Archive for April, 2007

In another obvious example of people stealing ideas from my blog, the US Supreme Court today released a decision which says, in short, “a lot of patents these days are STUPID“. I heard it on NPR’s headlines at 6pm ET, but nothing more about it all evening (including on Marketplace, which I am taking as a signal that the opinion must have been released late in the day). Hopefully it’ll get more coverage tomorrow.
Many of the articles I found about it were pretty lame, but I liked this one at Forbes and this one at the LA Times. I even indulged and went to the actual Court opinion which was actually pretty readable and contained a remarkable amount of information about the history of gas pedals.

Yes, gas pedals. The basic issue here was a gas pedal that can be positioned to suit the driver’s preference. But that’s not the patent. The pedal does not pull a cable that opens the throttle mechanically, but rather an electonic signal was sent to open the throttle. But that’s not the patent either. The patent concerned the placement of the sensor. Specifically, moving it from the footpad (as was already presented in a 1995 patent) to the arm of the pedal. One is tempted to think that I must just be misunderstanding, because surely a patent would not be issued for moving a sensor from one part of the pedal arm to another. But, this comment from Justice Stephen Breyer in November (during the arguments of the case) really makes me think I’ve got it correct:

Is the Teleflex invention like moving a garage door sensor from the lower hinge to an upper hinge?

Well, the court voted unanimously that this patent should be considered invalid. In fact, they ruled that the entire basis by which it was awarded was flawed. The opinion part of The Opinion begins as follows: “We begin by rejecting the rigid approach of the Court of Appeals.” The Court ruled that a test known as the “TSM test” was incorrectly being used as the One True Test of an invention’s obviousness. The Court’s ruling today saying that while the TSM test can be helpful, “[h]elpful insights […] need not become rigid and mandatory formulas.” The opinion is being read, then, as to call into question any patent that was awarded on a similar application of this test. The NPR snippet I heard claimed that the number of affected patents would be in the hundreds of thousands. I jumped up and down with glee when I heard that.

A few more choice quotes from the Opinion:

The question is not whether the combination was obvious to the patentee but whether the combination was obvious to a person with ordinary skill in the art. … [F]amiliar items may have obvious uses beyond their primary purposes, and in many cases a person of ordinary skill will be able to fit the teachings of multiple patents together like pieces of a puzzle. … A person of ordinary skill is also a person of ordinary creativity, not an automaton.

And finally, this summary

[T]he results of ordinary innovation are not the subject of exclusive rights under the patent laws. Were it otherwise patents might stifle, rather than promote, the progress of useful arts.

After that statement, The Opinion goes on to cite the exact same section of the US constitution that I cited in my last post on this blog! Those damn pirates on the Supreme Court have plagerized my intellectual property!!

Ok, to close more seriously: a saw a woman today wearing a T-shirt that said something like “The first thing we’d do is kill all of the lawyers.” Lawyers get blamed for much. Rich capitalists get blamed for much too. It’s obviously not the case that all lawyers and all rich people are pure good, and I’m not going to claim anything like that. But I think lawyers and rich people get blamed for lots of things that are really the problems of our laws. If we have laws that allow governmentally enforced monopolies to be granted for matters as simple as where on a pedal arm a sensor is placed, then the capitalists are going to try to get the monopolies and the lawyers are going to try to keep them safe. Now, other lawyers working for other capitalists will sometimes challenge those monopolies, and I’m thrilled with today’s news about such a case. But I can’t blame the lawyers or the capitalists for the fight. They are just doing what is natural in the face of bad intellectual property law. If the government didn’t issue these stupid patents in the first place, the capitalists and their lawyers wouldn’t look so stupid trying to uphold them. But of course, it’s much more fun to blame lawyers and rich people for our problems than to talk about copyright and patent law. Whatever the case, hopefully today’s ruling will knock some sense into the United States Patent and Trademark Office, or at least bolster the courage of private parties to refuse to pay royalties to holders of dumb patents.

We all have our issues that we care about, I suppose. But I don’t know why more people aren’t up in arms with me about the United States’ ludicrous intellectual property laws. Well, Marketplace tonight slapped this thorn in my side with this story about patents that have been awarded for innovative ways to save on taxes. People who study the tax laws carefully enough to find loopholes to help their clients to pay less into the Federal Government’s coffers are then protected by that same Government by anyone who wants to do the same thing without paying the first person to do it. Or, the first person to successfully register a patent claim on it. Disgusting.

The Federal Government’s claim to legitimacy in protecting intellectual property is rooted in this clause from Article 1, section 8 of the constitution: “The Congress shall have power … [t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” I’d be willing to bet that throughout the history of our nation, no one has ever referred to tax experts as “authors” or “inventors” in natural conversation. More importantly, deciphering tax law is neither science nor useful art. I could go on and on. It’s just bad.

Really, I’m pretty much opposed to all business process patents. And all software patents. I’m skeptical of traditional patents for inventions of hardware, but they sure don’t offend me the same way. This is bad. There’s apparently some legislative effort to stop issuing such patents. I realize it may not be a matter of life and death for anyone, but when many people are offended by the mere fact of someone being rich, I think more attention is due to ways in which people get rich, especially when they rely on help from governments and curtail the freedom of others.


Someone on the Bloomington Linux Users Group mailing list pointed out that if you ask google maps for directions from NY to Paris, you get this. Check out step 23.

All three of the vehicles When I called my insurance company to put the new car on, they explained that my best option was to transfer my existing coverage to my new car. But, by their rules, that means I have only 30 days to get rid of the old Saturn, or else start a new policy on it which would be expensive.

Meanwhile, there’s the van. The van was a gift from my parents, after it got old enough and of questionable enough reliability that they got a new one. It’s been very handy, helping me with several pickups of lumber, furniture, etc. It also helped countless friends of mine move.

But, during its last main job last fall, a scary thing happened. A big part of the suspension jetted up through the floor of the car. Eek! I asked some friends about it and most people thought it would be repairable. I took it to a garage, but they recommended a welder. I took it to the welder, but he said it might not be worth it, the van is old and rusty and it would cost at least a few hundred dollars to repair. I drove away to think about it.

Now, thinking is one of my favorite activities. :) I did some math in my head and calculated, after a while, that, for as little as I drive the van, it’d be cheaper for me to rent a U-Haul all of those times than to continue paying the insurance on it along with these repairs. Less convenient, sure, but still… My line to myself ended up being “if you used the van more often, it might be worth fixing, but since you don’t, it’s not worth it, at least not for you.”

The van's biggest problemSo, long and short, I had two motor vehicles to sell. And, just as I don’t have a great deal of experiene buying cars, I don’t have any experience selling them… The other two cars I’ve owned in my life were junked at the end of their times.

Again, it’s great that it’s so easy to use Kelley Blue Book and similar sites for things like this. The KBB value of my car was $1050-1250, depending on condition, and it definitely isn’t in top condition. So, I was gearing up to try to sell it for about $1000. Turns out that before I even listed it on line, I hear interest from two different friends, and ended up selling it to one of them for $925. Her other car is a pickup, and by our calculations, the Saturn will pay for itself in about 7 months in fuel savings for as much driving as she does. Wow.

But I did eventually get up my courage to list it online. I cleaned it up a bit on the inside (finding all sorts of things (especially cheap kids’ toys) that were apparently left in there when some friend was moving things). I figured I would try on Craigslist first, because it’s free and easy.

A tip for people thinking of listing something on Craigslist: do it when you have some free time ahead of you. Listing this old beast for $200 negotiable, I had two replies the next morning, both of whom very specifically made offers to pick it up THAT DAY. I actually had several meetings and stuff that day, so I had to work to fit one of them in. But, he was flexible, and we worked it out.

He worked as a professional welder in Columbus, IN, and apparently does welding in his spare time as well. So, I think the van is going to a good home. He drove over in his big pickup, pulling a trailer behind him.

I asked if we wanted to test drive it or anything. “Nah” he said “as long as I can drive it up on the trailer, that’s all I care about.” No problem there! So, up it went, he handed me the agreed upon $125, and a few signatures later, the van was gone. So simple.

The Van being Driven AwaySo, I’m a one car family again! :) I do like the new car, I’m happy about the whole experience. But, as a conclusion, rather than talk about the new car, I want to send a tribute to the old Saturn.

I have an approach to examining car expenses which is to look at the total cost of the car, including repairs (but not including gas or insurance) over the time that you owned the vehicle. I think you do pretty well if you can drive an economy car for $1000/year. So, if you buy a car for $13,000, never put any serious repairs on it, and it lasts for 13 years, you did well. If you buy an old car for $1000, put $2000 of repairs into it over three years, you did well. Or, if you buy a used car for $9000, drive it for two years with no repairs, and sell it for $7000, you did well.

Well, if I recall correctly, I bought the 1994 Saturn for $5500 in December, 1999. Over eight years later, I sold it for just over $900, so I my net expense was $4600. That car barely needed any maintenance. In fact, a year or so ago, I finally had a bunch of the preventive maintenance type stuff done on it, figuring that it had been at least seven years since it had any of that done. So, maybe I did $1000 of repairs over that eight years. Even at a full thousand, though, the total cost of ownership would be $5600 over eight years, an average of under $700 per year. And never once did it fail to get me where I wanted to go. That car served me extremely well, and it is just a bit sad to see it go. Of course, since I sold it to my friend, I’m hoping I can watch it continue to serve someone well for at least a few more years. Thanks, y’old Saturn…

(Note: If you haven’t already read Episode 1, you should read that first)

Before I left the dealership, I talked for quite a while with Maggie, who does all of their financial stuff. She’s also the daughter of the owner. I would guess that this place has only 6 full time employees. But I digress. Maggie was very helpful. I haven’t bought cars all that often in my life, so I was unsure about lots of things like whether I get the insurance first or the plates first, etc. She was very helpful, both giving official rules and friendly advice. This was nice.

It was curious, though, how we dealt with the deposit. I asked “How much should I leave for the deposit?” “Well, we really like at least $300, but we could go lower if you need. What’s comfortable for you?” Mercy. I explained that I just didn’t have $9000 sitting in my checking account, but that I could easily offer $1000, and wouldn’t that be a nice easy number? Needless to say, they were fine with that, and we ran $1000 on my debit card.

But in the spirit of asking questions, I also said “now, for the final payment, I should bring… what? a cashier’s check?” That was acceptable, she explained, but posed its own problems. If nothing else, they wouldn’t hand over the title to the vehicle until the cash was in their bank, so I’d either have to come back to pick it up, or they could mail it. “But the mail is not always as reliable as you’d like it to be.” She made it pretty clear that her preference would be for cash. But she certainly wasn’t insisting. But it did make sense to me to have the title and be done with the whole process. So, I figured I’d try to bring cash.

Now, it turns out that only a month or two before this, I actually did have over $9000 in my checking account. After a fair amount of deliberation and consultation with friends, I’d moved just a bit more than that from my checking account to a savings account with ING (4.5% on a plain savings account… I definitely recommend it). Of course, when I did that, I wasn’t thinking that I was about to buy a car. So, now I had to move it back. This is a simple enough process, but it does take a couple of business days. So, that was the real cause of the delay.

I paid the deposit on Monday. I arranged to pick up the car on Friday (Priscilla agreed to drive my old car back for me. Thanks, Pri!). But, I was getting closer and closer to having to face the prospect of dealing with that much cash.

I’m sure this is normal for some people. Even some people who aren’t gangsters. But it’s definitely not normal for me I learned. I was very anxious about it. I mean, I enjoyed it as an experiment. But the results of the experiment were definitely that I was anxious. I decided on Friday morning I should call the bank and make sure there were no special requirements to withdraw that much cash. The person who took my call did have to put me on hold and ask someone, but confirmed that yes, I could just go up to a teller, present them with a check made out to “Cash”, and they could give me the cash.

Ok. Naturally I wanted to do this right before we left. I didn’t want to have all that cash any longer than necessary. I walked through the process several times. I had a list in my brain of exactly what I would do. So, it was easy enough to do the mechanics of it, which allowed my brain to spin on things such as whether any hoodloms were taking note of what I was doing, ready to jump me between here and my car.

I entered the bank. I was glad it was cold, because I wore my winter coat that has a nice inside breast pocket. I walked up to the little work area with the plastic date-on-display and the pens-on-leashes. I took out my checkbook and wrote out the check for $8487.00. Eight Thousand Four Hundred Eighty Seven — DOLLARS. IN the memo field I wrote “I’m buying a car” in hopes that the teller and I wouldn’t have to talk very loudly about the amount.

I waited in line, thinking that at this point, I was still safe. Not only did I not have the cash yet, but someone would have had to have been snooping on me really closely to know that this wasn’t an every-day transaction. Then it was my turn. The tellers at my bank are invariably friendly, and so I wasn’t at all surprised by the warm greeting mine offered. “A rather special withdrawal today” I said as I cooly handed her the check. “OH! You’re buying a car!! Oh that’s great! What kind of car!!” So much for that idea. We chatted a bit about the whole thing. And then she explained that she’d need to meet with a bank manager and go back to the vault to get the money. Makes sense, I’ll wait in the lobby.$8487

As I type I realize that I’m probably just outing my naievety to the world, because I’m sure many people go through this kind of thing more often than I do, but whatever. After sweating for a few minutes (not wanting to remove my coat that would soon be holding so much value), I saw my teller return from the vaults. I met her back at the counter, and she started her work:

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9- One Thousand

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9- Two Thousand

The cash was wrapped in packages of $2000 each, so she counted out four of those (does it have to be so loud?), and then the remaining $487, which by that point seemed like pocket change. I had brought an empty plain brown envelope with me to carry this around in, so I put it all in there, and cautiously left the building.

My reasoning was that the walk from the teller to the car was the time to be most cautious. Once I’d driven away, someone would have to be following me to know what was going on. But here, anyone might have been able to overhear.

Well, naturally, nothing bad happened, I drove to the practice rooms at the School of Music to pick up Priscilla. I listened to her play through something on the harpsichord, sweating the whole time (not wanting to take off my coat).Me in the car

But, all that anxiety was either unnecessary or did its job, because nothing else unusual happened. Maggie at the car dealership was very comfortable dealing with all that cash, and of course, once they had it, I was just a few signatures away from driving away in my new car!!

And so I did. It was a nice day for a nice drive, and I greatly enjoyed cruise control and an open sun roof, both firsts for me on a car that I own. Woohoo!

So, is this the end? No! I now have three motor vehicles! I gotta deal with that fact and several other things. You will be able to read about it all in part three of Car: The Mini-series.