole lot of sense, but available in places in downstate Virginia like Roanoke and Abingdon.  I used to "import" them in fact (i.e. I'd buy an extra bag down there and bring it along).  But was just at the Roanoke Wal-Mart, saw the Santitas bag at "$2 only," reached for it, only to have it slip through my nerveless fingers as I became aware of its size.  12 oz now.  So it's shrunk by 4 oz, or 25%, and they are still calling it a good deal.

I'll admit it's possible that they went from 16 oz to 14 oz without my noticing it (or without my caring a lot about it) (but see blog comment quoted below)  But the decrease to 12 oz is very noticeable.

Just googled around and found a blog from a while ago commenting on what a good deal the chips were.  Turns out they are made by Frito Lay, and the blogger thinks they are as good as Tostitos, Frito Lay's other tortilla chip product (and of course, the only one available in the DC area).  Commenters in January and February 2011 noted that the bag size had shrunk to 12 oz.  But I'm positive I bought one pound bags -- or maybe it was just 14 oz -- after that.  So the bag shrinkage may well have been gradually implemented, region by region. 

The blog is, and the original post is from March 2010, but it actually looks like she's holding a 12 oz bag (can't read the ounces, but the grams seem to be 360 or so, which is between 12 and 13 ounces).  So perhaps in her region they had shrunk as early as March 2010.
One reply dated July 1, 2011 says:

 "I just bought my last bag….I thought something was different with the size and Googled it when I got home. Sure enough, the 16 ounce bag has shrunk to 12 ounces but the price remains at “ONLY $2.00″ That’s just not right…and this is the last bag for me."

So as usual, I'm not the first to notice something like this.  But it's good to have validation.

Quite possibly a method of predatory pricing.  I.e. Frito is facing generic competition since tortilla chips are cheap to produce.  So they produce a quality chip at a lower price to stave off that competition.  I'll keep on buying generics -- most of the supermarket chains seem to have a generic brand of tortilla chips that come out to about $2 a pound, although they come and go.

Note that one of the commenters on the aforementioned blog said that the quality of Santitas had been going down, as of April 2011:

"The santitas chip brand owned by fritos has been converted to a poor version of one of the other tostitos. They used to be great and now they suck… I’m so very disappointed. I used to buy them all the time. The triangles are greasy and too thick and heavy. They also taste like lard. Complain and tell the company that they made a huge mistake."  

Of course, it's not necessarily a mistake at all.  I've often suspected that brands produce lower quality generic lines for the sole purpose of driving consumers back to the brands.  If Frito Lay actually reduced the quality of Santitas on purpose, that would be perfectly consistent with this theory.  It hadn't occurred to me that the brand might intentionally cause its "generic" version to fluctuate in quality, but you have to admit, that would be pretty brilliant.  Consumers will go back to the tried and true.

On the tortilla chip theme, that's my one regret about leaving Sam's Club for BJ's Wholesale Club.  Sam's used to have (as of a year ago, or whenever my membership lapsed), boxes containing 2 two-pound bags of decent tortilla chips for $5.99.  I.e. that's $1.50 per pound.  But BJ's doesn't have anything comparable, and their chips (they have a strong Frito Lay promotion going -- you can buy two 1 pound bags for $6, and can mix and match) are all in the $3 or more per pound price range.

Now I'm not advocating a lawsuit against Frito Lay or anything.  But I do think that this kind of behavior should be reported, and consumers should be aware of it.  Maybe this is a job for the FTC's consumer protection branch.

Gas mileage data for frequent fillups

Filled up in Roanoke and drove 152 miles to exit 291 (in the rain).  Put in 4.1 gallons of gas, for a mileage of 37 mpg in the rain, with defroster on (and occasional breaking/slow driving due to rain, plus about 7 miles on I-11 to avoid an accident).  But then "filled up" again at exit 40, and put in 1.5 gallons (for 50 miles), for a mileage of about 33 mpg.  Average for those legs was 202/5.6 = 36 mpg.  Maybe next time I'll just do the 202 miles straight and see what the mileage is.

Gas differential stabilizing?

On the trip down 81 this weekend, the prices were at $3.39 per gallon at exit 291 and in Roanoke (exit 150).  On the return, at exit 40 on I-66, the price was $3.45.  Usually the differential between Roanoke and exit 40 is well over 10 cents, often over 20 cents.  Interesting development.