Posts from December, 2011
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December 22nd, 2011

Yesterday, I started to work on a new kind of TODO list, or a fancier way to call it, "a personal deadline scheduler".

TODO list is easy to write. The idea is simple. Having list of items, and assigning each of them with the status (completed, in-progress, abandon etc.). A fancier one may have participants, milestones and deadlines. These ones are called task trackers. TODO lists tend to be small, they cover things that can be done in few hours most. Task trackers tend to cover multi-day ones. But neither of them "tick". Thus, there is no way to prevent one item sit on your TODO list for a year and still have zero progress.

Speaking of progress, it is something subjective and in general hard to measure. For example, you can sit there for a whole day and still have zero line of code written. Many task trackers let you to estimate your daily progress and often suffer overshot or under. It is not a great way to meet deadline because it never saves you from be stalled. FIFO is different. FIFO aims at things that takes multi-hours but less than two or three days, such as a prototype of a feature, a test suite, a minor feature or few bug fixes. It doesn't measure your progress, but in general, it will help you make progress on ALL the items.

The secret sauce is "ticking". Once you started a FIFO item, the clock started to tick. For a item in FIFO, you needs to specify two things, the item name, and the estimate time required. In current implementation, you can specify the two with one sentence, like "CUDA on-device slab pool, 3 hrs". Once the item is entered, it will start to record the time spent. You can pause the timer at any time or resume, but still, there is a timer that records time spent.

The beautiful part comes when you have several items at hand. Whenever you don't want to work on the current item, you can click the "R" button, and that item will be put to the end of the list. Another way to move on is when the interval meets. The default interval is 1 hours. Thus, when you have spent more than 1 hours on this task, it will be automatically moved to the bottom. In other word, it works exactly like a deadline scheduler in your Operating System, which keeps you to make some progress on each of the items instead of having one or some of them sit there for a whole year.

At this time, I only have a demo at http://fifo.me/, but feel free to try it out and comment. Things like server-side persistence, Facebook frictionless sharing will come. Trust me, I will make some progress, because I am using FIFO now.

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December 13rd, 2011

Patent in its traditional meaning, is a government-protected monopoly. However, because it is a granted property right that covers wide range of transactions, questionable practices such as patent suppression are invented ever since. By actively applying for patents and passively asking for royalty fee, it now becomes a standalone business mode, companies like Intellectual Ventures and Digitude Innovations are actively seeking legal means to profit from the large patent pools they gathered through acquisitions and bankruptcy liquidations. These business practices failed to address the very principle of patent law, which is to reward patent inventors in order to better promote technology advancement. On the other hand, in today’s world, a competitive market shows great success in allocating resources. If we can create a competitive market for patent through some minor modifications on current patent practice, it would be expected that many bad business practices due to our inefficient patent allocation would go away.

Patent is considered as a property. Thus, it comes with full property rights. In practice, that is usually means companies are the ones who will exercise these rights on patents. It makes sense because individuals usually lack of necessary means to exercise their rights on patents, especially when they need to collect royal fee, investigate patent infringements etc. However, Two differences between corporation and natural person make this situation easier for patent abuse. First, a company doesn't hold morality value. The purpose of a company is to make profit. Thus, it will operate at the edge of what the law permits when that is to its advantages. Second, a company can be bought or restructured, which will turn its original purpose up side down. In many patent suppression cases, the patents involved are usually bought through bankruptcy liquidations or acquisitions.

The Essence of Competitive Market

A competitive market for patent requires two main components. First, patents that can be used to solve a class of similar problems should be sufficiently many. Second, there is no way for someone to ban a certain product due to patent infringement claims. The first requirement ensures that the price of a patent use (in the form of royalty fee) would be optimal. The second requirement ensures that there will be a price for a patent use (royalty fee) at all. To meet the two requirements, a patent institution should widen its acceptable range of patents and only a limited range of property rights should be granted with patent. Namely, the right to transfer and the right to exclude should be stripped out. It would feel strange that to create a competitive market, a set of stripped-down property rights are needed. The reason is that the competitive market we discussed is not about patent exchange, rather, it is a competitive market on the right to implement a certain patent (patent use).

Stripping-down property rights usually are problematic because many restrictions can be mitigated through specific contract arrangement. For example, if the right to sell a property is restricted, one can still sell the right to use a property through careful contract arrangement, and that normally has the same effect as the right to sell a property. This is not a case for patent because of its unique characteristic. Thus, the restriction on right to transfer can actually be enforced with the premise that the assignee is a natural person (thus, cannot be bought or restructured etc.). On the right to exclude, it is still possible to impose a royalty fee at unreasonable range so that effectively exclude someone from using it. However, such royalty fee would still subject to fairness principle (you cannot do arbitrary price discrimination). Due to the fact that the patent always granted to a natural person (thus, the person needs to license it to some companies in order to make profit), it is hard to implement an unreasonable price to someone that effectively exclude him/her from use the patent and still profit from the patent.

A competitive market means that one can "shop" patents (obtain permission to use with royalty fee) that required for the implementation of a specific product and there will be enough alternatives to pick and choose. For example, in software design, it means (if have to,) to choose a software patent that is more affordable but solves the similar problem. The market mechanism makes sure that the royalty fee for a too broad patent (the kind of patent that usually used for patent suppression) would be driven down significantly simply because there are too much competitions from other more specific patents. In a fully competitive market, the price would be driven down to its original cost (no profit margin), in the case of patent, that will be zero. Thus, for a patent has too many competitors (near fully competitive market), the royalty fee will be zero. Therefore, in a competitive market, low-quality patent will be eliminated (become irrelevant).

Three Proposed Changes to Patent Institution

As we discussed earlier, for a patent institution, granting a set of stripped-down patent rights to a natural person is sufficient to encourage the establishment of competitive market for patent. In following chapter, I will discuss why the three elements can lay the foundation of a competitive market for patent.

A natural person usually doesn't possess necessary legal expertise in order to enforce royalty fee in case of patent infringement. A delegate is needed for him/her to fully exercise their rights on a given patent. The delegation mechanism may well be a for-profit organization that is capable of representing the interests of that natural person. However, the mechanism is different from previous for-profit organizations that are designed for patent suppression because they don't actually own the patent, and the end goal of the delegation organization is to collect the royalty fee rather than the infringement settlement fee. In any circumstance, the natural person can always overturn previous judgment made by the delegation organization when their practice is conflicting with certain moral value that the natural person believes. In the essence, the delegation organization serves as a medium to minimize the cost of licensing and obtaining proper license for both parties. The analogy is similar to current patent pool structure we have, which certain companies formed an organization to manage the set of patents on a specific technology so that they can avoid the legal cost and labors of cross-licensing etc. It becomes more evident that patent pool is the only viable way to materialize a complex technology because nowadays, the development of a complex technology usually requires cooperation across various organizations (industry research labs, university research groups, national labs etc.).

Non-transferable requirement makes sure that the natural person can always retain the profit from his/her invention. Such requirement also avoids that certain delegation organization turns to patent suppression by obtaining the patent itself. The requirement of non-excluding serves the same purpose to restrict certain organization/person from patent suppression. Will non-excluding requirement be sufficient enough to avoid patent suppression alone? It seems that once a patent is licensed, with non-excluding requirement and fairness principle, it would be impossible to handcuff certain company from using that patent. However, without "natural person" requirement and non-transferable requirement, it would still be possible to use a patent without licensing it (e.g. the inventor produces instances based on the patent). In that case, they can effectively exclude anyone from using a patent by asking for a prohibitively high royalty fee. In this way, the three requirements I proposed are the essential minimal to prohibit patent suppression.

Prohibiting patent suppression is essential for a competitive market creation. Otherwise, one can always ban a certain license on a patented instance arbitrarily and damaging the consistency of such market. On the other hand, the enabling of new delegation organizations makes the competitive market preferable by offering incentives necessary to form such market. The market that formed by these delegation organizations is competitive on two grounds. First, the delegation organizations will compete for inventors and may provide terms more favorable to inventors depending on the value of patented inventions since the delegation organizations are working in a market that don't have a particular competition niche to pursue other than legal and negotiation expertise (perfect competition). Second, the patent pool that the delegation organizations collected will also compete with each other if they have similar applications (much like the patent pool in software such as WCDMA v.s. CDMA2000 etc.). If more inventions are patented, more of them will have similar applications. This can be encouraged through lower the application fee and streamlining the application process by patent institution. By competing patent against each other, it will drive down the royalty fee and help to evaluate the value of such invention with market power.

Implication of Proposed Changes

The proposed changes to current patent institution are minor, but the impact can be profound. I will discuss several implications in the following chapter.

The "natural person" requirement exploited the fact that companies can be bought or restructured but not a natural person. Another difference between a natural person and a company that is not discussed in former chapter is the morality. Thus, a natural person possesses higher moral standard than companies. In pharmaceutical patent cases, which by nature operate at higher moral standard than most other patents, this change can be a useful feature. In particular, if a pharmaceutical patent is proved to be invaluable to poor countries, people can always petition to its inventor with expectation of gaining certain exempt terms. It exploited the fact that a person can be more easily persuaded than a company because a company is purely profit-driven. However, it doesn't solve the problem that particularly interesting to pharmaceutical patents (how to promote health), but does hint a new kind of thinking when higher morality is required in certain patent cases.

Since a patent is bound to a certain "natural person", would a certain company be incentivized to apply patents and always assign the "natural person" field with a particular person (i.e. CEO or chairman of that company)? For example, if the assignee cannot be Apple Inc. anymore, would it be incentivized to name assignee of all patents it filed to be Steve Jobs? The incentive is true and in such way, the company would be able to retain the patent itself and have a finer control over all the patents it filed. It likely will be the only incentive for large companies to still fund research because the return from research for the company itself is diminished with the implementation of these new modifications. This is the due-diligence responsibility of the patent institution to make sure that the right person is attributed.

Since large companies can neither exclusively produce certain product, nor directly collect royalty fee, the only way for them to still profit from researches they fund is to take a cut from royalty fee revenue of the inventor which would likely to be smaller than they originally can get with monopoly means. The diminished interests for large companies to fund research may negatively affect the research in general for a short time, but it also provides unique opportunities to the rise of independent research groups. An independent research group will also take a cut from the royalty fee revenue of the inventor, but because inventors in an independent research group will likely to license their patent to more people at a more favorable price, the revenue for independent research group will be at least as large as the revenue that large companies would get by funding researches themselves. University research groups and national labs should not be affected by these changes.

The traditional recognition of patent is that by granting patent to its inventor, it will create a temporary artificial monopoly that then will generate enough profit to incentivize the inventor in long-term to continue produce quality inventions. With these new changes especially the non-excluding rule, it is impossible to create artificial monopoly any more. However, the spirit of patenting retains. It is hard to quantitatively assess whether the revenue would decrease or increase with the new scheme to the inventors. But either way, that's something left for the market to determine.

To make the market competitive on the ground of patent licensing, we should grant more patents than before. It requires some compromises in the way that we evaluate patents. Since we've waived the requirement for excluding, any inventions that have meaningful modification on public common should be patentable. It won't drain the public common, because the royalty fee for patent that is too "broad" (in another word, too close to public common) will be close to zero. The competitive market approach ensures that less meaningful inventions will be ruled out eventually. The new evaluation makes sure that we can patent as much as possible. This process will greatly enrich the patents available on the competitive market, therefore, making the market more competent when determining the right royalty fee for patents.

The proposed new scheme for patent institution is not meant to solve all the problems. For example, this new scheme won't significantly change the dilemma we have for pharmaceutical patents now. It only hinted that when individuals with higher morality hold such patents, it would be more easily persuaded to give up certain profit for greater good. However, there is no enforcement rule in patent institution side to promote health. But, to solve health problems in poor countries should not be a burden for patent institution. Patent institution couldn't properly and shouldn't be able to incentivize researchers to solve health problems. The view that health problems in poor countries are the fault of our current patent system is flawed. Besides patent suppression, current patent scheme incentivizes inventors in proportional to the profit of sales that made on their inventions. Thus, if these incentives are misplaced, it is a fundamental problem with current capitalism social structure for which we only reward people with money.

The proposed scheme may not work well with gene patents too because the proposed scheme makes assumption that there are alternative inventions to solve similar problems (WCDMA v.s. CDMA2000, LCD TV v.s. plasma TV etc.). Due to the unique encoding of a gene, for gene patent, it is less likely to be the case. However, lacking of applicability, the current gene patent won't affect much on the new scheme since the proposed scheme focus on application rather than protection. As for the other invention that solves a problem no alternatives available yet, the scheme permits a higher royalty fee. But as long as it has been licensed, others will be able to obtain license indiscriminately (by the non-excluding rule). As for the inventor, he/she won't be able to profit from his/her invention unless it gets licensed. Thus, he/she lacks incentives to protect his/her invention from public. In fact, he/she cannot even protect their invention for being reproduced once they filed the patent application (with specification). Once someone implemented their invention with the publicly available specification, they are forced to enter negotiation stage. With this new scheme, the true secret creation can only be protected as trading secret, which is more appropriate than passive patent protection.

Conclusion

In this paper, I proposed some minor modifications to current patent institution practice. The three modifications: assigning patent to "natural person", non-transferable and non-excluding patent right focused on to make patented inventions viable to general public. As small as these modifications seem to be, through the discussion of this paper, they should have profound impact on our current structure around patent system as a whole. They will help to prevent patent suppression, eliminate passive patent protection, enabling a more efficient royalty fee negotiation process and more promptly rewarding to the original inventors.

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December 10th, 2011

After the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident and the more recent Fukushima disaster, nuclear energy as a viable clean energy alternative is questioned. Germany has planed to phase out nuclear power plants starting from 2008 while others, especially developing countries, are still seeing nuclear energy as a modern and cheap alternative comparing to wind power or solar power. Brazil still focus its renewable energy plan on nuclear power, and China, with recent controversies regarding Fukushima disaster, has quite a few nuclear construction projects under way. Although Chernobyl, TMI and Fukushima disasters highlight weaknesses in safety measures of some nuclear power plants, safety can be improved. The first traffic light prototype killed a policeman, well-designed twin tower can be stroke down and an earthquake can shake a nuclear power plant down. These accidents, though worrying people, but hardly can be a showstopper for nuclear power in general. However, the problem with nuclear waste was underplayed for many years may well be the killer switch for nuclear power installation. This survey intended to summarize recent developments of nuclear reactors, and hopefully, would also provide an insight into the possible future of nuclear energy development regarding some popular concerns.

Background

The nuclear waste issue was downplayed for a long time. During the first commercial nuclear power plant installation, manufacturer assured that they will collect and reprocess the nuclear waste so that can be used again. Although the technology hadn't been developed yet then, they were expecting a time frame within 10 years that these wastes can be properly handled (accelerated radioactive decay or reprocessing). Soon after the first installation, to encourage the nuclear power usage, the Congress has passed a law to ensure that nuclear waste will be properly handled by The Federal government. But after more than 30 years, there is still no viable way to reprocess these highly radioactive wastes. The Federal government was bounded by the law to help nuclear power plant to handle the nuclear waste they've collected on-site for the last 30 years.

The Bush administration after years’ consideration came up with a proposal that using Yucca Mountain as a permanent burying site for nuclear waste, which in theory would last for 10,000 years. Although disposal is always an option, many details that involved make the proposal much less desirable. The criticisms mainly focus on the transportation safety and the option of sealing off the site forever after disposal without monitoring in place. Because of these concerns, The Obama administration has suspended the operation indefinitely.

If only newer nuclear plants can produce much fewer nuclear wastes, or we can expect nearly to none nuclear waste produced, the disposal solution may be viable again. After all, the nuclear wastes that we are sealing off are in finite amount, and we can be free of worrying after the burying.

In-Operation New Types

In this section, I will investigate several nuclear reactor types that based on new technology and are operational currently.

Pressurised heavy water reactor (PHWR) is one of the most used commercial nuclear reactor types to date. PHWR is categorized by its cooling system design and coolant within. A PHWR uses the same mechanic of a pressurised water reactor (PWR). A pressurised loop used to transport heat out of the core chamber. Since coolant in the loop was directly contacted with nuclear fuel in the chamber, it will be contaminated. Then, the coolant will heat up the stream generator that ultimately will generate electronic power. During the whole process, the coolant (heavy water) is kept inside the close loop to avoid any radioactive contamination to stream generator. The pressurised loop also keeps the boiling point of coolant high enough so that the system can be operated in higher temperature, thus, more energy-efficient. The "trick" of using heavy water is because heavy water won't absorb nearly as much neutrons as light water (normal water), thus, natural uranium can be fed into the reactor without enrich process.

These early designs such as PHWR were only focused on the economy aspect (e.g. how to make a cheap, commercial-viable reactor without any consideration of environmental impact). As a result, even tough a PHWR can deliver energy with higher efficiency and cheap natural uranium deposit; it also can produce more plutonium and tritium than its light water counterpart.

Since PHWR is still the main type of commercial nuclear reactor to date [1], it shows that the primary goal of nuclear production still focus on safety (pressurised coolant-based reactor is considered to be safest in operation) and efficiency (both the efficiency in energy production and economic efficiency, e.g. the price of fuel). It is clear that the by-product processing was not a central concern in past because "it can be solved with technology advancement".

In-Construction New Types

In this section, I will investigate several nuclear reactor types that merit some new technology development and currently are in construction.

Fast breeder reactor (FBR) is the kind of reactor that can "refuel" itself in theory. Many FBR prototypes were built for research purpose. Some ere built and operated but only shutdown. [2] In recent years, FBR picked up some traction and some are currently under construction. U.S., China, Japan, and India have several projects on FBR building or prototyping.

A FBR is mainly different from ordinary nuclear reactor because it uses fast neutrons for its reaction. Fast neutrons can produce far more neutrons in fissile reaction that in return can increase the concentration of Pu/U ration that is needed to sustain the chain reaction. Thus, a much higher breed ratio (the ratio of fissile atoms created per fissile event) can be obtained with FBR. The high hope on FBR is that with initial fuel, later, it can be fed on natural uranium or even depleted uranium. The hope of exploiting all power in fissile reaction with FBR was diminished when the price of uranium mine dropped and the process to enrich uranium became commercial-viable. It becomes interesting again in recent years because it turns out that the FBR process will produce much less plutonium and minor actinides (both are main nuclear waste component). Due to the heated debate around nuclear waste, researchers hope that based on FBR, they can construct a reactor that produces much less long half-life nuclear waste.

Proposed New Types

Some nuclear power reactor types are showing promising future and were considered in Generation IV International Forum [3], but for the time being, are still on paper or only research projects.

Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) in principal is much like FBR we discussed before. Due to the ability of "burning" long last nuclear waste, FBR is considered to be integrated an on-site electrowinning fuel-reprocessing unit, thus, resulted IFR. The electrowinning fuel-reprocessing unit could potentially recycle all the transuranics and uranium through electroplating, leaving only short half-life materials in the waste. To address concerns on safety, IFR also has a passive safety measurement deployed in reaction chamber. The IFR design promises to have high-efficiency (99.5% in theory) with minimal "safe" (half-life less than 20 years) by-product.

Pebble Bed Reactor (PBR) unlike most deployed nuclear power reactors, PBR uses gas cooling system that in principle enables it to operate under very high temperature. The high temperature enables the reactor to be more efficient at energy production (higher thermal energy to mechanic energy transfer ratio). Also, the fact that it uses a gas-cooling system to avoid many complexities that introduced by traditional water-cooling system (double loop design etc.). PBR system promises to have a small, compact and much efficient reactor that can even be deployed in home or on vehicles.

Conclusion

The survey of nuclear reactor types shows that a nuclear reactor with our desired property can be achieved (low nuclear waste production and high-efficiency). Unfortunately, the first few years’ research (1960s ~ 1980s) was incentivized by economic efficiency and complete left environmental consideration out of the equation. Nuclear power is our most productive new energy to date, if only we could incentivize research to the right direction, the problems around nuclear waste and safety can be solved within given time.

[1] International Atomic Energy Agency, Nuclear Power Reactors in the World (Reference Data), 2006

[2] Superphenix in France, SNR-300 in Germany, 1 in Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station U.S.

[3] GIF, http://www.gen-4.org/

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December 9th, 2011

在一个地方沉寂了三年,学到了很多的知识,积累了很多的技术。突然觉得,应该出去走走看看,才不枉古训“行万里路,读万卷书”。

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December 7th, 2011