June 5, 2013 2:45 pm
You might have heard of This American Life or Radiolab before. One of the ways these shows are distributed is through podcasts—radio segments that you can download and play whenever you want. There are thousands of podcasts to download, from sports to comedy to science. But one man says that all of them, all podcasts ever made, are infringing on his patent.
Jim Logan believes that he invented podcasting. He has sent letters to well-known podcasters like Marc Maron, Jesse Thorn and Adam Carolla explaining that they were stealing his invention. Here’s NPR:
Logan claims to have invented podcasting, with a company called Personal Audio, back in the mid-90s. He has a patent that he claims covers podcasting that has been recently updated but dates back to Oct. 2, 1996. That means, according to the letter his company sent out, every time someone creates a podcast — and distributes it — that person owes his company money.
The patent that Logan is referring to is US Patent 8,112,504. Here’s the abstract for that patent:
An audio program and message distribution system in which a host system organizes and transmits program segments to client subscriber locations. The host organizes the program segments by subject matter and creates scheduled programming in accordance with preferences associated with each subscriber. Program segments are associated with descriptive subject matter segments, and the subject matter segments may be used to generate both text and audio cataloging presentations to enable the user to more easily identify and select desirable programming. A playback unit at the subscriber location reproduces the program segments received from the host and includes mechanisms for interactively navigating among the program segments. A usage log is compiled to record the subscriber’s use of the provided program materials, to return data to the host for billing, to adaptively modify the subscriber’s preferences based on actual usage, and to send subscriber-generated comments and requests to the host for processing.
Here’s a translation, according to Personal Audio, Logan’s company:
The 1996 Personal Audio player incorporated a novel mechanism for automatically identifying and retrieving media files representing episodes in a series as those episodes became available. This mechanism was later widely adopted as the industry-standard technique called “podcasting.”
And since this patent was issued in 1996, anyone who participated in podcasting since then, owes Logan some money, according to his lawyers. And Logan’s company, Personal Audio, has used that patent as leverage in the past. The company sued Apple over the ability to create a playlist, and a jury decided Apple should pay them $8.5 million. After legal back and forth, they settled out of court.
And legally, Logan may be right. Anyone who’s ever podcasted has created something that is at least similar Logan’s patent. Here’s NPR again:
In the eyes of the law, it doesn’t matter that Logan’s company did not create iTunes or the iPod. “This is the road map,” his licensing guy, Richard Baker, says, “that would tell someone how to do podcasting, how to do MP3 players.” Even if the guy who had invented iTunes never read Logan’s patent, publicly available on the U.S. Patent website, “that does not matter,” Logan says.
This is one of many reasons why the patent system is commonly described as “broken.” This American Life has a now-fittingly named podcast about just this kind of patent problem called “When Patents Attack.” The argument that many, including President Obama, make, is that having a patent this broad and obvious hinders innovation, because anybody who might want to improve upon an idea or concept gets letters from patent attorneys. In his statement, Obama pointed out that people who “don’t actually produce anything themselves” are making money based on a model that allows them “to essentially leverage and hijack someone else’s idea and see if they can extort some money from them.”
For Logan, he uses money he makes from patents to make up for money he’s lost on failed businesses, according to NPR. “He says having a patent makes it safer for people like him to try to start their next new idea.” But it makes it less safe for anyone else to start a podcast.
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May 22, 2013 12:57 pm
A new wave of female sexual desire drugs may soon be on its way to market. Still entrenched in the rigors of the FDA’s approval process, two drugs, Lybrido and Lybridos, should be available by 2016 if they pass their tests. But talking reasonably about these drugs—their risks and benefits and what societal shifts, if any, could stem from them—means thinking about them in the right way.
The pharmaceutical industry has long sought an equivalent of Viagra for women, says Daniel Bergner in the New York Times Magazine, in an in-depth story on the clinical side of female desire. And, most of the time, says Bergner, ““Female Viagra” is the way drugs like Lybrido and Lybridos tend to be discussed.” But that’s not the right way to think about these drugs, he says:
Viagra meddles with the arteries; it causes physical shifts that allow the penis to rise. A female-desire drug would be something else. It would adjust the primal and executive regions of the brain. It would reach into the psyche.
Where Viagra directly creates an erection, female desire drugs are trying to directly modify the balance of hormones affecting a woman’s brain. While Lybrido and Lybridos contain a drug similar to Viagra, one meant to increase blood flow to the genitals, they also attempt to instill lust and desire by modifying two chemicals, serotonin and dopamine. While many chemicals and hormones have a role in feelings of lust, the balance of serotonin and dopamine is one of the most important factors. For many woman (and men) in long-term relationships, the urges of earlier days can wane. Changing the balance of these two chemicals in the brain can drive a sense of desire.
Rising from the ovaries and from the adrenal glands that sit atop the kidneys, testosterone rides the bloodstream to the brain and, by means not fully known, stokes the production and release of dopamine. (Blood-borne estrogen, which derives from testosterone, may also be involved in this process.) And then there’s serotonin, dopamine’s foil. It allows the advanced regions of the brain, the domains that lie high and forward, to exert what is termed executive function. Serotonin is a molecule of self-control. It instills calm, stability, coherence… Roughly speaking, dopamine is impulse; serotonin is inhibition and organization. And in sexuality, as in other emotional realms, the two have to work in balance. If dopamine is far too dominant, craving can splinter into attentional chaos. If serotonin overwhelms, the rational can displace the randy.
Other than their intended purpose—encouraging sexual activity—female desire drugs and Viagra are completely different things. Calling a female desire drug “lady Viagra” draws parallels between the two types of drugs that really aren’t there. One encourages blood flow; the other affects hormone levels in the brain. As the drugs make their way to market, it’s important that each should be thought of on its own terms—both to help people understand the relative risks and to manage expectations.
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May 21, 2013 1:10 pm
NASA, those great engineers of tomorrow, just put $125,000 behind work intended to build a 3D food printer—a device that will be able to crank out “nutritionally-appropriate meals” from a mix of oils and powders, says Christopher Mims for Quartz. The money is going to a mechanical engineer, Anjan Contractor, who will build a prototype of the machine. “Contractor’s vision,” says Mims, “would mean the end of food waste, because the powder his system will use is shelf-stable for up to 30 years, so that each cartridge, whether it contains sugars, complex carbohydrates, protein or some other basic building block, would be fully exhausted before being returned to the store.”
Laid down layer by layer using a waterless mix of carbohydrates, protein and nutrient, according to Contractor, the device should be able to make meals out of pretty much any source of these essential foodstuffs—plants, bugs, seeds, whatever.
NASA wants the printer for long-distance space flights. Waterless powders don’t go bad, and living in space you’d probably get sick of slurping soup out of a baggie. Pizza sounds much better:
Pizza is an obvious candidate for 3D printing because it can be printed in distinct layers, so it only requires the print head to extrude one substance at a time. Contractor’s “pizza printer” is still at the conceptual stage, and he will begin building it within two weeks. It works by first “printing” a layer of dough, which is baked at the same time it’s printed, by a heated plate at the bottom of the printer. Then it lays down a tomato base, “which is also stored in a powdered form, and then mixed with water and oil,” says Contractor.
Finally, the pizza is topped with the delicious-sounding “protein layer,” which could come from any source, including animals, milk or plants.
While a 3D food printer would be able to make food-looking food, the idea isn’t so far off from the mainstay futuristic projections of the early 20th century that said we were all supposed to be eating our food in pill form by now. Against that, we’ll take the “protein” pizza.
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May 14, 2013 1:17 pm
The U.S. military has a non-lethal toy straight out of dystopian science fiction. It is, literally, a pain gun. Known as “Active Denial Technology,” the pain gun shoots extremely high frequency microwaves from a truck hundreds of meters away. When these waves hit your skin, you feel like you’re being cooked alive. Last year, Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman volunteered to get shot by the non-lethal weapon:
When the signal goes out over radio to shoot me, there’s no warning — no flash, no smell, no sound, no round. Suddenly my chest and neck feel like they’ve been exposed to a blast furnace, with a sting thrown in for good measure. I’m getting blasted with 12 joules of energy per square centimeter, in a fairly concentrated blast diameter. I last maybe two seconds of curiosity before my body takes the controls and yanks me out of the way of the beam.
Here’s what it looks like to get shot, as experienced by Ackerman:
The Active Denial pain ray is big and scary, sure. But it’s also mounted on a huge expensive truck, and thus, unlike tasers or rubber bullets, is not a thing you’ll likely see in real life right now. But that may soon change. According to New Scientist, Raytheon, the defense contractor behind the pain gun, is working on a portable version:
Raytheon is now building smaller versions for law enforcement or commercial maritime use – designed to be placed inside buildings, such as prisons, or mounted on ships for defence against, say, pirates. And soon there could be handheld versions of the pain ray. Raytheon has developed small experimental prototypes, one of which is about the size of a heavy rifle and is intended for police use.
As a non-lethal weapon, the pain ray is actually incredibly effective. The weapon causes a burning sensation so strong that it triggers “reflexive ‘repel’ reactions.” People just want to get out of the way. And, from the testing done so far, the pain gun has a low chance of doing any real damage. So far, 11,000 people have been shot, and only eight of them got burned. But these were all under proper testing conditions, not out in the field in the middle of a riot.
But as a non-lethal weapon, the pain gun has something rubber bullets and tasers and tear gas do not: it is invisible—people being shot by it will likely have absolutely zero idea what is going on, and in most cases the gun leaves no physical wounds.
This distinction, says New Scientist, got a plan to use the portable version of the device in a California prison shut down.
On the eve of going live, the trial was cancelled. It was not over health concerns, explains Chris Tillery of the NIJ’s Office of Science and Technology… The test was shut down, he says, because of an unexpected outcry in the media and elsewhere about the potential for abuse of the technology.
And this goes to the heart of the moral dilemma raised by a technology that can induce pain invisibly. It may be medically safe if used properly, but in the wrong hands, it could also be a tool of oppression and torture.
For now, says New Scientist, the potential to use the weapon in law enforcement is under review by the National Institute of Justice.
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May 13, 2013 10:17 am
Robots get smaller, smarter and faster every day. Now that we can 3-D print the little devices, they’re also easier to make. In fact, they’re so easy to make that there’s one robot that can actually assemble itself.
Here it is, assembling its way to world supremacy:
The materials used here are shape memory polymers. They remember certain shapes and, when the right conditions are met, fold into those forms. This robot can bend itself from a flat sheet into a little worm-like thing. Here’s an explanation of how shape memory works from IEEE Spectrum:
Self-folding happens thanks to shape memory polymers that contract when heated. By printing these polymers on one side of a hinged substrate and then heating them, the hinge can be made to bend. The amount of bend is controlled by etching flexible connectors that connect both sides of the hinge, and with enough hinges heated in the right order, it’s possible to create fairly complex folded shapes, including things like interlocking structural elements.
The tricky part of the process is the folding of the robot itself: installing the battery and motor is trivial enough for a human to do, which means that a relatively simple pick and place robot should have no problems doing the same thing. This means that these robots have the potential to scale massively: they can be printed out of cheap materials, they fold themselves together, and another robot can plonk some hardware on them and they’re good to go.
Now, we’ve seen self assembling robots before. Like this one:
And we’ve seen robots that have been 3-D printed before. Like this one:
But this is the first robot to be both 3-D printed and have the ability to self assemble. Next step: teach them to solder.
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