Science and Technology: Why the Apple verdict represents the worst of innovation

I’ve been thinking for a while now about why the recent patent verdict in favor of Apple irritates me so much. It’s not that I don’t think intellectual property should be protected, because I think it should. It’s not that I don’t think Apple should not be able to profit from the things it invents, because I think it should. It’s not even that I don’t think Samsung used technology Apple patented, because I think it did.

No, it’s none of those things.

Instead, it’s that Apple has decided that the drive for profit is an excuse to use its patents and the US courts to destroy its opponents. What Apple–and Oracle and Sun and Microsoft and Google and others–want to do is to create fiat monopolies using laws designed to protect innovators to prevent others from further innovation based on their ideas.

For example, in the Apple case, the phones Apple wants banned from sale in the US represent a tiny fraction of overall smartphone sales and some models are no longer even sold it the US. What Apple really wanted was the billion dollar settlement–it asked for $2.5 billion in damages–so as to wound Samsung’s ability to continue to do business.

By taking down competitors using patent lawsuits, Apple seeks to own all of the market share. Apple doesn’t want competitors and  seems willing to do whatever it takes to destroy them.

What makes this desired destruction so egregious is that most of the patents Apple sought to enforce cover technology and ideas Apple didn’t actually invent. It just patented them first. And now, it uses those patents as weapons.

What suffers from this onslaught is any kind of innovation. If Apple can own hand gestures and screen symbols–things that are essentially ideas, not technology–then how can anyone invent new ideas that will surely come from what Apple already owns without risking the bloody tip of Apple’s patent spear?

What this patent war ignores is that the history of human innovation is the history of sharing technology and ideas to make things better and to benefit everyone. If historical inventors had followed the same path Apple followed, the bow, the shoulder harness, concrete, the sail, and the car would have all been the proprietary property of their inventors and available only from them for exorbitant fees.

Historically, we humans realized this kind of idea was ludicrous. Up until the 18th century, when the rampant wealth of the industrial revolution drove us all mad, we forced the sharing of ideas, even going so far as to go to war to get them. Now, apparently, we’re willing to sit back and let the robber barons of the tech industry dictate to us, and we all suffer because of it.

If Apple wants to prove it does not intend what I suggest, then it can solve the problem in a simple way: open source all of its patents for non-commercial use. I will even grant that it has the right to collect fees if someone creates something new based on its patents, but it should not have the right to own ideas.

Apple, we’re waiting.


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Worldview: Science and Technology: Curiosity

In case you missed it, the Mars Science Laboratory, dubbed “Curiosity” by its builders, landed safely on Mars last night. Trust me, even if you don’t care, it’s a really big deal, and an important step for NASA after shutting down the Space Shuttle program.

What’s more, compared to a lot of things the government spends money on, Curiosity was cheap and produces a measurable good result in terms of raw science, development of technology, and inspiration.

We should do more of this stuff.


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Art: Make STEM into STEAM to bring the soul back into the modern world

Jerry Isdale has an interesting write-up over at the Adafruit weblog where he makes the case for adding art back into the mix of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. I heartily agree.

To me, one of the things that the rush toward STEM in the last seventy or so years has brought us is that the soul has been ripped out of the things we have discovered and created. This fact as a variety of evidences, from the exile of philosophy and faith from the scientific mind to the idea that artistically inclined people are not engineering material.

I think returning art (making STEM into STEAM) to the sterile environment we have created could go a long way toward returning us to a holistic state. What do you think?


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Science and Technology: Some thoughts on Gingrich’s moon base idea and on why America is losing the technology race

My first thought on reading the predictable backlash against Newt Gingrich’s moon base idea was, “Americans suck.”

I thought that because the backlash is so short-sighted of all the positive things building a moon base would bring to the table. It’s not like the money and effort to build a moon base would be poured into a hole. It’s not like the science and technology needed to make a moon base happen would not spin off into all sorts of other applications. It’s not like a moon base would go unnoticed, failing to fire imaginations and motivations.

One of America’s great historical strengths has been its capacity for embracing and solving hard problems in ways that benefit all of humanity in some way. Yes, that is a grandiose claim, but it is also true. Time and time again, Americans have done things that have boggled the minds of the rest of the world. Look at our industrial prowess during World War II. Look at what we accomplished with the Apollo Program. Look at what we did by inventing the Internet.

Yet, I think most Americans think those efforts and the idea of a moon base are a waste of time not because those ideas are not worthwhile but because they imagine the money better spent on themselves.

You see, the reason there has been such a backlash against a moon base is because people want to use that money to pay for their non-production. Sure, we call it Social Security and Medicare, universal healthcare and unemployment, but I call it not doing anything except consuming more. Harsh? Yes. True? To a great extent.

Let’s say, for example, that putting a permanent base on the moon would cost  $1 trillion. That’s $1 trillion of scientists and engineers developing the technology. That’s $1 trillion of factories building the parts. That’s $1 trillion of an army of technicians building and launching things.

Further, that’s $1 trillion of houses being built for the people doing those things. That’s $1 trillion in tax revenues for localities and school districts. That’s $1 trillion in groceries and restaurants feeding people. That’s $1 trillion in shopping malls, gas stations, and hair salons.

Besides the fact that $1 trillion opens the door to all kinds of possibilities we can’t even imagine right now simply because we don’t have a base on the moon.

Nope, instead we’d rather retire and hang out on the taxpayer’s dime.

Meanwhile, the Chinese, Indians, and Russians don’t feel that way at all. One of those nations is going to build a moon base even if we don’t. Then, suddenly, nobody will be talking about the amazing things America once did. They’ll be talking about the amazing things the Chinese or Indians or Russians are doing wile the Americans were all retired and hung out.

Yeah, Americans suck.


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Science and Technology: Free development: an open letter to technology corporations

Dear <fill in the blank with the name of a major technology producer CEO>,

I understand that you want to make supertanker loads of money so that you can vacation in the Mediterranean and eat your lunch off nude prostitutes, and I know that people who take your technology and use it for things other than what you were able to imagine they should is really scary, but I hate to break it to you: hackers and makers are really your friends.

You see, whenever a hacker or maker takes your product and does something with it you did not imagine they could, they essentially hand you a new product for free with the potential for even more supertanker loads of money (and hence, more nude prostitute sushi). Further, every time someone develops a new use for your product, based either on the original product or on a new development someone hacked, that’s a new supertanker.

In essence, all of these hackers and makers represent an entire free product development division that won’t demand any more benefits than to have the right to open something they’ve paid for, to see how it works, and to use it they way they want.

In fact, if you encourage such initiative by making your products hackable and makeable, you might find out that people might start to like your company even more and not get so upset with your supertankers full of money and nude prostitute sushi. What’s more, if you take some of that money–just a tiny little bit–and use it to fund contests to see what people might be able to do with your products, you might even accelerate the process.

Or, you could just do things the way you always have, jealously guarding your products against such intrusions while hackers and makers do what they’re going to do anyway. That is, those hackers and makers will do it until they get bored or something better comes along, maybe some other company’s product that isn’t afraid to put it out there and see what happens. Then, that company will get the supertankers full of money you wish you had while you’re stuck sharing your cheeseburger with your dog in Greenland.


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Science and Technology: Robots, robots, mighty robots…

After a long hiatus–cut me some slack, I got an associates degree, took over a sustainable farm, and started an IT consulting business since I last posted on my projects–, I have finally restarted my robot building enterprise with several promising-sounding projects that will eventually get their own pages on this website including (but not limited to):

  • A Vex-based Farmbot
  • A cardboard cat, to be followed by:
  • A catbot
  • A firetruck toy for use with special needs kids
  • A sun tracker/solar panel optimizer

As these projects develop, I will post updates and, eventually, build notes and parts lists on this site.


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Worldview: The science of using what we already have

For a very long time, I’ve wondered about a core tenet of our modern, technology driven era: that what we have now is inherently better than what we have before. For example, most people will insist that farming with oil consuming tractors and modern implements is far better than anything we could have achieved continuing to use animal power, and they make that claim based on very little if any evidence.

It is because of that uncertainty that I was fascinated by the story of Bart Weetjens, a man who trains rats to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis. What Weejens has done is taken a modern, technological problem and solved it using an idea based on something that required very little technological development. His TED talk is an extraordinary understatement of the idea I think he has introduced.

And what is that idea? For me, it is the science of using what we already have instead of inventing some new, potentially damaging solution, to solve a problem. What if the problem with, say, using horses to farm isn’t that tractors are more efficient but that we never developed the technology to use horses far enough? Weetjens, I think, takes that approach with finding mines and disease.

What else can we apply this principle to?


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