United States

Software Patents Invade Online Classroom

The very idea of patenting an idea rather than an actual invention stinks beyond description, but that's exactly what the folks at the U.S. Patent Office allow. To them, the idea need only be non-obvious, which seems to mean they've never heard of it described before in a patent.

Now the folks at Blackboard Inc have been awarded a patent on e-learning software used by millions to access college courses from home. CNN has coverage here.

U.S. Military's Embracing Of Outsourcing Comes Under Fire

This Frontline PBS story covers the growing controversy surrounding the use of Contractors in military roles in Iraq (although this is not the only place this is being done.) These contractors often are used to serve military purposes but do not answer to the same chain of command and are not subject to the uniform code of military justice.

As if being outside the chain of command weren't enough, the private workers are getting paid substantially better -- something which no doubt damages morale:

Erinys is staffed with an assortment of ex-Special Forces and policemen from around the world. A private security guard at Erinys makes approximately $400 dollars a day, twice what a soldier makes. Some guards make up to $1000 a day.

It is unclear exactly how large of a force the private contractors make up, although the story states that KBR has 50,000 people in Iraq and Kuwait alone. That's more than 1/3 the size of the US Military presence.

Big Tobacco Gets Off Easy

In 1999, the Clinton Administration began suing Big Tobacco on the grounds that they were deceiving the public in their packaging and what remained of their marketing efforts. In a recent ruling at the District Court level, they got a slap on the wrist as a result.

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler did order the companies to publish in newspapers and on their Web sites "corrective statements" on the adverse health effects and addictiveness of smoking and nicotine.

She also ordered tobacco companies to stop labeling cigarettes as "low tar," "light," "ultra light" or "mild," since such cigarettes have been found to be no safer than others because of how people smoke them.

The judge stopped short, however, of granting the $10 Billion (down from $130 Billion) the Justice Department had sought as funding for a national smoking cessation campaign.

The press, typically, is billing this as a loss for the Tobacco companies. How this cannot be viewed as a win for them escapes me. These companies sell a product that kills people and cost taxpayers tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars every year; and, their penalty is to change their packaging to be less deceptive?

U.S. State Department Travel Advisory Page

Not all unrest in foreign countries makes the news these days. One way to stay aware of these things is to regularly consult the U.S. State Department's Current Warnings page.

Many of the listed countries are ones which seem obvious to anyone who follows international news; but, even when the news fades from the public conciousness, those headline countries remain trouble spots. Here's some examples:

Al-Qaida and Taliban elements continue to operate inside Pakistan, particularly along the porous Afghan border region. Their presence, coupled with that of indigenous sectarian and militant groups in Pakistan, continues to pose potential danger to American citizens.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) and Sri Lankan military forces have clashed on several occasions, and this fighting has escalated in recent weeks. While most of the country remains largely unaffected, the Department warns Americans against traveling to areas in the North and East of the country given the dangers caused by the ongoing fighting between LTTE, other armed groups, and Sri Lankan military forces. This Travel Warning expires on November 15, 2006.

Administration Seeks War Crimes Protection

Accoring to this L.A. Times article, the Bush administration is seeking to retroactively exempt policymakers from prosecution under the War Crimes Act for any role they may have had in directing the torture or abuse of prisoners.

This does make one wonder if the whole Abu Ghraib drama may have an act or two left in it. Asking for such an amendment can only be politically damaging to the administration, so why seek an amendment to the Act to protect yourself unless the political damage is less costly than the damage criminal charges will bring.

Related Story:

Bush Again Misuses The Word 'War'

Addressing the heroic efforts of British security forces in thwarting a plot to blow up multiple passenger planes, president Bush again refers to the struggle against terrorism as a war. To be specific, a War Against Islamic Fascists, a phrase which, no doubt polls well with his base but is simply inaccurate.

Usage of the term 'war' has, in recent history, been used for many things; take for example the "war on drugs." (How's that going, by the way?) But, I think it's clear that when Bush uses that word in this context, he's seeking to invoke the image of "an armed conflict between nations, states, or parties." The problem is that Terrorism is an idea. It cannot be shot, stabbed, or blown up.

Declaring war against an idea is almost certainly a pursuit doomed to failure. The closest the U.S. has ever come to successfully fighting an idea is the "Cold War." An endeavor which took the better part of 50 years, trillions of dollars, and millions of lives (not all Americans.) We declared victory in the Cold War after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but we're still paying for the war today and for the forseeable future. The runaway defense spending of the 1980s, which continues today, was undoubtedly the coup de grace that toppled the Soviets as they collapsed under pressure to keep up. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will survive the economic damage it did to itself in the conflict.

Dobbs Takes Bush To Task On Border Brag

In a commentary posted today, Lou Dobbs takes president Bush to task for bragging on empty accomplishments along the U.S. - Mexico border. Here's an excerpt:

When you talk about the National Guard delivering results at our border and brag about our Border Patrol agents seizing 17,000 pounds of illicit drugs and 2,500 illegal aliens along our southern border since June 15, well doggone it, it's just about obvious those fancy advisers of yours forgot to tell you that's actually well below last fiscal year's pace, when the Border Patrol caught more than 1 million illegal aliens and seized more than 1.3 million pounds of illicit drugs.

That's some accomplishment! Don't get me wrong, I agree with the president when it comes down to accepting the reality that illegals in this country are best dealt with through an opportunity to earn citizenship. But, he's trying to pander to both sides and in doing so, pleases no one.

Understanding The Demise Of The Electric Car

"Who Killed The Electric Car?" asks Chris Paine in his recently released documentary of the same name. The documentary ultimately lays the blame at the feet of several people/organizations. This commentary from CNN provides a nice recap of the film and the issues it raises. For the most part, the motives of the parties involved are clear. The most difficult to understand, however, is the automakers themselves. The movie makes the case for their motives but never really spells them out. Here's the reasoning that I inferred from the evidence presented/hinted at:

  • mandate - the companies were annoyed at being told they must sell these cars.
  • profit - they never saw enough demand to allow them to go into mass production.
  • maintenance - the cars required so little maintenance that the manufacturers and dealers saw no hope of making money from the service/parts side of the business.

U.S. Federal Budget Far Worse Than It Seems?

According to this USA Today article, the relatively bad $318 billion dollar deficit for 2005 would really be $760 billion if the Federal government were held to the same standards as public corporations.

Why the discrepancy? It seems it is mostly a matter of liabilities:

Congress has written its own accounting rules — which would be illegal for a corporation to use because they ignore important costs such as the growing expense of retirement benefits for civil servants and military personnel.

The article goes on to say that if the figures included to decline of Social Security and Medicare, the actual deficit would be closer to $3.5 trillion.

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