2012 - %3, April

Microsoft Scores Big Win in Patent Wars

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 2:26 PM EDT

The decadence of the modern high-tech industry is on full display today:

Microsoft, which just bought patents from AOL for more than $1 billion, is now selling most of them to Facebook for $550 million. The two companies said Monday that Facebook is buying about 650 of the 925 patents and patent applications. Facebook will get a license to use the rest of the patents. Microsoft will also get a license to use the patents that Facebook is buying.

So there you have it. Each patent is worth about a million bucks, or one one-thousandth of an Instagram. This means that these patents are either ridiculously expensive or else ridiculously cheap. I can't quite figure out which.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Progressives: Yank ALEC's Nonprofit Status!

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 12:50 PM EDT

After pressuring dues-paying corporations to ditch the American Legislative Exchange Council, the good-government group Common Cause has launched a new attack on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) by challenging its status as a tax-exempt nonprofit.

Late last week, lawyers representing Common Cause filed a lawsuit under the Tax Whistleblower Act with the Internal Revenue Service accusing ALEC of violating its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit by "massive[ly] underreporting" its lobbying activities. The suit alleges that ALEC exists primarily to give corporate members the ability to "lobby state legislators and to deduct the costs of such efforts as charitable contributions." Non-profits like ALEC can't make lobbying a majority of their activities. (For a primer on ALEC, check out this 2002 Mother Jones story, "Ghostwriting the Law.")

The Illusion of Free Will, Google Version

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 12:36 PM EDT

From Andrew Sullivan:

Fear not. The Dish will not succumb to SEOs. I'm still too enthralled with the immediate unfiltered reader-writer experience that blogging alone allows.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, the dark art of writing blog posts or news articles that will rise to the top of Google search pages. But although Andrew may not be SEO-ing his own site, he's already succumbed to SEO. After all, the article he links to in the post above is a week-old review by Sean Gallagher of a tool called InboundWriter, which is designed to help you write Google-friendly prose:

To get a feel for what SEO experts think determines a "high-quality" page from the standpoint of a search engine, I used InboundWriter to search-optimize this story. I'll let you be the judge of the outcome; InboundWriter gave it a score of 99 out of a possible 100.

In other words, Andrew may think that he wrote about SEO today of his own free will. But free will is an illusion. In reality, he wrote about it because Gallagher's article had been honed to perfection and thus gotten lots of attention. I blindly followed along. Resistance is futile.

Pew: Liberal Media Not So Hot On Obama in 2012

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 11:55 AM EDT

The Liberal Media has consistently given more positive coverage to likely Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney compared to President Barack Obama, according to a new survey of media coverage from the Pew Research Center's Excellence in Journalism Project.

During the early weeks of 2012, Romney's media coverage was slightly negative—between January 2 and February 26, 33 percent of the stories about the ex-Massachusetts governor were positive and 37 percent were negative, according to Pew's analysis. But Romney has received mostly positive coverage since then (47 percent positive to 24 percent negative). By contrast, according to the report, President Barack Obama "did not have a single week in 2012 when positive coverage exceeded negative coverage."

One could argue that the media's tone on Obama was consistently negative for objective reasons—the state of the economy, for example, or Americans' disagreement with the president's foreign policy. But the negative coverage of Obama hasn't been particularly substantive—only 18 percent of coverage of Obama has been on domestic issues, with two percent on foreign issues. The vast majority of coverage, sixty-three percent, has been focused on "strategy," often the journalistic equivalent of empty calories. It's not as though the negative coverage has been driven by say, drone strikes in Yemen or inadequate responses to foreclosure fraud. Coverage of Romney, while more positive overall, was even more (74 percent) focused on "strategy." This is actually an improvement over 2008, since according to Pew, the media was even more preoccupied with horse-race coverage during that campaign.

The notion that Obama is getting a free ride, long a staple of right-wing media criticism since 2008, doesn't seem to be abating. If anything, it's spreading. Last Sunday, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane wrote, "The Times needs to offer an aggressive look at the president’s record, policy promises and campaign operation to answer the question: Who is the real Barack Obama?" Either two autobiographies and three years in office have left Brisbane confused, or he's echoing the right-wing narrative that the president has a closet full of black berets and leather jackets the librul media has helped him cover up. (It was Brisbane who in January beclowned himself and the institution he represents by asking whether the New York Times should be a "truth vigilante," in particular whether "news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.") 

Brisbane's columns offer an obvious example of the distorting impact of internalizing right-wing complaints about the media. The media's overwhelming focus on "strategy" and Obama's consistently negative coverage indicate that a preoccupation with public policy and an unwillingness to criticize the president are two afflictions the mainstream press is not suffering from.

Mitt Romney Will Try to Tap Dance Around Healthcare This Year

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 11:29 AM EDT

Republicans have been chanting "Repeal and Replace" for a long time now, and there's no question that they're dead serious about repealing Obamacare. But what do they want to replace it with? That's been a wee bit fuzzier. Today, though, Noam Levey writes in the LA Times that Mitt Romney's plan is slowly starting to take shape:

His public statements and interviews with advisors make clear that Romney has embraced a strategy that in crucial ways is more revolutionary — and potentially more disruptive — than the law Obama signed two years ago. The centerpiece of Romney's plan would overhaul the way most Americans get their health coverage: at work. He would do so by giving Americans a tax break to buy their own health plans. That would give consumers more choices, but also more risk.

....Unlike Obama's healthcare law, Romney's plan could fundamentally change the rules for the more than 150 million Americans who get insurance through their employers. These workers get a large tax break because their health benefits are not taxed. Businesses that provide insurance also get a break because their contributions to their employees' health plans aren't taxed.

In place of that system, Romney would give Americans a tax break to buy their own health plans, regardless of whether their employers offered coverage.

As near as I can tell, Team Obama isn't eager to make healthcare a central topic of the upcoming campaign. Given the continued lukewarm approval ratings of Obamacare, I guess that's understandable. And yet, if Romney unveils the kind of plan Levey suggests, it's hard not to think it could be a winning issue. I mean, Romney would be offering a plan that would:

  • Motivate lots of employers to drop health coverage.
  • Give dropped families a tax credit that wouldn't come close to covering the cost of buying health coverage on their own. So most families would end up paying a lot more for health insurance than they do now.
  • Almost certainly increase the federal deficit, probably by a lot.

That's bad enough. But there's more! A plan like this plainly doesn't work unless insurance companies are required to take all comers. After all, you can hardly give employers an incentive to drop group coverage and then just sit back and do nothing while insurance companies refuse to offer policies to half the people who have been dropped. But if you're going to require insurance companies to take all comers, you also have to regulate the price they can charge. Otherwise they'll just jack up the price on anyone they don't want to cover, effectively denying them insurance. But if you do that, then you really need to have some kind of insurance mandate too. Otherwise all the sick people will sign up and the healthy people will remain uninsured, most of them figuring there's always an emergency room that will take care of them if something goes really wrong. This would decimate the insurance industry.

And of course poor people will require subsidies of some kind. We're not barbarians, right?

Is this all sounding familiar? It should. It's not really a whole lot different than Obamacare. If you omit any of it, it really doesn't work. The reason is that there are some fundamental underpinnings of the health insurance market that just don't change no matter how liberal or conservative you are. If your plan is based on insurance, then it has to be based on large, inclusive pools of applicants. One way or another, you have to group together random parts of the population in order to provide insurance companies with big, actuarially predictable pools of customers. There's no way around this unless you're willing to (a) essentially put insurance companies out of business, or (b) allow lots and lots of people to lose health coverage. Trying to do anything else is like trying to square a circle. It just won't work.

Romney will do his best to fudge this, and it might work if the Obama campaign decides not to press the issue. That might not be wise. No matter how clever Romney is, there are going to be cracks in his plan that can be exploited. They should be.

The Brain Teaser Route to World Domination

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 10:33 AM EDT

Over at the Observer, Leo Benedictus reviews William Poundstone's Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?

Some way into this book, you realise something, or at least I did. Only the first 136 pages have anything to do with Google's interview technique. The rest, for almost as many pages, is consumed by "answers" to the many questions that we find along the way....Might I have preferred to settle down with a book that didn't bother trying to be a practical, topical and revealing guide to hi-tech job interviews, but instead just called itself "101 Great Maths and Logic Puzzles"?

....You will get to ponder things like this: "You're playing football on a desert island and want to toss a coin to decide the advantage. Unfortunately, the only coin on the island is bent and is seriously biased. How can you use the biased coin to make a fair decision?"....There is quite a lot of sucking up to Google, actually, even though the effectiveness of the company's methods is far from proven.

Indeed. First Microsoft, and then all of Silicon Valley, became famous for subjecting potential hires to questions like the one above, or queries about how many gas stations there are in the United States. But has anybody ever produced even halfway persuasive evidence that this is a great way of hiring brilliant employees? My own suspicion is that it isn't. It rewards a certain kind of shallow cleverness that might well be useful in certain roles at high-tech companies, but I'd be surprised if it were anything more. In fact, putting together an entire company characterized by shallow cleverness might well be sowing the seeds of one's own destruction. It's a mental trait that I suspect is organizationally useful is modest quantities, but might very well be actively harmful in larger quantities. Even in the high-tech world, producing clever coding hacks is only a tiny part of success.

But then, I have no proof of that either. All I know is that I'd probably be reluctant to work for a company that even asked questions like this in the first place. It's a fad, and a lazy way of convincing yourself that you've figured out a shortcut to assembling a world-class staff. But there are no shortcuts. Not even in Silicon Valley.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 23, 2012

Mon Apr. 23, 2012 10:33 AM EDT

Spc. Justin Vnenchak, an infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, maintains security in his sector while fellow paratroopers and Afghan policemen search a compound on April 8, 2012, in southern Ghazni province, Afghanistan. US Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.

Review: "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," by Waco Brothers and Paul Burch

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

TRACK 11

"Hard Rain's Gonna Fall"

From Waco Brothers and Paul Burch's Great Chicago Fire

BLOODSHOT

Liner notes: Worlds collide with a bang on this wonderfully scruffy version of the Dylan chestnut, which nicks the bluesy arrangement of the David Bowie classic "The Jean Genie."

Behind the music: This alt-country dream team pairs Chicago's raucous Waco Brothers, helmed by UK punk pioneer Jon Langford (of the Mekons), with the gentler singer-songwriter Paul Burch, who's worked with everyone from Ralph Stanley to Vic Chesnutt to Exene Cervenka.

Check it out if you like: Those Darlins, Bobby Bare Jr., and other mischievous traditionalists.

 

Peasant's Bound for Glory

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Peasant
Bound for Glory
Schnitzel Records

Damien DeRose, the 25-year-old at the heart of the indie trio Peasant, started making music as a teenager living in small-town Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He produced his first three albums—Fear Not Distant Lover, On the Ground, and Shady Retreat—largely on his own before bringing in bassist Bruno Joseph and drummer Alex Bortnichak for a more robust sound on the just-released Bound for Glory.

DeRose's delicate acoustic songs have earned him frequent comparisons to the likes of Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, but he's tried to distinguish himself from the continuous stream of indie-folk types. He told Paste he chose the Peasant moniker in an attempt to escape the ubiquitous "singer-songwriter" label, hoping that a more distinctive name would help him define his work as part of an ongoing artistic project. The name itself, he said, came from the famous line in John Lennon's "Working Class Hero"—"But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see"—a choice he thinks makes a subtle statement about inequality in America while simultaneously conveying the band's simple aesthetic.

So does Peasant succeed in standing out from the pack? It depends: the band's music occasionally borders on the forgettably twee, as on the cloying "A Little One," while a couple of songs, like "Gone Far Lost" and "Mother Mary," cross the line from sleepy charm to soporific lull. Other songs are captivating despite modest ambitions: "Amends" is slight, but DeRoses's lilting vocals, in tandem with effervescent guitars, give it a quiet charm; likewise for the quavering vocals and sprightly cadence of "Take It Light."

Obama Whomps Romney in 2012's Campaign Cash Grab (So Far)

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Mitt Romney has at last vanquished his zombie opponents and locked up the Republican presidential nomination. Polls show Romney eating away at President Obama's lead in a head-to-head matchup, now at 3.3 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics' polling average. When it comes to the campaign cash fight, however, Obama is trouncing Romney, as new fundraising numbers from the first months of 2012 make clear.

Here's the most eye-popping stat: By the end of March, Obama's reelection effort had 10 times more money in the bank than Romney's campaign, $104.1 million to $10.1 million. Looking at the entire 2012 campaign, Obama's haul is now at $196.6 million, while Romney's is at $88.7 million. Below, we've visualized the January-to-March fundraising totals for the Obama and Romney campaigns, the Democratic and Republican National Committees, and a handful of key super-PACs. One takeaway: Democrats may be dominating the traditional campaign and party cash grab, but GOPers, led by Karl Rove, are dominating the outside-money battle.