Science and Technology

The Latest Example of our Broken Patent System

Monsanto
About 15 years ago, the St. Louis-based Monsanto corporation developed "Roundup Ready," genetically modified soybean seeds that are resistant to herbicides also produced by the company. In other words, Monsanto made herbicides to kill weeds, then made soy-bean plants that are resistant to the herbicide. Its competitor, Pioneer Seeds, a Des Moines company owned by DuPont and Company, licensed the Roundup Ready formula but also attempted to create genetically modified seeds that could compete with it. Pioneer developed a seed called "Optimum GAT" that combined the Roundup Ready trait with another trait. Mosanto sued DuPont for violating the licensing agreement and for patent infringement, while DuPont claimed that the patent should be considered unenforceable. On July 1, a jury sided with Monsanto, and although Pioneer said in a statement that it "has never sold a single Optimum GAT seed and has no plans to do so in the future" a jury awarded Monsanto a whopping award of $1 billion...

Conservatives Explore New Arenas of Self-Caricature

The internet, sort of. (Flickr/jurvetson)
In one of those now-frequent "I can't believe we're actually going to argue about this" moments, conservatives have now decided that the United States government did not actually have any meaningful role in the creation of the Internet, despite what everyone, including all the people who were there at the time, have always known. Why have they suddenly come to this revelation? All you need to know is that Barack Obama has recently been using the Internet as an example of where government can create conditions that allow private enterprise to flourish, and as Simon Malloy says , if Obama says something, "that, ipso facto, makes it false." Part of what's so crazy about this is that the tale of the Internet's creation and development is actually a story of public/private partnership that both liberals and conservatives ought to be able to celebrate. The conservatives' "evidence" for their brand-new claim is an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by Gordon Crovitz claiming that the...

RIP, Sally Ride

Sally Ride (Wikimedia Commons/National Archives and Records Administration)
Yesterday, the day before Amelia Earhart’s 115th birthday, Sally Ride joined the skies for a final time. At 61, she died of pancreatic cancer—a horrible disease. Back in 1983, it was thrilling to watch her smash the American gender barrier as she zoomed into space. When she headed off into the final frontier, it was not as it was with the subordinate Lieutenant Uhuru on the Enterprise—the closest analogue there was at the time—but as an equal astronaut. Ride strode up to the Challenger as if she belonged there—which, of course, she did. She had degrees in physics, astrophysics, and English—what an underachiever! When she saw a NASA newspaper ad seeking astronauts, she applied and got the job. Sally Ride was one of a host of exhilarating barrier-smashers in that decade when young feminists like me thought all barriers would soon come crashing down, from Sandra Day O’Connor to Geraldine Ferraro. Of course women could do anything, including fly to the stars! It’s funny now to read The...

Frank Kameny Blazes Through the Skies

As some of you know, Frank Kameny was the real thing, one of the great trailblazers in the American gay-rights movement. In the 1950s, he worked as an astronomer for U.S. Army map service—until they discovered he was gay, and fired him. He spent his life fighting back, and by the time he died last October, he had been vindicated. He was in the room when President Barack Obama signed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." He had a Washington, D.C. street named after him. How do you top that? You name an asteroid after him, that's how: When astronomer Gary Billings read Kameny’s obituary, he consulted with others in the astronomy world. They decided to submit a citation to the Paris-based International Astronomical Union and the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., seeking to designate Minor Planet 40463 as Frankkameny. ... After Billings read Kameny’s obituary, he wrote to Kinne. “Hey, I have a few asteroids I discovered that I haven’t named yet,” he said. “What do you say we name...

Move Over, Mario

Recent sexist spats in the gaming world belie the fact that women are here to stay.

(Flickr/Anita Sarkeesian)
(Courtesy of Anita Sarkeesian/Flick) Anita Sarkeesian's Wikipedia page, which was vandalized after she put together a Kickstarter to raise money for a documentary about sexist tropes in video games. If you’re in any way connected to the world of gaming, you will have noticed in the last few months a series of nasty dustups over the role of women in the community. The ugliness kicked off in May, when vlogger Anita Sarkeesian put together a Kickstarter to raise money for a documentary about sexist tropes in video games. Various male-dominated gaming forums organized a harassment campaign against her, which included posting porn on her Wikipedia page and creating a video game in which players beat her up . (Warning: Pictures from the game are upsetting.) A month later, Slate culture writer Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a thoughtful piece about why she thought the rape scene in the new Tomb Raider was a bad idea. The commentary incited a bunch of trolls to share their ugly rape fantasies with...

Why Windows 8 Might Force Microsoft into the Laptop Game

(Jamelle Bouie/The American Prospect)
Farhad Manjoo has a great column on the pitiful performance of PC trackpads: I switched to Apple notebooks more than five years ago, and I did so precisely because of things like the trackpad. I’ve searched high and low for a Windows notebook with a touchpad that comes close to the buttery bliss offered by the MacBook line. I haven’t found it, and you won’t either. At best, you’ll find a trackpad that can perform satisfactorily after you tweak a lot of settings—which may work fine for pros, but it’s not the kind of just-works experience that most computer users want. This has been my exact experience as well. The thing that sold me on Macs wasn’t OS X—it was the trackpad. Of course, Apple has a natural advantage here—because it has complete control over hardware and software, it can achieve the tight integration necessary to make a highly responsive trackpad. By contrast, PC manufacturers—who rely on commodity parts–can’t fine tune components to Windows. Now that Microsoft has entered...

The Internet, Explained

60 Hudson Street in New York, which is sort of the Panama Canal of the Internet. (Flickr/Wally Gobetz)
Like many complex technologies, the Internet works because of systems and processes that are opaque to most of us who use it. But it turns out that at its most basic level, it's really not that complicated. What is a bit surprising, in that of-course-that's-true-but-I-never-thought-about-it kind of way, is that there are a lot of physical pieces to the Internet. Wires, obviously, but also buildings you could point to and say, "There's the Internet," and you'd sort of be right. So what happens when you click on a link to go to a web site? The friendly nerds at the World Science Festival created a little video to explain it (via BoingBoing ): Simple! And also pretty amazing. Never forget that it's a great time to be alive, particularly if you enjoy pictures of corgis, or the rapidly growing sideboob industry . Or Prospect.org, of course. And I'd be remiss if I failed to mention that the Internet exists because the United States government, that socialist, freedom-killing leviathan, paid...

How to Save the Internet—Again

Online organizing helped stop SOPA and PIPA, but how much staying power does the internet freedom movement have?

(Flickr/witness.org)
On January 18, the Internet went on strike. Tens of thousands of Web sites—including Google, Wikipedia, and Wordpress—went offline or blacked out their interfaces to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Many feared the breadth of the proposed anti-piracy laws—which could force entire domains to shut down because of the actions of a small number of users—would be used to censor online content and chill innovation. Protestors sent millions of e-mails and placed calls. Organizers of the strike estimate that nearly one billion people were exposed to their message. PIPA and SOPA were tabled. It was, by all measures, an overwhelming success. But the larger legislative battles over Internet privacy and freedom are by no means over. Next week, the Senate is expected to take up a version of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which passed the House in April. Unlike SOPA and PIPA, which dealt with intellectual property, CISPA and its...

Eternal Coach Class

So no complaining.
Ever wonder what it'll be like when we can finally live forever? Oh, come on, sure you have. In case you're new to this subject, there are essentially two possibilities out there. One is that an ever-growing series of advances in the science of aging allows us to arrest the process to where we can keep our bodies going indefinitely, or at least for a very long time. The other is that advances in brain science eventually allow us to map your entire brain down to every last neuron, and we're able to upload your mind . At that point, provided nobody drops the thumb drive containing your consciousness down the toilet by mistake, we can either transfer the file into some kind of robotic body, or, more plausibly, download you into a virtual environment where you can exist forever. And presumably, by the time we're able to do that, the virtual environments we're able to create will be orders of magnitude more realistic, complex, and vivid than what we can create today. In other words, you'll...

Keyboard Jihadist?

(John Ritter)
I t’s unusual for a domestic terrorism suspect to have a fan club. But every morning of Tarek Mehanna’s eight-week trial late last year on federal terrorism charges, supporters packed the domed, ornate courtroom in downtown Boston, smiling and waving whenever Mehanna turned to face them. Their support was unflagging, even though Mehanna was charged with crimes prosecutors called “among the most serious a person can commit,” including material support of terrorism and conspiracy to kill American soldiers in Iraq. The government had been collecting information on Mehanna, a 29-year-old second-generation Egyptian American, for more than eight years. In court, prosecutors provided transcripts from online chats in which Mehanna had praised Osama bin Laden, calling him “my real father,” and invited friends over for “movie night” to watch a video of a beheading in Iraq that he called “Head’s Up.” Most damning, the government also claimed that Mehanna had gone to Yemen to find a terrorist...

Six States, Six Fates for Pro-Life Bills

(Flickr/SMN)
As states around the country consider legislation to limit access to abortion and reproductive rights, the outlook isn't bright for women's health advocates. Here's the latest from five states: Through a tied-vote, the Iowa Senate defeated a measure that would stop public dollars from funding abortions in rape and incest cases. Iowa currently allows tax dollars to fund abortion procedures for low income women if there's a danger to the life of the mother or if the pregnancy came through rape or incest. The House already approved the bill earlier in the week. In Tennessee, the state House has approved a measure that creates criminal penalties for harming embryos. The state can already prosecute someone for harming a fetus, but those laws don't include the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Of course that may be because, in the first eight weeks, many don't know they're pregnant yet and many embryos die from a variety of natural causes. The bill passed 80-18 Thursday in the House and now...

Rise of the Machines

What's he doing in my office? (Flickr/brixton)
Seemingly intuiting my desire for a quick diversion from politics into a more important topic, Kevin Drum links to this post by Stuart Staniford discussing the day, not long in coming, when Planet Earth's robots outnumber its humans, including a semi-serious projection that shows Them outnumbering Us some time in the early 2030s. Should we be worried? Well, yeah, but not because they're going to kill us all. The problem is capitalism. Keep in mind that even as the number of robots increases dramatically, that doesn't mean there will be millions of self-aware humanoid machines walking around, planning the day when they finally rise up against their meat-sack oppressors. Instead, there will lots and lots of relatively simple robots doing things that now can only be done by humans, and nearly all of them will look nothing like us. Can a robot run a burrito truck? Not now it can't, but some steady advances in speech recognition and mechanical coordination will certainly bring that day...

To Infinity—and Alabama

(Flickr/NASA Goddard)
I have one word I want to say to you: Spaceports. The space shuttle program may be over, but for some states, now's the time to get excited about the great beyond, thanks to the idea of launch sites for cargo, satellites, and—of course— commercial flights . The Federal Aviation Authority has already licensed eight such sites in six states across the country . Now Alabama is shooting to get one of its own. A new proposal filed Tuesday would create a nine-person committee that could recommend builing the "Alabama Spaceport Authority." If approved by the panel and the feds, the project would be fully funded with federal dollars. But as WHNT reports "it could still be another four to six years before Alabamians could launch into orbit from their backyard." This is all part of NASA's new effort to encourage private space exploration and private launches. Two private companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp,, have already hired a slew of laid-off NASA scientists and, according to the...

Tennessee Travels Back to 1925

(Flickr/latvian)
By the end of this week, teachers in Tennessee will likely have new protections if they teach creationism alongside evolution or rely on dubious reports that climate change is a myth. A measure awaiting gubernatorial approval explicitly protects teachers who give countering theories to evolution, climate change, and the like, in an effort to foster critical-thinking skills. The bill received overwhelming legislative support, and the governor is expected to approve it. "It's a really sad state of affairs," says Steven Newton, policy director at the California-based National Center for Science Education. "In an era where other countries are pushing forward … the United States is passing anti-science bills in some of its states." As I wrote last week , the measure create any requirements, and, as the Times Free Press reports , its sponsor has been adamant that it "does not endorse, promote or allow the teaching of any nonscientific, nonconventional theories in the scientific classroom."...

Worries About Scientific Weakness of Scientific Theories

(Flickr/Loren Javier)
Monday was a busy day in the Tennessee Legislature. In the Senate, they were debating a measure that guarantees teachers the right to help students "understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming " (Emphasis mine). The eight members of the state's National Academy of Science have vocally opposed the measure. Since the state was also home to the 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial , over the right of teachers to teach evolution, the comparisons have been frequent. "Let me say what this bill does not do ... as may have been mischaracterized by many," Watson told the Times Free Press . "This bill does not endorse, promote or allow the teaching of any nonscientific, nonconventional theories in the scientific classroom." It does however give credence to the supposed "scientific weakness" of theories that the vast majority of...

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