The Red Lines Page

January 15, 2010

Patently obvious

Filed under: Articles,Grumbling,IBM,press — Peter A @ 9:25 pm

Last year, IBM published one of my inventions and another where I was a co-inventor. I was quite pleased, even though they were published, not patented. Then I saw a churlish article in The Register about IBM’s patents — prompting this grumbly personal blog response.

In 2009, the US Patent and Trademarks Office granted IBM more patents than any other company in the world. This was the 17th straight year  that’s happened, though it didn’t stop The Register‘s Gavin Clarke reporting this as “each year for nearly a decade”. (The IBM press release makes this obvious to most of… er… the press.)

Mind you, some of The Register’s other calculations were inaccurate too. And I think they missed a more interesting analysis of  the figures that they were handed on a plate by the various source documents.

For example, The Register claims that a company called Hon Hai Precision grew fastest on USPTO patent awards, but then refers to a table of data that shows Hon Hai was up 39% year-to-year whereas Microsoft was up 43%.

When Gavin’s article was first published earlier this week, it also asserted: “the number of patents granted to Microsoft  almost doubled, growing 43 per cent over 2008 to hit 2,903.” Wouldn’t “almost doubled” be “almost 100%”? And even doubling their impressive 2008 haul would still have kept Microsoft in second place to IBM in 2009. [Subsequently, this calculation gaffe has been quietly removed from the article.]

On trends, the article says: “if IBM and Microsoft continue at the same pace, Microsoft should slide into the number-two spot behind IBM. Then it’s just a matter of time and filings before Microsoft deposes IBM at the top.”  It fails to make a connection with another observation in the article that “the size of portfolio is the currency that you use to trade to another company”.

So how many years on current trends will it be before Microsoft amasses the same amount of total patent “currency” as IBM, Samsung, Canon, Sony or others? Especially as some new patents derive from that existing  intellectual property, and those other companies have been amassing thousands every year for many years… in IBM’s case, for decades. Maybe that’s why in 2003 Microsoft hired Marshall Phelps, the former IBMer who Newsweek said turned IBM’s patent portfolio into a $2 billion business.

In addition, Gavin snorts: “There you have it fanbois: Those who think IBM walks on water because of the patents and IP its generously given to Linux and open-source, the mask as finally slipped. Patents to IBM are a currency it uses to get what it wants.”

But why can’t companies — IBM or otherwise — do different things for different kinds of patents? And if the article’s questioning IBM’s accumulation of intellectual “currency”, perhaps it could have admitted something else made plain in the press release: IBM also had nearly 4,000 additional technical inventions in 2009, but published them directly instead of seeking patent protection, thereby making the inventions freely available to others in a public database of prior art. Including mine. Fly, my pretties, fly!

Companies like IBM, Samsung, Canon, Sony and (increasingly) Microsoft have a big portfolio of existing patents on which they can develop new intellectual property; and IBM also freely publishes thousands of new technical inventions that others can build on.  There you have it, fanbois.

I suppose  journalists prefer to write a story about “the Beast of Redmond breathing down everyone’s necks” or “Big Blue’s mask finally slips after nearly a decade”. (Or is it 17 years? Let me check that press release again.)   And that’s easier to do if you get the basic maths wrong, selectively quote the data, and if you don’t bother with much real analysis of the underlying trends. That much is patently obvious.

January 10, 2010

Thanks PLR

David Bishop’s splendid blog prompted me to check my Public Lending Rights (PLR) account. (David’s blog is itself worth checking, too.)

Authors registered with PLR can get an estimate of how popular their books were in British libraries over the year. To compensate for lost sales, PLR pays about sixpence for each time a book was borrowed.

As the PLR Newsletter reveals, more than 37,000 authors have registered, and 62% of us will get some form of payment this year. To ensure  that people like J K Rowling don’t scoop the entire pot, there’s a maximum payment of £6,600, paid out this year to 250 authors (well below 1% of all registered authors).

In order of popularity, my most read titles were:

1. Torchwood: Another Life

2. Torchwood: Pack Animals

3. Doctor Who: The Ancestor Cell

4. Doctor Who: Kursaal

5. Doctor Who: Frontier Worlds

My Torchwood books are more recent, and so it’s no surprise that they were borrowed much more than my older and out-of-print Doctor Who titles. I have to share my loot with Steve Cole for “The Ancestor Cell”; people still seem to be reading and, indeed, reviewing it. Steve himself lives in a world where dinosaurs fly spaceships and cows use a time machine. Try not to judge him too harshly.

Meanwhile, hurrah for the PLR. And thank you to the thousands of people who have borrowed my books from UK libraries.

January 9, 2010


Filed under: Grumbling,usability — Peter A @ 7:47 pm

If you add together the number of different UK tariffs for gas, electric, and mobile phones, you get a number greater than the atoms in the known universe. It took a while for me just to decode one of them, based on a letter from EDF describing changes to my “dual fuel deal”. Their explanatory leaflet is called “Everything you need to know about the changes to our discount structure”. What it gains from clear English it loses with incomplete detail.

Looks to me that the changes benefit EDF’s larger consumers at the expense of their smaller consumers.

The explanatory leaflet provides a couple of optimistic examples, and describes the changes in general terms based on “a typical customer”. But what does it really mean for their consumers? Well, let’s use the figures that EDF define as “a typical customer”. (There is some maths involved, but don’t panic, I won’t be setting a test this semester.)

At first glance, it looks like EDF hoiked their prices by an eye-watering 32%. Before VAT, the gas charge increases from 14.18p per kWh to 18.67p. Electricity increases from 5.3p per kWh to 7.0p.

Then you notice they have one rate for the first lot of gas/electric you use each quarter, and a different rate (about half) for anything after that. So they’ve raised the former by nearly a third, but left the latter unchanged. And to add to the confusion, they have also changed two other discounts:

  • Instead of a flat monthly discount for direct debit payments, they give a 6% discount on your quarterly bill
  • They have slashed the “duel fuel” discount by two thirds

The figures that EDF define as a typical customer are “3,300kWh of electricity and 20,500kWh of gas a year”. And the tariff rates before VAT are:


  • First 225kWhs per quarter = 18.67p (was 14.18p in 2009)
  • All other kWhs = 10.50p (unchanged)


  • First 670kWhs per quarter = 7.000p (was 5.300p in 2009)
  • All other kWhs = 3.056p (unchanged)


  • Discount 6% of the total bill (was a flat saving of £24 per year in 2009)


  • Discount £8 a year (was £24 per year in 2009)

Here’s how it works out for a standard user. I’ve made the reasonable assumption that in every quarter the average consumer uses at least 225kWhs electricity (3,300/4) and at least 670kWhs gas (20.500/4), even in summer; and that total usage remains the same year-to-year, for the purpose of comparison.

The effect on the average consumer of the changes to EDF’s discount structure is an increase of 5.58% (well above UK inflation).

But someone using half the average sees their bill increase by a whopping 16.18%:

Whereas someone using half as much again as the average sees their bill increase by only 1.84%:

In fact, if you used twice the average, your annual bill would be slightly lower in 2010 than it was in 2009!

Obviously, if customers reduce their use of gas and electricity year-to-year, they will reduce the actual amount they have to pay during 2010. But the rewards for doing that are not equal across their customer base. And with such a cold winter, I think most people will be using more fuel this year anyway.

In short:

  • EDF’s changes appear to penalise their smaller (or more prudent) customers more than their larger (or more profligate) customers, whether customers try to reduce consumption or not
  • Most customers are unlikely to work this out from the information provided by EDF.
  • If it’s as complex and confusing as this for changes to just one tariff for just one supplier, how effective is market competition really?

January 5, 2010

Audio therapy

Filed under: Audios,drwho,Pest Control,press,writing — Peter A @ 8:59 pm

The “Alpha Mummy” blog in The Times today made me smile. The author’s daughter was bereft at losing David Tennant in the recent Doctor Who finale, and even reading Doctor Who Magazine was insufficient consolation. So the clever father “downloaded a Doctor Who audiobook, read out by Tennant”. And by 11:30 p.m. their daughter was fast asleep.

I like to imagine that “at least one more David Tennant adventure”  means it was an audio original, and specifically Pest Control. Have I mentioned that audio on this blog?  It’s still available for download in the UK and the US and from other fine retailers around the world. Please don’t download an illegal torrent of it, because the author doesn’t get any royalties for those, and that’s how I’m paid for writing it, and not getting royalties makes me weep like a bereft girl.

Well, I like to imagine that the parents downloaded my audio. But perhaps it was Simon Messingham’s Day of the Troll instead. Find that here, if you must.

And for those of you as excited as I am about the forthcoming Eleventh Doctor, check out the preview on the BBC website here (UK only, I’m afraid).

Update: my wife asks, “Was the girl in a coma? After listening to your audio, I mean?”

January 2, 2010

Mail Fail

Filed under: Articles,drwho,press,twitter — Peter A @ 9:23 pm

Daily Mail gets things a bit backwardsTwo suspiciously-similar articles appeared in the press this week, both grumbling that David Tennant was in too many BBC programmes at Christmas. One was in the Telegraph, and the other in the Mail. Both asserted that he appeared in 75 programmes.

To get to 75 appearances, they had to count over a period of three weeks. Now, I know Christmas starts earlier every year, but that seems a bit extravagant even by the Mail’s standards. Well over half of these appearances were Doctor Who (including the cartoon series) or other repeats; two of them were among the biggest-rated shows of the season (the two-part Doctor Who finale); and several others were news or documentary appearances as publicity for the finale. On that basis, the press will presumably be getting in a tizzy about the number of appearances by people in soap operas or the next time Britain’s Got Talent has its run.

The Mail article contained well below 500 words, plus a programme listing that could have been copied straight from the Radio Times. It took three journalists to write that. It contains several errors, which are helpfully explained to the Mail journalists in the many reader comments. They quoted two people from the many on their own comment boards to support the complaint about “overexposure”. Unfortunately, they selectively quoted one of those from a comment that was actually saying the complete opposite, and the original author had to correct them in the comments and reveal why she “really, really resented” their “pathetic” article. The Mail hasn’t apologised or corrected the published article.

This didn’t stop Conservative MP Nigel Evans complaining that this was evidence that the BBC was “freezing out young acting talent”, that the BBC should “name their big earners”, and that “200 channels of David Tennant doesn’t seem to be much choice.” He doesn’t explain how 75 appearances could make 200 channels, but fortunately he sat on the Culture Media and Sport select committee, and not one like the Treasury Select Committee that might require numeracy. Being a former committee member means he probably ought to recognise a non-sequitur, though. Note that he doesn’t sit on the committee any more — one of the errors that none of the three authors spotted in their article, possibly because they think retyping something is easier than checking the facts.

Speaking of which, moon-faced miserablist and Mail regular Jan Moir subsequently regurgitated the whole story in the paper, using the information in the article but conveniently ignoring all the corrections helpfully provided by readers of the previous article. She probably doesn’t think much of readers’ comments, after there was a record-breaking number of complaints to the UK Press Complaints Commission about her nasty article about the death of Stephen Gateley. Charlie Brooker described that fiasco rather better than I could, however – read his response here.

Other recent articles by the same Mail authors include:

  • Ross: “Jonathan Ross angers BBC bosses after slamming television schedule”, another in the Mail’s continuing attacks on Ross, in which no BBC bosses are actually quoted  (either on or off-record), the entire piece being based on a single tweet by Ross’s revealing his uncontroversial opinion that “BBC has shite on occasionally” compared with even worse on ITV.
  • Pope: “Pope has a pointy hat”, a piece about Vatican dress code that speculates whether the papal headgear is an attempt to distance the Pope from his Nazi past, and featuring the comment “puts the Rat into Ratzinger” and a photo of an infallible condom featuring the Pontiff’s smiling face
  • Rage: “’We want to wipe the smug grin from Simon Cowell’s face”, an article whose true Mail agenda is revealed by the website URL “BBC-backing-Rage-Against-The-Machine-sour-grapes-X-Factor-beating-Strictly-says-Simon-Cowell.html”
  • Fat: “Dawn French uses a floral walking stick”, containing the breathless assessment “It is not known whether her injury was linked to her weight, however it is well-known that heavier people tend to have more problems with mobility”, and a series of quotes from a “Harley Street diet expert” lambasting the injured woman.
  • Pug: “Kelly Brooks’ dog has a pink body warmer”, a feature piece containing photos of her, the dog and her rugby-player boyfriend, plus the words “amazing pert boobs”.

I made up one of those five stories — only four were written by those journalists. If you feel like doing a quick web search to work out which is the one I invented, then you’ll have worked harder on ascertaining the facts than the Mail journalists did on some of the facts in their David Tennant article.

PS: For the full effect, you need to imagine that I hand-wrote this blog post in full capitals on lined paper with green ink.

PPS: The Telegraph journalist has previously reported on MPs’ expenses, the war in Afghanistan, and the Jersey child abuse investigation. Must have been a slow news day for him, eh?

January 1, 2010

Keynote slides

Filed under: ISTC,Technology,writing — Peter A @ 11:22 pm

My keynote to the TCUK Conference (first discussed here) went well in 2009. In response to those who asked me to share the slides, here they are. They were designed to be illustrative during my talk, so you won’t get the whole story just from these slides. You literally had to be there.

The keynote was referenced in:

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