Patent Trolls and the Little Guy

After several years of litigation, Apple has signed a deal to license some patents from Nokia related to the iPhone and iPad. Matt Yglesias comments:

The people for whom this promises to be a big headache are, as usual, not the incumbent players but hypothetical future players. Imagine a firm that’s not currently a highly profitable, super-successful manufacturer of mobile devices. Now you’ve got a new barrier to entering the market....I don’t have a super-clean policy point to make about this, but it’s striking how much time and energy is spent in this most vibrant and innovative sector of the economy on these patent wars. It’s an equilibrium that’s obviously wonderful for patent lawyers, and seems to serve all the major incumbents well enough but I don’t think it really bodes well for the world.

I agree about this, and I'd like to see the area of IP patents cleaned up considerably. It shouldn't be impossible to get an IP patent, but the standard ought to be pretty high: not just a small twist on an existing idea or a "business method," but something genuinely innovative. I'm not sure how you get there, but it seems like something worth spending more time on.

Still, having said that, I wonder how much impact this stuff really has on small players? During the 80s, I remember learning that IBM held the original patents for stuff like DMA and interrupt controllers,1 which surprised me because by that time those things were like oxygen: just a standard part of every computer in the world. But hey — someone had to invent that stuff, and in the end the patents didn't really slow anyone down. Basically, the technology got incorporated into chips, the chipmakers presumably paid royalties, and everyone else just bought the chips. There was a modest cost, but it didn't prevent Steve Wozniak from designing the Apple II. The same thing happens with patent pools for things like MPEG and other standards. It's all a gigantic pain in the ass, and it can impede progress while the lawyers hash everything out, but once they do, all the little guys end up using the patented technology without having to jump through hoops.

Anyway, I'd be curious to hear more about this from startup tech folks. Is patent litigation mostly a game played by the big boys, with small companies generally unaffected aside from small price increases in the off-the-shelf technology they buy? Or is it a bigger deal than that?

1I should note for the record that I might have heard wrong on this score. I don't really know for sure who invented either of these things.

Tea Parties and Big Business

I mostly agre with Ezra Klein's comment on David Brooks' column today: what Brooks wants from our government is awfully close to what Barack Obama seems to want too, if only Republicans would agree to ante up the money for it. It's not a 100% match or anything, but really, it's silly to pretend that both Obama and Republicans are equally feckless about all this stuff.

But this passage really drew my attention:

The Tea Parties are right about the unholy alliance between business and government that is polluting the country. It’s time to drain the swamp by simplifying the tax code and streamlining the regulations businesses use to squash their smaller competitors.

Say what? Is Brooks seriously pretending that the motivating anger of the tea parties comes from the fact that government is too friendly to big business? The tea partiers hate Obama and they hate Obamacare, but they like big business just fine and so do their funders. If you're really looking for partners in a crusade to prevent government regulation from favoring the interests of existing business incumbents, you're more likely to find them in the radical lefty community than in the radical tea party community. Where does Brooks get this stuff?

The Future of Non-War

Here's the latest on Yemen:

The CIA is expected to begin operating armed drone aircraft over Yemen, expanding the hunt for al-Qaeda operatives in a country where counter-terrorism efforts have been disrupted by political chaos, U.S. officials said.

....Because it operates under different legal authorities than the military, the CIA may have greater latitude to carry out strikes if the political climate shifts in Yemen and cooperation with American forces is diminished or cut off.

I know I'm not the first to ask this, but exactly what theory of military action allows President Obama to do this without congressional approval? In Afghanistan and Nicaragua in the 80s, you could argue that we were merely funding allies, not fighting a war ourselves. In Grenada and Panama, you could argue that we were merely pursuing small-scale police actions. In Pakistan, you can argue that our operations are all part of the Afghanistan war. You might not like any of those arguments, but at least they're something.

But what's the theory here? This is obviously not a short-term operation (it began well over a year ago). It's obviously not part of the Afghanistan war. You'd have to twist yourself into a pretzel to pretend that the post-9/11 AUMF applies here. (The fact that Congress is considering an extension of the 2001 AUMF in order to cover operations like this is a tacit admission that the old AUMF doesn't apply.) Nor does the fact that Yemen's president has given it his blessing really mean anything from a war powers standpoint.

In practice, the theory seems to be that unmanned drones are somehow not as real as actual manned fighter jets. After all, does anyone seriously believe that Obama could send sortie after sortie of F-22s over Yemen and not have anyone complain about it? I doubt it. But as long as they're just drones, no problem. Given the inevitable growth of robotic warfare in both the near and long term, this doesn't bode well for the future.

I tweeted this earlier, but I thought tonight's GOP debate produced unusually clear winners and losers. The winners were Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann and the losers were Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty.

Romney produced clear, fairly concise answers, didn't filibuster, and managed to avoid attack. He made his conservative bona fides clear without sounding like a tea partier, and he appeared decisive and well briefed. Nothing flashy, but there were no mistakes and he conducted himself like a front runner.

Bachmann, alone of the candidates, occasionally gave genuinely interesting replies that drew on specific knowledge she has from her service in Congress. Her replies were clear, easily understandable, and she avoided sounding crazy. In fact, she often seemed like the best briefed candidate on the stage.

Gingrich was a big nothing. His calling cards are intellectual heft and creative thinking, and he showed none of that tonight. He stuttered through his answers and said nothing interesting.

Pawlenty didn't bomb completely, but he seemed unsure of himself on multiple occasions and said almost nothing memorable. He can recover, but he's going to have to stake out some kind of personality for himself if he wants to beat Bachmann for the ultra-conservative vote.

Santorum, Paul, and Cain were non-factors coming in and they remain non-factors now. The debate did nothing for any of them.

Free Markets Will Deliver Infinite Growth

A lot of people were wondering if the Republican candidates at tonight's debate would all try to one-up each other on the size of the tax cuts they'd offer. But I'm pretty sure no one predicted that Ron Paul would one-up Tim Pawlenty's promise to deliver 5% growth for ten years. Ron Paul's promise? 5, 10, 15% growth! We can have any growth we want!

Gonna be a long night.

Will California's new independently drawn district lines increase the number of swing districts here in the Golden State? And will that lead to more moderates of both parties getting elected? Maybe, but David Dayen is skeptical:

If you actually get serious about what is really a competitive district, you come up with something like the Sacramento Bee’s analysis. In a story with the preposterous headline “California Legislature may see more swing districts under draft political maps,” the actual analysis shows that swing districts will increase in the State Senate, for example, from one district… to two.

....The reason for this is simple: Californians self-segregate. Unless you re-gerrymander with absurd district lines, it’s impossible to create a critical mass of swing districts. The liberals live in one place and the conservatives live in another. That’s just the way it is.

David's point is that analysts claiming a big increase in swing districts are using a definition of "swing" that's purely theoretical. In practice, existing districts that already meet their loose criteria for being in play never change parties. So there's not much reason to think that new districts that are similar will show much swinginess either. I've already linked to a couple of optimistic analyses which suggest that redistricting will lead to a bit more moderation in California politics, so David's counter-analysis is worth taking a look at. He's pretty good at this stuff. We'll find out who's right next November, I guess.

But there's one thing everyone agrees on: the new lines will benefit Democrats. The 2001 redistricting artificially limited the number of Democratic seats, so even a normal, non-gerrymandered redistricting is bound to increase Democratic representation considering that California has gotten even more strongly Democratic over the past ten years. Republicans may be very close to becoming an endangered species here.

Spammers Ruin Yet Another Cool Thing

This is sort of fascinating. Google has decided to withdraw its language translation tools from public use (though the Google Translate site itself will stay around), and the reason, as with so many things internet-related, is that it's a victim of its own success. Google's translation engine improves over time by comparing side-by-side samples of translated text that get scooped up by its search robots, but this continuing improvement depends on the translations themselves being high quality. So what happens when spammers and link farmers flood the internet with text translated by Google's own tools? Kirti Vashee of eMpTy Pages explains:

The higher the quality of input to this training process, the higher quality the resulting engine can translate. So the increasing amount of “polluted drinking water” is becoming more statistically relevant. Over time, instead of improving each time more machine learning data is added, the opposite can occur....This results in potentially lower quality translations over time, rather than improvements.

....What Google did not anticipate was extent of abuse of the Google Translate API in a manner prohibited by its Terms of Use. This has resulted in such a significant mass of poorly translated content that the impact on Google’s core search business is notable and poses a significant threat to the quality of Google’s search results and the quality of its future translation initiatives. Given how important search and translation are to Google’s current and future business, this is most likely the “Substantial Economic Burden” and “abuse” that Google refers to in its shutdown announcement. With this realization, it makes sense that Google is taking action to rectify the problem.

This comes via James Fallows, who says, "This is the computer-world equivalent of sloppy overuse of antibiotics creating new strains of drug-resistant bacteria." It just goes to show, once again, that there's hardly anything that spammers and other internet leeches can't ruin.

The State of American Conservatism, Part 874

Jon Chait is right: this rant from David Gelernter in the Weekly Standard has to be read to be believed. I think it should be preserved in amber as a type example of Homo Derangus circa 2011.

Of course, Gelernter is the author of possibly my favorite sentence ever from a piece of opinion writing. Behold:

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina seems like a decent and likable man, the political equivalent of a handsome, slightly under-ripe bunch of bananas, just the thing if you are looking for bananas and can't find any ripe ones, or don't know the difference.

Actually, given what we now know about Edwards, this sentence is even funnier than it was back in 2004. Meanwhile, Media Matters presents us with this example of the "all-but-eradication of race prejudice" that Gelernter thinks we liberals are unwilling to acknowledge because we hate America so much. It's from Glenn Beck wannabe Eric Bolling over at Fox News. "Can Gelernter or any other conservative explain this video as the expression of anything other than race prejudice?" asks Chait. "And does the fact that it can be featured on a mainstream news network, passing muster among a host, a producer, and any other number of staffers responsible for approving it, without objection, tell us anything important about the acceptability of such prejudice?" Answer: yes it does. At Fox News, anyway.

Fighting Back on the Economy

E.J. Dionne on the economy:

For the moment, Republicans have no interest in moving the nation’s debate toward investments in job creation because they gain twice over from keeping Washington mired in discussions on the deficit. It’s a brute fact that Republicans benefit if the economy stays sluggish. And despite their role in ballooning the deficit during the Bush years, they will always outbid Democrats on spending cuts.

I wonder if this is ever going to become a serious talking point? It gets batted around now and again by the odd newspaper columnist or blogger, but that's about it. No serious person in a position of real influence really wants to accuse an entire party of cynically trying to tank the economy, after all.

But it would sure make headlines if Obama decided to take up this ball and run with it. He'll never do it, because it wouldn't be postpartisan or pragmatic. But Republicans are all set to turn the next 18 months into the World War III of political campaigns, and this would sure be a way of showing them that two can play at that game.

A team of researchers has reported in Science on a long-term study of intensive preschool intervention in Chicago, and the results are pretty impressive. The study group is a cohort of mostly African-American children born in 1979-80, and the followup study was done when they were 28 years old. Here's the headline set of charts:

The results were especially good among children born to mothers who never finished high school: high school completion rates were roughly ten percentage points higher and rates of substance abuse and felony charges were roughly ten percentage points lower. Overall, the preschool groups had higher high school graduation rates, higher on-time graduation rates, higher college attendance, higher economic status, and higher incomes compared to the group who didn't attend preschool. Interestingly, the positive effects were limited to boys. Girls, however, responded more positively to school-age interventions.

So how much does this kind of preschool intervention cost? Let's do some rough back-of-the-envelope figuring. The cost per student was about $10,000, and nationwide there are about 4 million kids each at ages 3 and 4. So if you implemented this for the entire country for two years of intervention, it would cost about $80 billion. More realistically, if you limited it to, say, the third of the population most at risk, it would cost something like $25 billion. And if you count just the amount over and above what we already spend on existing preschool programs, it's more on the order of $15 billion.

Is that worth it? Well, out of 4 million kids, 2 million are boys and about 250,000 are children of mothers who didn't complete high school. Within this group, about 30,000 more would complete high school and 30,000 fewer would commit serious crimes and become drug abusers. That's per year. Fast forward 20 years from preschool and that adds up to about 300,000 kids between the ages of 16-25, the prime problem years. Just on the grounds of reduced crime and substance abuse within that group alone, this is money well spent. Add in all the other benefits, and doing something like this on a nationwide scale is a no-brainer.

And note that none of this is because this preschool program increased anyone's IQ or SAT scores. It probably didn't. But it did teach its students better cognitive habits, better impulse control, helped their motivation and social adjustment, and provided them with better family and school support behaviors. What's more, this is no outlier or statistical fluke. This study joins a long list of others showing that habits are set in early childhood and intensive preschool programs are one of the most effective ways known to improve those habits for life.

None of this means we should stop trying to improve our schools. There are all sorts of reasons why better grade schools and high schools are important, and we should keep plugging away at figuring out how to make them more effective. But what it does mean is that in an environment of limited resources, our highest priority ought to be programs that we already know how to implement and that have proven bang for the buck. Intensive preschool fits that bill, and it's simply moronic not to be directing big-time funding in that direction. Unlike the ed reform battles, it doesn't provide endless fodder for the culture war bickering that we adults seem to love so much, but it sure seems to work pretty well for the kids themselves.