Later On

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Archive for August 26th, 2012

Corporate move to squash small inventor-entrepreneurs

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Corporations like to throw their weight around, and they find it relatively easy now to get Congress to do their heavy lifting by passing laws that favor the corporations. In the NY Times Steve Lohr describes one law now being challenged:

In Silicon Valley, Apple just won big against Samsung in the patent lawsuit of the year, after trading claims and counterclaims of pilfered product ideas. Across the country, in a federal court in Florida, an inventor named Mark Stadnyk is waging a different kind of patent warfare — an ambitious and perhaps quixotic legal foray.

Mr. Stadnyk, who holds a patent on a motorcycle windshield, is suing the United States government, aiming to head off a patent law that he says will favor big companies and hurt lone inventors like himself.

Represented by a prominent Washington lawyer, Mr. Stadnyk filed a suit last month that challenges the constitutionality of legislation that Congress passed last fall, the America Invents Act. Mr. Stadnyk and his lawyer — along with some academics, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists — assert that the legislation is a triumph of corporate lobbying power over the founders’ wishes, and that it threatens America’s stature as the world’s leading innovator.

The present system, one of the nation’s oldest patent principles and called “first to invent,” relies on lab notebooks, e-mails and early prototypes to establish the date of invention. The impending law would overturn that by awarding patents to the inventors who are “first to file” with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Mr. Stadnyk, 48, a garage inventor who stumbled into the world of patents after he bought a powerful new motorcycle and wanted to avoid being battered by the wind when riding at 60 miles an hour, even with a windshield. He devised a system of brackets and gears to adjust the height and angle of the windshield and the gap between it and the motorcycle. With his system, he says, the rider feels a flutter of breeze instead of jolting winds and turbulence.

Mr. Stadnyk, who describes his invention style as “rough hacking with chunks of metal,” founded his company, MadStad Engineering, in 2006, and as sales picked up, he stopped working as a computer consultant to devote himself to the business.

Today, MadStad employs eight people, including Mr. Stadnyk and his wife, Patty. His adjustable windshield systems, priced from $100 to $320, are now used on dozens of makes and models of motorcycles, and are sold through dealers in Australia, Britain and Spain, as well as the United States. Yearly sales, he said, are more than $500,000 and growing briskly.

Mr. Stadnyk holds three patents, and he speaks of a patented idea as a uniquely human property right. “It came out of your mind,” he explained. “It’s not property you bought or inherited.”

Mr. Stadnyk became interested in the patent legislation as it proceeded. He says he studied the proposals and the law, read blogs and reached out to Washington lawyers and academics who raised the issue of its constitutionality. A grass-roots activist, he even made a coupleof YouTube videos.

The shift to a first-to-file system, scheduled to take effect next March, is intended to simplify and streamline the current system, which can invite protracted litigation between competing inventors. The switch would also put the United States in harmony with patent offices in Europe, Japan and elsewhere, allowing them to share information and potentially ease the strain on overburdened patent examiners worldwide.

The efficiency argument is the mainstream view of corporate America and Washington policy makers. President Obama declared that the new law would cut “the red tape that stops too many inventors and entrepreneurs from quickly turning new ideas into thriving businesses — which holds our whole economy back.”

But opponents say it will give big companies a huge advantage over start-ups and small inventors. Large corporations have deep pockets and armies of lawyers to write up and file patents, they say, and the new law will touch off a paper chase to the patent office instead of a race to innovate.

Yet the opponents are in the minority. And there is genuine debate about how much garage inventors and fledgling companies contribute to innovation and economic growth these days. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 August 2012 at 7:21 pm

Posted in Business, Government, Law

Bankers profit from criminal behavior and are immune to prosecution

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This NY Times editorial points out how criminal behavior by banks is not prosecuted, regardless of the costs to the public.

When the Justice Department recently closed its criminal investigation of Goldman Sachs, it became all but certain that no major American banks or their top executives would ever face criminal charges for their role in the financial crisis.

Justice officials and even President Obama have defended the lack of prosecutions, saying that even though greed and other moral lapses were evident in the run-up to the crisis, the conduct was not necessarily illegal.

But that characterization of the financial industry’s actions has always defied common sense — and all the more so now that a fuller picture is emerging of the range of banks’ reckless and lawless activities, including interest-rate rigging, money laundering, securities fraud and excessive speculation. . .

Continue reading.

And this piece by Roberto Saviano perhaps helps explain how banks learned criminal behavior so well:

THE global financial crisis has been a blessing for organized crime. A series of recent scandals have exposed the connection between some of the biggest global banks and the seamy underworld of mobsters, smugglers, drug traffickers and arms dealers. American banks have profited from money laundering by Latin American drug cartels, while the European debt crisis has strengthened the grip of the loan sharks and speculators who control the vast underground economies in countries like Spain and Greece.

Mutually beneficial relationships between bankers and gangsters aren’t new, but what’s remarkable is their reach at the highest levels of global finance. In 2010, Wachoviaadmitted that it had essentially helped finance the murderous drug war in Mexico by failing to identify and stop illicit transactions. The bank, which was acquired by Wells Fargo during the financial crisis, agreed to pay $160 million in fines and penalties for tolerating the laundering, which occurred between 2004 and 2007.

Last month, Senate investigators found that HSBC had for a decade improperly facilitated transactions by Mexican drug traffickers, Saudi financiers with ties to Al Qaeda and Iranian bankers trying to circumvent United States sanctions. The bank set aside $700 million to cover fines, settlements and other expenses related to the inquiry, and its chief of compliance resigned.

ABN Amro, Barclays, Credit Suisse, Lloyds and ING have reached expensive settlementswith regulators after admitting to executing the transactions of clients in disreputable countries like Cuba, Iran, Libya, Myanmar and Sudan.

Many of the illicit transactions preceded the 2008 crisis, but continuing turmoil in the banking industry created an opening for organized crime groups, enabling them to enrich themselves and grow in strength. . .

Continue reading.

The costs of allowing banks to operate essentially free of stringent regulation is high indeed. Thank Philip Gramm of Texas for dismantling effective regulation when he was US Senator.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 August 2012 at 10:33 am

Posted in Business, Government, Law

Language: A complex system akin to a game

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Intriguing article in Prospect by Phillip Ball:

Languages are extremely diverse, but they are not arbitrary. Behind the bewildering, contradictory ways in which different tongues conceptualise the world, we can sometimes discern order. Linguists have traditionally assumed that this reflects the hardwired linguistic aptitude of the human brain. Yet recent scientific studies propose that language “universals” aren’t simply prescribed by genes but that they arise from the interaction between the biology of human perception and the bustle, exchange and negotiation of human culture.

Language has a logical job to do—to convey information—and yet it is riddled with irrationality: irregular verbs, random genders, silent vowels, ambiguous homophones. You’d think languages would evolve towards an optimal state of concision, but instead they accumulate quirks that hinder learning, not only for foreigners but also for native speakers.

These peculiarities have been explained by linguists by reference to the history of the people who speak it. That’s often fascinating, but it does not yield general principles about how languages have developed—or how they will change in future. As they evolve, what guides their form?

Linguists have long suspected that language is like a game, in which individuals in a group vie to impose their way of speaking. We adopt words and phrases that we hear, and help them propagate. Through face-to-face encounters, language evolves to reconcile our conflicting needs as speakers or listeners: when speaking, we want to say our bit with minimal effort—we want language to be structurally simple. As listeners, we want the meaning to be clear—we want language to be informative. In other words, speakers try to shift the effort onto listeners, and vice versa.

All this makes language what scientists call a complex system. This means that it involves many agents interacting with each other via fairly well-defined rules. From these interactions there typically emerges an organised, global mode of behaviour, but this cannot be deduced from the local rules alone.

During the past three decades, complex systems have become widely studied by computer modelling: you . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 August 2012 at 10:13 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

The US Navy’s effort to wag the dog

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Fascinating article by Jeff Stein in the Washington Post:

Gwenyth Todd had worked in a lot of places in Washington where powerful men didn’t hesitate to use sharp elbows. She had been a Middle East expert for the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. She had worked in the office of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in the first Bush administration, where neoconservative hawks first began planning to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

But she was not prepared a few years later in Bahrain when she encountered plans by high-ranking admirals to confront Iran, any one of which, she reckoned, could set the region on fire. It was 2007, and Todd, then 42, was a top political adviser to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

Previous 5th Fleet commanders had resisted various ploys by Bush administration hawks to threaten the Tehran regime. But in spring 2007, a new commander arrived with an ambitious program to show the Iranians who was boss in the Persian Gulf.

Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff had amassed an impressive résumé, rising through the ranks to command a cruiser and a warship group after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Following a customary path to three stars, he had also spent as much time in Washington as he had at sea, including stints at the Defense Intelligence Agency and as director of the Clinton White House Situation Room.

Cosgriff — backed by a powerful friend and boss, U.S. Central Command (Centcom) chief Adm. William J. “Fox” Fallon — was itching to push the Iranians, Todd and other present and former Navy officials say.

“There was a feeling that the Navy was back on its heels in dealing with Iran,” according to a Navy official prohibited from commenting in the media. “There was an intention to be far more aggressive with the Iranians, and a diminished concern about keeping Washington in the loop.”

Two people who were there said Cosgriff mused in a staff meeting one day that he’d like to steam a Navy frigate up the Shatt al Arab, the diplomatically sensitive and economically crucial waterway dividing Iraq and Iran. In another, they said, he wanted to convene a regional conference to push back Iran’s territorial claims in the waterway, a flash point for the bloody Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Then he presented an idea that not only alarmed Todd, but eventually, she believes, launched the chain of events that would end her career.

Cosgriff declined to discuss any of these meetings on the record. This story includes information from a half-dozen Navy and other government officials who demanded anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, many parts of which remain classified.

According to Todd and another witness, Cosgriff’s idea, presented in a series of staff meetings, was to sail three “big decks,” as aircraft carriers are known, through the Strait of Hormuz — to put a virtual armada, unannounced, on Iran’s doorstep. No advance notice, even to Saudi Arabia and other gulf allies. Not only that, they said, Cosgriff ordered his staff to keep the State Department in the dark, too.

To Todd, it was like something straight out of “Seven Days in May,” the 1964 political thriller about a right-wing U.S. military coup. A retired senior naval officer familiar with Cosgriff’s thinking said the deployment plan was not intended to be provocative.

But Todd, in an account backed by another Navy official, said the admiral “was very, very clear that we were to tell him if there was any sign that Washington was aware of it and asking questions.”

For the past year, the air had been electric with reports of impending U.S. or Israeli attacks on Iran. If this maneuver were carried out, Todd and others feared, the Iranians would freak out. At the least, they’d cancel a critical diplomatic meeting coming up with U.S. officials. Todd suspected that was Cosgriff’s aim. She and others also speculated that Cosgriff wouldn’t propose such a brazen plan without Fallon’s support.

Retired Adm. David C. Nichols, deputy Centcom commander in 2007, recalled in an interview last year that Fallon “wanted to do a freedom-of-navigation exercise in what Iran calls its territorial waters that we hadn’t done in a long time.” Nothing wrong with that, per se, but the problem was that “we don’t understand Iran’s perception of what we’re doing, and we haven’t understood what they’re doing and why,” Nichols said. “It makes miscalculations possible.”

Todd feared that the Iranians would respond, possibly by launching fast-attack missile boats into the gulf or unleashing Hezbollah on Israel. Then anything could happen: a collision, a jittery exchange of gunfire — bad enough on its own, but also an incident that Washington hawks could seize on to justify an all-out response on Iran.

Preposterous? It had happened before, off North Vietnam in 1964. In the Tonkin Gulf incident, a Navy captain claimed a communist attack on his ship. President Lyndon Johnson swiftly ordered the bombing of North Vietnam, touching off a wider war that turned the country upside down and left more than 58,000 U.S. servicemen dead.

Don’t tell anybody? No way.

Todd picked up the phone and called a friend in Foggy Bottom. She had to get this thing stopped. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 August 2012 at 8:00 am

Chemical harm continues unabated, unregulated

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Nicholas Kristof notes the degree to which companies really care only about their profits, not about the public’s well-being:

NEW research is demonstrating that some common chemicals all around us may be even more harmful than previously thought. It seems that they may damage us in ways that are transmitted generation after generation, imperiling not only us but also our descendants.

Yet following the script of Big Tobacco a generation ago, Big Chem has, so far, blocked any serious regulation of these endocrine disruptors, so called because they play havoc with hormones in the body’s endocrine system.

One of the most common and alarming is bisphenol-A, better known as BPA. The failure to regulate it means that it is unavoidable. BPA is found in everything from plastics to canned food to A.T.M. receipts. More than 90 percent of Americans have it in their urine.

Even before the latest research showing multigeneration effects, studies had linked BPA to breast cancer and diabetes, as well as to hyperactivity, aggression and depression in children.

Maybe it seems surprising to read a newspaper column about chemical safety because this isn’t an issue in the presidential campaign or even firmly on the national agenda. It’s not the kind of thing that we in the news media cover much.

Yet the evidence is growing that these are significant threats of a kind that Washington continually fails to protect Americans from. The challenge is that they involve complex science and considerable uncertainty, and the chemical companies — like the tobacco companies before them — create financial incentives to encourage politicians to sit on the fence. So nothing happens.

Yet although industry has, so far, been able to block broad national curbs on BPA, new findings on transgenerational effects may finally put a dent in Big Chem’s lobbying efforts.

One good sign: . . .

Continue reading. Yet, given the degree to which corporations control Congress (and now elections), I am not hopeful. The American people have so far mostly been docile; the few who protest are routinely subdued by the police through false arrests, pepper spray, beatings, confiscation of cellphones, and so on. The GOP’s determined and continuing campaign to cut back voting rights (and voting hours) for Democratic constituencies also continues unabated (and do click the links in that article).

Written by LeisureGuy

26 August 2012 at 7:57 am

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