Where’s the beef?

This story has a little history. Here is some:

Various industrial (includes agricultural) concerns produce perishable food products. The company acquires a product, invests money in processing it, and then sells it for a profit. Only, if it takes a long time to sell the product becomes unsellable, and the company does not make any profit. In fact, it will likely lose money.

Now if, while a company has a perishable product on hand, information gets around that the product is somehow suspect, then the market for the product may shrink or even evaporate. Companies in the perishable food product business will profit more if adverse information does not get around.

In 1995 the Texas Legislature enacted the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act of 1995. Here is a related section of the Texas Code:

§ 96.001. Definition
In this chapter, “perishable food product” means a food product of agriculture or aquaculture that is sold or distributed in a form that will perish or decay beyond marketability within a limited period of time.
§ 96.002. Liability
(a) A person is liable as provided by Subsection (b) if:
(1) the person disseminates in any manner information relating to a perishable food product to the public;
(2) the person knows the information is false; and
(3) the information states or implies that the perishable food product is not safe for consumption by the public.
(b) A person who is liable under Subsection (a) is liable to the producer of the perishable food product for damages and any other appropriate relief arising from the person’s dissemination of the information.
§ 96.003. Proof
In determining if information is false, the trier of fact shall consider whether the information was based on reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts, or data.
§ 96.004. Certain Marketing or Labeling Excluded
A person is not liable under this chapter for marketing or labeling any agricultural product in a manner that indicates that the product:
(1) was grown or produced by using or not using a chemical or drug;
(2) was organically grown; or
(3) was grown without the use of any synthetic additive.

I am not going to interpret the Code. I will leave that up to the reader.

Anyhow, the following year Howard Lyman was on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and there was some discussion about beef in relation to mad cow disease. Winfrey and Lyman both agreed that eating beef was not a good idea. The results were immediate and catastrophic.

Under the Texas food disparagement law under which Winfrey and Lyman were sued, the plaintiffs — in this case, beef feedlot operator Paul Engler and the company Cactus Feeders — had to convince the jury that Lyman’s statements on Winfrey’s show were not “based on reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts, or data.” As a basis for the damages sought in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs noted that cattle futures dropped 10 percent the day after the episode, and that beef prices fell from 62 cents to 55 cents per pound. Engler’s attorneys argued that the rancher lost $6.7 million, and the plaintiffs sought to recoup total losses of more than $12 million. [Emphasis added]

I watched the case as an interested observer. The idea that a person can get sued for voicing opinion is close to my heart, because I express my opinion a lot, and I feel this need to avoid getting sued. Anyhow, as the case proceeded in 1998 I was deciding what language I would use to describe the outcome, which seemed headed to favor Oprah and her guest. Then it came, and I penned a cute letter to the editor and submitted it to The Dallas Morning News. They printed it, and Jim Frisinger, the letters editor, sent me this nice mug:

The image changes from night to day when you put hot liquid in the cup.

I have kept the cup all these years, and I use it to store packets of sugar-free sweetener. That’s because I don’t actually drink coffee.

Anyhow, the thought that came to my mind as the case neared a decision was that these cattlemen were completely out of their league, both in their attempt to stifle criticism and in going up against the Queen of Gab. I ended my letter with wording something like this:

For those cattlemen I suggest a new menu item. Crow, it’s what’s for dinner.

And they had to eat it.

Powerful food and agricultural interests have not, however, lost their appetite for suppressing criticism. With the power to purchase legislation, they have obtained the enactment of favorable legislation that makes it harder for critics to speak out and also harder for them to defend their cases when they are sued.

These laws vary significantly from state to state, but food libel laws typically allow a food manufacturer or processor to sue a person or group who makes disparaging comments about their food products. In some states these laws also establish different standards of proof than are used in traditional American libel lawsuits, including the practice of placing the burden of proof on the party being sued.

More recently legislation of this ilk has come to surface in a Utah criminal case.

First “Ag-Gag” Prosecution: This Utah Woman Filmed a Slaughterhouse from the Public Street

Amy Meyer saw some disturbing occurrences and made a video.

When the slaughterhouse manager came outside and told her to stop, she replied that she was on the public easement and had the right to film. When police arrived, she said told them the same thing. According to the police report, the manager said she was trespassing and crossed over the barbed-wire fence, but the officer noted “there was no damage to the fence in my observation.”
Meyer was allowed to leave. She later found out she was being prosecuted under the state’s new “ag-gag” law.
This is the first prosecution in the country under one of these laws, which are designed to silence undercover investigators who expose animal welfare abuses on factory farms. The legislation is a direct response to a series of shocking investigations by groups like the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals, and Compassion Over Killing that have led to plant closures, public outrage, and criminal charges against workers.

To me the pertinent fact is that Meyer did not trespass. She photographed what she could see from a public venue, and she is being prosecuted for violating a law passed by a state legislature for doing just that. This hits home to me, because I am sometimes in the same position. See The Photo That Got Me Arrested.

I’m not an extremist on this position, but I believe I have the right to photograph with my camera anything I can see with my eyes in a public place. Having that right, I make sure not to abuse it. I don’t go out of my way to photograph people who do not want to be photographed. For example, during a photo trip to Morocco there were women in some of my photos who, although they did not cover their faces in public, still did not want me to take their photo. No problem.

But back to the issue at hand.

Laws similar to the one in Utah are on the books or in the works. In particular, a bill in Tennessee has been sent to the governor for ratification, and it and its sponsors may be typical. Representative Andy Holt is one of the bill’s sponsors, and an e-mail exchange between Holt and Kayci McLeod of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is telling. The following is an excerpt from Holt’s mail to McLeod:

I am extremely pleased that we were able to pass HB 1191 today to help protect livestock in Tennessee from suffering months of needless investigation that propagandist groups of radical animal activists, like your fraudulent and reprehensibly disgusting organization of maligned animal abuse profiteering corporatists, who are intent on using animals the same way human-traffickers use 17 year old women. You work for a pathetic excuse for an organization and a pathetic group of sensationalists who seek to profit from animal abuse. I am glad, as an aside, that we have limited your preferred fund-raising methods here in the state of Tennessee; a method that I refer to as “tape and rape.” Best wishes for the failure of your organization and it’s true intent.

While acknowledging there is animosity against HSUS on the part of Holt, some of his remarks seem to be completely over the top. He wants to “protect livestock in Tennessee from suffering months of needless investigation?” Really? HSUS is a “pathetic excuse for an organization?” Really? HSUS uses “animals the same way human-traffickers use 17 year old women?” Really? How much more can Representative Holt say to dig himself into a deeper hole? If he had a good public relations advisor I am sure that advisor would give Representative Holt some advice like this: “Mr. Holt, instead of all that invective, why don’t you just respond and tell HSUS they did not contribute to your re-election, but certain industrial concerns did, and you need to properly represent the people who pay the bills. Just tell them that’s the way democracy works.”

Meanwhile, back in Utah, Representative John Mathis likens animal rights activists to terrorists:

SALT LAKE CITY — Veterinarian and part-time farmer Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, wants to put a stop to what he called “animal-rights terrorists” who take videos or photos on farmers’ property without permission to create propaganda aimed at destroying the agriculture industry.
“There are groups with the stated purpose to do away with animal agriculture, and that’s egregious — that’s egregious to me,” Mathis told legislators this week. “The animal welfare movement has become an animal rights movement, and that’s wrong.[“]
Mathis’ bill, HB187, would make “agricultural operation interference” a crime, a class A misdemeanor on the first offense, a third-degree felony on the second.

Terrorists? Really?

Enough said for a while. In the mean time we can only hope that the Al-Qaeda will quickly adopt the same terrorist tactics of HSUS and similar groups and quit murdering people.

Lest readers think I come up with interesting topics like this entirely on my own, allow me to reassure you I get lots of help, without which I would be mostly clueless. This post was inspired by a posting from Steve Breed, one of my Facebook “friends.” To protect his privacy I have not used Steve’s real name.

Wherever you go, there you are.

I was around when the Navy started putting up it’s Navstar satellites, and that looked like a great idea. The Navy can always use some good navigation. I was not clued onto GPS until much later, possibly 1984. My cube mate at a defense company decided to leave our group and go to work on the company’s GPS project. Since then GPS has become an increasingly large part of our lives.

Ordnance handlers assemble Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs in the forward mess decks. (from Wikipedia)

This post is inspired by some apparent and serious misunderstandings about GPS, how it works, and what are it’s limitations. For example I was working out in Tucson, and I was explaining my GPS unit to a co-worker. We went out into the parking lot so I could show him how it worked. I turned it on and let it acquire satellites, then we walked around the parking lot, and I showed him that it was recording the track of our walk. The question that stunned me was, “How does it know where we are?”

OK, that was a signal there was some great disconnect, and if my friend, a tech-savvy software engineer,  had missed a fine point, then a lot of pedestrian folks out there were having some problems, as well. As I explained to my friend, “It does not know where you are. Only you know where you are.” Here’s the explanation.

Somewhat over 20 years ago the U.S. started launching a “galaxy” of satellites to support GPS. At any one time there will be 32 of these satellites active and possibly several more just orbiting around in reserve. Here’s what they do.

Each satellite knows where it is—all the time and with an accuracy in the order of an inch or so. Each satellite also knows what time it is—all the time and with an accuracy in the order of a nanosecond. Each satellite is powered by the sun, and each active satellite broadcasts all the time toward the earth. The critical information each satellite transmits is: “This is where I am, and this is what time it is.” Additional information is transmitted to aid the GPS receivers in doing their task.

The signal the satellites send is specified in an open document called ICD-GOS-200. You can get a copy by clicking on the link. Updates to the specification are made periodically, and this one is not the most recent. Anyhow, what the specification (Interface Control Document) says is this:

Each satellite is assigned a channel, of which there are 32. All channels broadcast on the same frequencies, and the channels are defined by CDM (code division multiplexing). Data transmission rate is 50 bits per second. As explained in the document, data transmission comprises 5 frames of 1500 bits each, and each frame comprises 5 subframes. Some subframes are subcommutated in that their content varies from one frame to the next. The critical information (I am here, the time is this) is transmitted every frame. Some frames vary the subframe content in a pattern that repeats every 25 frames. A little math shows you that it takes twelve and one half minutes for a receiver to obtain all available information.

One bit of information needed by the GPS receiver is the atmospheric delay parameter set. Time is critical for computing location with GPS. Your receiver is getting data from four or more satellites at once. It now knows where each satellite was and at what time it transmitted that piece of information. The GPS unit can now compute its own location by determining its distance from each of the four known points in space. It can only do this if the transmission delay—time required for the signal to travel from the satellite to the receiver—is known. The problem is the speed of propagation of the signal is not constant.

Electron density in the upper atmosphere slows down the propagation of the signal. It can make a difference of 30 meters or so, depending on the electron density. If you can receive two frequencies, each frequency will have a different propagation delay, and you can compare the two to determine the actual (as opposed to measured) distance to each satellite. However, home receivers cannot receive the second frequency. You need a secret decoding device to get this signal. So, what you need is the electron density. Klobuchar to the rescue.

The Klobuchar atmospheric model is a cubic polynomial that describes (approximately) the atmospheric electron density for most of the globe. The model is described in the document, and the four polynomial coefficients are transmitted in one subframe of one frame—once every 12-1/2 minutes. Once your GPS unit has obtained these four parameters it will apply the model and compensate the measure delay. So, when you first turn on your unit, you will be working with an inaccurate atmospheric model for the first few minutes. You can expect your computed location to be off several meters during that time.

The atmosphere changes from day to day, and the model parameters are recomputed based on world-wide atmospheric measurements. A new upload to all satellites is performed every few days (in the order of a week). However, the model is never as good as the real thing. If you want to put a GPS-guided bomb through Osama’s upstairs window, you are going to need the second channel.

There’s a lot more to know about GPS operation, and you can get all of it by digging through the document. Except, there are some aspects of modern navigators that are not covered by the document. Keep this in mind:

The GPS satellite transmission format is fixed and cannot be radically changed without launching new satellites. Improvements and changes are implemented in blocks. We are now into Block III. In particular, GPS does not support traffic and map information of any kind.

I have a 4-year-old unit, and earlier this year we were driving toward Fort Myers, Florida. Actually, I was driving, and Barbara Jean was knitting. Oops. She was unable to locate a knitting needle she needed. GPS to the rescue. Our Garmin unit map base includes information about all businesses in the country. It may be that businesses have to pay to be included in the database. Anyhow, she punched into the unit a search for knit shops nearby. We were approaching one on the outskirts of Fort Myers, and the phone number was available from the database. She phoned the store, and we stopped off the Interstate so Barbara Jean could get some knitting needles. Suffice it to say that GPS satellites are completely clueless regarding this kind of information.

Sometimes traffic warning information comes up on my GPS unit. This is often accompanied by an annoying voice warning from the unit, telling me to get off the freeway and take an alternate route. I have not investigated this, but I am dead sure this is accomplished by local transmissions received by the unit. There’s a big traffic tie-up, and the authorities crank up some special transmitters and send the information to all GPS units that are close enough to receive. The satellites do not get involved.

Anyhow, if you don’t currently have a GPS navigator you might seriously consider catching up with the times. It’s only going to get better. I obtained my first unit before heading down to Argentina over ten years ago. It was a life saver when driving across the Pampas, where the cut-off to the airport was an unmarked road. When I was out in Los Angeles a few years back I obtained a street navigator and was impressed by the level of street detail available. No way could I have made it around L.A.’s maze of freeways and side streets without some assistance.

It’s apparent that GPS navigators obtain their maps from something like Google maps. That’s good, and that’s bad. The level of detail is wonderful, and periodic updates keep the unit informed when new roads are built and when old roads go out of service. It’s bad news, because the GPS map base is only as good as as the maps obtained from various sources. If an error gets into the map source it’s going to trickle down to your navigator, and you may someday find yourself looking for a non-existent route. GPS users need to always take their heads with them when they go traveling.

Bad Movie of the Week

This review should have been titled “Bite the Bullet,” but I need to remain consistent so readers looking for the bad-movie review won’t have to track it down. Anyhow, the movie is A Bullet for Joey, and seeing it you can get the idea they came up with the title and then wrote the plot to fit the title. This is a bad movie in spite of enjoying the star power of Edward G. Robinson and George Raft. The story line is just unrealistic. It’s unbelievable, besides.

The film is from 1955, and of course it’s in black and white.

Poster image from IMDB.com

It starts out this way. An atomic scientist is working in Montreal (that’s in Canada), and the Soviets want to kidnap him, although this does not become apparent until after several people are dead. Anyhow, there are a number of ways to kidnap an atomic scientist, and the Soviets pick the most convoluted and riskiest approach. Else there would not be very much to the plot.

Anyhow, their plan (this comes out later) is to photograph the scientist, take the photos to an expatriate American (not Canadian) gangster and show him the photos and hire him to go to Canada (not the United States) and kidnap the scientist. They offer the gangster $20,000 in advance and promise $80,000 on completion of the job. Plus travel and expenses plus fake papers. Who can pass up such a deal? The gangster is Joe Victor (Joey) played by George Raft.

Now here is a fun fact. George Raft got to play a lot of gangster parts in the movies, and he played a great gangster. That could be partly because before becoming a movie star he was a gangster.

A boyhood friend of gangster Owney Madden (and later a “wheel man” for the mob), Raft admitted narrowly avoiding a life of crime. Raft spoke German fluently, having learned the language from his parents.

Anyhow, on with the plot.

The movie opens with a spy, disguised as an organ grinder with a monkey, taking the photos of the scientist. He gets the photos and also the the attention of a local constable (looks like an RCMP). Anyhow, the cop decides to cite the organ grinder for cruelty to the monkey for having the poor animal out on such a cold morning.  He spots the camera hidden inside the grinder’s hurdy-gurdy, and gives chase when the man runs off. When the two eventual clash the spy kills the cop with a blow to the head.

A problem arises when the spy reports to his boss with the photos and lets slip he has killed a cop. The boss is not amused, and we see him giving the grinder a shove. The shove must have been fatal, because later Inspector Raoul Leduc (Edward G. Robinson) is investigating the discovery of a nude body. When a monkey hair is found on the body Leduc connects the dead man with the organ grinder that the scientist reported seeing just before the cop was killed.

By now everybody, I included, is asking why the spies didn’t just have somebody sidle up to the scientist and say something like, “Yes, I am glad to see you, and yes, this is a gun in my pocket. Come quietly.” Then there would not have been much of a plot.

Instead, Joey needs to get all his old gangster pals involved, plus his ex girl friend, who is blackmailed to leave her business in Havana and come to Canada. This is where things really begin to fall apart.

Joey figures he needs sex to attract the scientist so they can catch him off guard. He sends in his sexy ex-girl friend to cozy up to the scientist. In the mean time he has one of his pals cozy up to the scientist’s secretary, who is a somewhat pretty, but shy and demure, young thing. The pal (from Los Angeles) puts the move on the girl, but when he gets information from her that he needs his motives become immediately obvious to her, and she bolts from his car on a lonely country road, only to get a bullet in the back.

So, there’s another murder for Leduc to connect to the scientist, and the cops go looking for the man from L.A. In the mean time the man from L.A. has gone back to L.A. and back to playing cards with his friends. Joey learns of the secretary’s murder and dispatches somebody to dispatch the man from L.A., who takes a sniper’s bullet in the back through a window while playing cards with his friends.

Anyhow, Joey’s ex-girl friend romances the scientist and arranges for him to take her to the airport. When the scientist arrives at the woman’s apartment, the spies are there, and they slip the scientist a knockout drink and hustle him to a waiting ship. See what I mean? They could have done this in the first act.

Meanwhile, Joey’s pals are participating in a plan to heist a truck load of atomic bomb parts. Leduc sets up a phony shipment, and he and another cop drive the truck. The spies hijack the truck and load it onto the waiting ship, with the two cops locked in the back. Leduc’s fellow officer is killed (with a bullet) while the two are attempting to alert the police to their location on the ship. Here’s what’s phony about this part of the cop’s plan. There was no guarantee the crooks would not just murder the two cops before taking the truck, and the police seemed not to have considered this possibility. Is anybody thinking? Certainly not the writers, James Benson Nablo, Geoffry Homes and A.I. Bezzerides.

Now the remaining crooks and spies are on the ship, and it sets off down the St. Lawrence River. Leduc converses with Joey, and things get philosophical. Freedom and democracy against communism and tyranny. Joey decides to pitch in with the cops, and a gun battle aboard the ship ensues. One of the crooks is killed, but Leduc manages to shoot off a distress flare, which brings all the harbor rescue craft to the escaping ship. Joey hunts down the master spy and pumps two slugs into him, but when he goes over to check out the body he receives a bullet in the gut. Thus the movie title becomes self-fulfilling. The end.

Bad Joke of the Week

OK, this on is bad.

Back in the early days of television they had this show with a title like, “Can You Stump This?” Or maybe it was “Can You Top This?”

Anyhow the show featured a panel of professional comedians, and they would have guests on the show. Each guest was prompted to present a joke, and the panelists would try to top the joke with a better one. If the panel could not top the guest’s joke, the guest won some money.

Anyhow, I think this was the show this was on, and here’s the joke.

Three salesmen went to a convention, and they shared a suite in a hotel on the 30th floor. One day of the convention they all went out on the town, and when they got back there was a sign on the elevator: “Elevator Out Of Order. Please Use Stairs.”

This looked bleak, but the salesmen figured out what they would do. For the first ten flights of stairs one of the party would sing. For the next ten flights another in the party would tell jokes and funny stories. For the last ten flight the remaining salesman would tell sad stories.

So they started off. The first man sang “Vita Bela” and other popular airs. That was for the first ten flights. Then the second man told funny jokes, and everybody laughed. Then it came time for the last man to tell the sad stories. He said “My sad story is we forgot to get the room key from the desk.”

Kirby gone

So, it’s a quiet day, and I was up in my computer room processing some photos. Barbara Jean was taking a nap, and when she got up she asked me, “What’s been happening?”

I had exciting news. “A solicitor came to our door.” I told Barbara Jean about what I do when a solicitor comes to the door. I grab my camera and take a photo. Here’s the photo. She didn’t want to have her photo taken and turned away.

No show number 1

This isn’t the first time this has happened. A few weeks back two “witnesses” of some sort showed up, and I took photos of them, but I did not post the photos. I have hardened some since.

So I told Barbara Jean all about the photo I didn’t get, and I went back to processing photos on my computer. The doorbell rang again. WTF, I thought. Camera in hand I went to the door. The woman asked me if I was acquainted with Kirby. I know Kirby is the name of a high end vacuum cleaner brand that’s sold door to door. Problem is, in our neighborhood that is not allowed. We have a sign at the entrance to the neighborhood stating that solicitation is not permitted, and it is my understanding this makes what the woman was doing illegal. Here’s the photo.

Smile, please

The woman did not appreciate being photographed, and she left immediately and headed down the street. I put on my shoes and followed. I wanted a photo of the car license plate. As I followed the woman down the street I noticed another woman coming the same way behind me. I asked her if she was with the Kirby company, and she said yes. Here’s the photo.

Kirby number 2

Still no photo of the car. I kept walking. There must  be a car that does not belong in the neighborhood. I noticed a car coming up behind me, and I did not recognize it. Here’s the photo.

The car

OK, if this is really a neighbor’s car I’m going to remove this image from the post. In the meantime, if none of my neighbors recognize this car, I’m going to leave it up.

By now the two women were looking desperate. They were talking, and they were headed in the same direction as the car. The car went around the corner and out of sight, and the women followed. When I got to the corner the women were actually running toward the exit from the neighborhood, and the car was exiting, too. The car headed west on Prue Road, and when I last saw the women they were hoofing it west on Prue Road, as well. Maybe they will not come back.

Long gone up the hill on Prue Road

I do not apologize for being such a hard ass, because there have been a number of instances of break-ins in our small neighborhood, and we have put up a sign that tells people driving in that video surveillance is in operation. I previously pointed this out to somebody else who objected to having his photograph taken. What the sign does not mention is that the surveillance also includes my Canon SLR.

Y’all come back, y’hear.

Government Insurance

I just love it when people post these things on Facebook. Here’s the photo of a famous person, and there’s been a caption added that’s supposed to make a point.

Of course I’ve been to the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). I’m still trying to determine what this has to do with government involvement in health insurance.

I get that the point trying to be made here is that you are not going to like having the government involved in your health insurance. Guess again.

The government has been involved in my health insurance for the past eight years, and I am doing just fine. Previously when I was on active military service, the government provided all of my health care. I received eye surgery that would have cost me plenty as a civilian.

This the testimony of somebody who has had a long and satisfactory experience with government and health care. So, what’s the point?

Letters Patent

Here’s a topic that’s had my attention since I was just a young squirt. More recently I came to realize there is some widespread misunderstanding about the concept, so I figured it was time for some clarification. If you already know about patents, then you can skip this. Ghandi is showing on Turner Classic Movies today. Go watch it.

I see this on TV a lot: “It’s patented.” Somebody is selling a product or device, and they want you to know it’s covered by a Unites State government patent. That means the government thinks it’s good, right?

No, not only does it mean the government not think it’s good, the government does not even think it’s OK. Purchase it at your own risk. So, what does a government patent really mean?

“Patent” is derived from the term “letter patent.” Letters patent were issued long ago by the English government. These letters patent simply stated that production of the item was prohibited without the permission of the person referenced in the letter patent. Never at any time has a government endorsement been implied.

Article One of the United States Constitution contains the following language:

The Congress shall have power…To 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;

The United States patent office, now known as The United States Patent and Trademark Office, was set up to review inventions seeking patent protection and to issue patents and to enforce them. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin was awarded patent 72X. There is still more you should know.

Not every idea can be patented (receive a patent). Supposedly, inventions that have no practical use will not be granted a patent, but I have seen some patents that make me doubt that rule is being enforced. Additionally, to receive a patent, the invention must be novel. You can’t take an idea that’s been around for a while and then file for a patent on it. Also, the patent has to be the applicant’s own invention. You cannot obtain a patent for something somebody else invented, even if the idea is novel (new). There’s more.

All inventors must be named on the patent application. If you leave an inventor off the application, then the patent can later be challenged and voided. Likewise, if the application lists an as an inventor somebody who was not party to the invention, the patent can be voided.

Finally, patents become void after a specified time. The whole idea is to give the inventors a period of time to reap the rewards of their intellectual effort without competition. After that the invention becomes public domain, and everybody can make a profit from it. The day the patent is granted the contents of the patent are made public, and people can begin studying the invention and working on their own implementation. Others can make their own copies of the device (if it is a device that has been patented), and they can do a lot of things with the device, but they cannot employ the device in their business. For example, if the invention is a machine to form ammunition casings, then another company can build their own copy of the machine, and they can even make some sample ammunition casings. However, they cannot sell the casings made during the time the patent was in effect.

All of this is made possible because a patent application is required to provide enough information for a person with the proper skills to duplicate the invention. The aim of patent law is two parts: Reward the inventor (period of use without competition), and rapidly funnel the new technology into American industry.

Here’s an interesting consideration regarding patents. You have a great idea. You can’t afford to patent it. It costs $10,000 and up to obtain a patent, and you do not have the means to use your invention once the patent is granted (don’t have a ready market, can’t afford to build a factory). You know some huge capitalistic enterprise is bound to hit upon the idea soon, and it burns you sorely that somebody else is going to get unfettered use of your idea, and you are going to get nothing. Here’s what you do. Publish your idea. That’s it. Once you have made the invention public nobody else can obtain a patent on it. If later on some large concern patents the invention and starts to market it, all you need to do is to report the prior publication out to the patent office, and the patent will be voided.

I grew up in a small town, and my brother mentioned a few years back that one of his classmates in high school had invented something for cash registers, but NCR had taken the idea without compensating him. As I understand, the guy successfully sued NCR. So, that’s a good story.

Once I started working as an engineer I had the opportunity to invent stuff, but at first there weren’t any opportunities for patents. I worked for the University of Texas and was paid through a government grant, so there was no motivation to patent anything, because the government would own the patent. Later I worked for a small engineering company, and we developed a machine to unscramble 20mm ammunition. Once again, it was a government contract, and we had no motivation to obtain any patents.

Later I worked for a private company that made large document processing systems, and we invented a lot of stuff and obtained patents for the inventors. My first patent was related to a machine that put a strap around a bundle of 100 dollar (or 5-dollar or 20-dollar) bills. Three of us worked on the idea, and my contribution was the part that clamped the stack of bills and wrapped the strap. The company gave us money. That’s good.

But you see, the company has to give you money. It works this way: You sign up to work for a company, and in the employment agreement you acknowledge the patents will become the property of the company. However, patents are always issued in the names of the inventors, but there is a place on the patent to list the assignee. That’s the company. For the transfer of ownership to take place some money needs to change hands. Conventional law is that the amount should be at least a dollar, but my first company divided $1000 among the three inventors.

Much later I worked for a telecommunications company, and they wanted us to obtain lots of patents. What we subsequently found out is that the company would not necessarily (almost never) use our inventions. They would obtain the patents to keep competitors from using them to compete against our company. Often our company would bargain with other companies. You let us use your patent, and we will let you use ours.

And they paid a lot more than my first company. As I approached the age of Medicare my company said they weren’t going to do the kind of stuff I was working on, and they fired me. I went to work for other companies after that, and once while I was out in Tucson drawing money from a defense contractor I went out to lunch with some friends. Lunch was interrupted by a phone call from home back in Dallas. Barbara Jean told me I had received another check for a patent award (these things sometimes take a few years) for $7000. Something like that makes the rest of the dinner go much better.

Anyhow, inventing and obtaining patents was one of the interesting and satisfying aspects of my working life.  Usually developing an invention was a group effort and multiple names appear on the patents. My contribution to the inventions was often minor, but I still shared the recognition and reward with the rest of the team. For some of the inventions I was the principal contributor, however, and for one I am the sole inventor listed. Here is how it came about.

We were working in collaboration with some other companies to develop technology related to video over DSL. I recalled another occasion when I was sitting in a meeting with one of our suppliers. They were the Columbia Carbon and Ribbon Company, and they made typewriter ribbons and carbon paper. We wanted them to produce a ribbon to allow a printing head to print fluorescent bar codes. The problem was, once you printed the bar code on the paper, reading the coded line was problematic, because the excitation energy passed through the ink and was absorbed by the paper underneath. The solution was obvious to me, and I blurted out, “Why don’t you put on an extra layer of aluminum powder so the aluminum lies between the ink and the paper, and the excitation energy won’t be absorbed.” That was stupid. I just gave away a patentable idea to another company by disclosing it in an open meeting. I determined not to make that mistake again.

So, many years later I sat in a meeting with representatives from our partner companies, and we were discussing ways to predict the traffic of an incoming stream of video packets. This time I kept my mouth shut. I saw a way to encode information about future traffic in the video packets. I did not even tell my boss about it. I filled out a patent disclosure form and took it to the company patent attorney. And here is the patent, or at least a statement of claim number 1:

1. A method of encoding packet interdependency in a packet data stream, comprising: generating, via a plurality of data sources, a packet data stream through a video packet data transmitter, wherein the packet data stream comprises a plurality of data packets, each data packet carrying video data as payload; for each packet in said packet data stream, providing a relative displacement pointer (RDP) field associated therewith, said RDP field including a first direction dependency subfield and a second direction dependency subfield; representing dependency of a particular packet of said packet data stream by a first binary code in said first direction dependency subfield and a second binary code in said second direction dependency subfield, said first binary code for describing said particular packet’s dependency on a packet disposed in one direction of said packet data stream and said second binary code for describing said particular packet’s dependency on a packet disposed in an opposite direction of said packet data stream; and receiving said packet data stream by binary code for describing said particular packet’s dependency on a packet disposed in one direction of said packet data stream and said second binary code for describing said particular packet’s dependency on a packet disposed in an opposite direction of said packet data stream in a packet data receiver communicably coupled to the video packet data transmitter.

It’s patent number 7,801,126, and you can look it up on the USTPO Web site. If you can figure out how this works or how it might be used, please inform me. As far as I know nobody has ever implemented this bit of technology and never will. Such is the value of a letter patent.

Sufficient, but not necessary

Here’s what caught my attention earlier today:

Nor was there hardly any mention on any station or other press entity of even the possibility that Muslim terror was involved in the huge explosion that occurred in West, Texas, where a fertilizer plant blew up Wednesday, just days after the Boston Marathon bombing. Typically, here is how the New York Times described the explosion:
“The blast was so powerful that the United States Geological Survey registered it as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake. It reduced an apartment complex to a charred skeleton, leveled homes in a five-block radius and burned with such intensity that railroad tracks were fused. It killed up to 15 people and injured up to 180. Volunteer firefighters were missing. Residents of a nursing home were pulled from debris and rushed to hospitals. …
“By Thursday evening, one day after a fertilizer plant here caught fire and then exploded, no one among the hundreds of local state and federal officials and first responders who converged on this town north of Waco was certain about the cause. They only knew its effect.” [“Blast at Plant Tears at Heart Of Texas Town” by Manny Fernandez and John Schwartz]

That was posted by Judicial Watch founder Larry Klayman. When there is a huge ammonium nitrate blast, we should look for a Muslim connection? Really? A Muslim connection? Apparently Klayman is not up on his recent Texas history. More likely we should be looking for a French connection. It seems as though this were only 66 years ago. Actually, it was. Nearly to the day. It was 16 April 1947:

The Texas City disaster of April 16, 1947 is the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history, and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions. Originating with a mid-morning fire on board the French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp (docked in the Port of Texas City), its cargo of approximately 2,300 tons (approximately 2,100 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate detonated, with the initial blast and subsequent chain-reaction of further fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities killing at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City fire department. The disaster triggered the first ever class action lawsuit against the United States government, under the then-recently enacted Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), on behalf of 8,485 victims.

As I grow older I rely more and more on the well-considered maxim: “Do not attribute to avarice what can be completely explained by stupidity.” Klayman could take advantage of that kind of knowledge, but only if he were so inclined, which he is not. Klayman is one of those people who like to ignore (or else they pretend to ignore) the truth whenever the truth is inconvenient. We need people like Klayman to remind us that a loud voice is not always a reliable voice. Thanks, Larry, for the refresher course.

But, back to the other issue at hand. In both instances somebody stored large quantities of highly-explosive ammonium nitrate in one place. That was the first mistake. The second mistake in these cases is usually to allow a fire to get started. The third, and fatal, mistake is to hang around the location once the fire has started. Rather than Muslims, we should look to the stupidity of grown men playing fast and loose with dangerous substances.

On an aside, I am familiar with a similar case. This happened in Dallas slightly more than forty years ago. I know about it because I worked with some people who investigated the accident. The company was just off Harry Hines Boulevard in Dallas, and they made a product for bakers. I believe the product contained a mixture of potassium dichromate and wheat flour, and the plant’s process involved moving the mixture through a screw conveyor. The large metal screw rotated within a pipe, moving the product to the next processing stage.

Of course the mixture is explosive, and one day the action of the screw against the metal pipe ignited the mixture within the conveyor, and it went off like a bomb. The accident report told of one woman whose shoulder was severed from her torso. She had to be identified by the panties that she was wearing.

Firemen arrived to perform rescue operations, and another explosion hurled one fireman through a front window. In all something like eight people died.

Numerous governmental safety regulations were in violation. It’s possible there will be a similar finding from the accident in West. One thing that comes immediately to mind is the proximity of such an operation so close to inhabited structures. It often turns out that somebody has to die before the people we hire to protect us decide it’s time to start doing their job.

Somebody posted this on Facebook, and I thought it was kind of cute, so I stole a copy.



Three years on

What difference three years can make.

20 April 2010, nothing but hope and an empty lot.

20 April 2010, nothing but a bunch of weeds and a pile of dirt.

We signed the contract on 20 April 2010 and drove back to Dallas.

21 April 2013, wonder of wonders, it's been three years already.

In the mean time we planted the sage and finally had to trim it back. I think we have finally settled in.

Bad Movie of the Week

It’s bad movie time again, and it’s still Sunday.

I like it when the title tells me just about all I need to know about the movie. Terror in a Texas Town fills that bill nicely. Wikipedia has the plot. It’s right out of a Saturday matinée. Evil people trying to run honest farmers off their land. I will just fill in some comments.

Poster image from IMDB.com

This film is in black and white, and it’s from 1958. It’s one of those few I did not see when it first came out. It stars Sterling Hayden

The movie opens with George Hansen (Hayden) walking down the dirt street in a small Texas frontier town. He totes a whaler’s harpoon on his shoulder. You can tell he’s a good guy, because he’s square-jawed and plainly dressed. He walks with purpose.

From out of the saloon and into the street to face Hansen steps Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young). You can tell he’s a bad guy, because he wears a black hat and black clothing and has a black horse. He has come to duel Hansen, pistol against harpoon. This is going to be exciting.

Crale urges Hansen to come a little closer. He’s too far away for a harpoon throw. Hansen sizes up the situation. It’s too far for a harpoon throw. He turns away.

The movie is a flash back. An evil capitalist is taking over the valley, and running the homesteaders out. Those that don’t want to sell out are burned out. The farmers are cowed. They can’t stick together to oppose the injustice. Hansen’s father is one who stands against the terror, and Crale rides out to his farm to kill him. The father discovers there’s oil in the ground, and that’s the reason the capitalist is trying to scoop up all the land. It’s too late. Crale kills him before he can spread the word. And there are two witnesses, but they keep quiet out of fear.

About the next day George Hansen arrives on the train. He has come from the sea, where he has been working as a whale harpooner. He sees the terror that grips the town and stands against it. The bad guys beat him up and put him on the train out of town.

Hansen escapes from the train and walks back to the town. On the way he meets the witness to his father’s murder and learns of the oil. He takes his father’s harpoon and walks to town.

Crale rides out and murders the witness to the previous murder and is startled when the man dies bravely. He will not kneel, instead standing to take the bullet on his feet. This unnerves Crale, who has not witnessed much bravery in his past.

Back in town things have gotten too hot and the capitalist is packing up to leave town. Crale kills the capitalist, and he is still unnerved when he goes out to meet Hansen in the street. End of flash back.

Hansen turns away from the gunman, then swings back to make a full-armed thrown with the harpoon. The point catches Crale dead center, but Hansen is wounded by Crale’s last bullet. We know he will recover.

The photography is just great. Directing is excellent. The plot is awfully thin, and character development is almost non-existent. The screen play was written by Dalton Trumbo, who was at the time on the infamous Hollywood blacklist and did not receive on-screen credits. Probably a good thing.