Journal: News & Comment

Wednesday, March 28, 2001
# 7:58:00 PM:

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Maybe useful, probably useless, and likely clueless

Three unrelated items caught my eye in Tuesday's "Good Morning Silicon Valley" column in the San Jose Mercury News. (Even if you live far from Silicon Valley, as I do, GMSV is worth subscribing to, either by e-mail or using the AvantGo mobile edition.)

The first is a blurb about Powerline and HomePlug, which "may make high-speed Internet access via electricity cables a reality as soon as this year." In other words, avoid running network cables or dealing with sometimes-flaky wireless networks -- just use every power socket in your house as a network connection. Potentially very cool. If it works.

Next, I think both inventor Paul Moller, who has invented something he calls the Skycar ("the future of commuter transportation"), and John Hansman, an MIT aeronautics researcher (who calls the Skycar "a piece of junk") are missing the point. Yes, as Hansman points out, "everybody has always wanted to have an airplane that would launch from their driveway and fly to wherever they wanted to go, and it exists and it's called a helicopter." But the reason not everyone has a helicopter or a private plane is only partly the expense and inconvenience. The major problem is that people drive poorly and get into accidents just fine in two dimensions, on roads. Add a third dimension and the potential to fall several thousand feet after a fender-bender, and you understand that there is a very good reason why air travel of any sort is very heavily regulated.

Finally, an organization called Bountyquest has an interesting way of trying to foil some of the more insane patents being granted these days: offer a substantial reward to anyone who can provide the "prior art" (evidence that similar things were going on before patent applicants "invented" their creations) that would invalidate patent claims. What's really strange is that the venture is being backed not just by publisher Tim O'Reilly -- who has been outspoken about the problems with the patent system in the past -- but also by Jeff Bezos of, notorious for his "one-click shopping" patent, decried as perhaps the worst example of the U.S. Patent Office's cluelessness. One of those slamming one-click was O'Reilly himself, who called Bezos's patent "intellectual property gone mad."

So, data from wall power, the scary concept of flying cars in the hands of slow-drivers who can barely see over the wheel, and patent cooperation between two seeming polar opposites. Some good reading.


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