Tag Archives: John Scalzi

Wait! That’s My Idea!

There’s been a patent for podcasts since 1996, before the iPod, before the MP3 player or before the word “podcasts” even existed.

As reported on This American Life and Planet Money Jim Logan, who back in 1996 created a failed business sending audio tapes of magazine articles to people by mail, now wants a piece of the podcast action. The reason is a patent he filed claiming invention of the idea of a digital audio player that could download playlists (though this term did not exist yet) from the internet. He never could make a hardware device that worked, and has not been a podcaster or even listened to them after the technology did exist, yet he “invented” that technology.

This seems particularly funny to me both as a programmer but particularly as a science fiction writer. Inventing new technology is part of the job of a Sci-Fi writer, whether it’s simple “techno-babble”, or a fully realized device, and there’s been a long history of it.

Isaac Asimov (and many others) described the basic tenants of robotics and artificial intelligence. William Gibson imagined cyberspace and the internet. Many imagine fusion drives and transporters and even data pads. There are a myriad of tablets with patents out there in the world, but I still contend Michael Okuda would have claim on them all if he’d filed a patent (for those who don’t know Okuda and many others are responsible for many of the ship effects and tech designs on 90s Star Trek).

Take a more recent example: John Scalzi. In Old Man’s War Scalzi describes several new pieces of technology in varying degrees of detail: space elevators (also described by Arthur C. Clarke), the “skip” drive (his own solution to interstellar travel), and most importantly the genetically engineered bodies of the soldiers themselves. Scalzi even puts copyrights and trademarks after the various elements of the body (like super-oxygenated blood and tough skin).

But probably the most specifically described piece of technology is an array of sensors used to transfer the consciousness from one body to another. 20,000 sensors are jammed into the skull and form an intricate array of cross connections designed to record and transmit brain function and consciousness. A creative solution to Scalzi’s premise of 75 year old soldiers, but is it also a patent-able idea?

Sure, we’re nowhere near that level of technology now, but there are those who are trying to get there. Ray Kurzweil and other proponents of the “technological singularity” are looking for ways to do just this, transfer the consciousness (only in their case to robots).

Scalzi’s a pretty successful author (and a fellow Ohioan) but I bet he could rake in even more if he patented some of the technology he thinks up. Sure, there are probably requirements for documents, proposed schematics, materials costs, etc, to at least make it look like it was something that could be made. But a creative and determined mind could get it done.

This may seem ridiculous to a lot of you, and it seems to run counter to our basic idea of the patent system. Patents were created to protect the inventions of inventors, and more importantly, to foster the sharing of ideas. Now “patent trolls” stock up on patents as vague as a process of transferring audio across the internet, don’t have to build anything, and can make a lot of money suing (or threatening to sue) those who do create.

If that’s the way it’s going to be, then I think we as writers need to get our share*. There’s some applications of nano-tech in a novel I’ve been working on that would make for a great patent. And maybe if I’m lucky somebody will make it 10 years after I file it.

*Only half-kidding.


Filed under Trube On Tech

Send in the B-Team

Serial novels, a concept as old as book publishing itself, finds new life in John Scalzi’s episodic novel “The Human Division”. The first “episode” in this thirteen part book series is titled “The B-Team” and tells the tale of a group of misfits sent to take over a crucial negotiation after the “A” team disappears under mysterious circumstances.

Set in the popular “Old Man’s War” universe, “The B-Team” nonetheless is accessible to “newbies” to the series. Some of the tactical and intergalactic political elements remind me of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, though Scalzi has a wicked sense of humor Weber’s earlier books lack. In particular the way in which the B-Team’s last set of negotiations are concluded.

The Colonial Defense Forces are teetering on the brink of destruction. A new alliance of alien worlds threatens the many colony worlds, and CDFs greatest source of soldiers, Earth, has just broken away. Without them humanity has about 30 years left on the clock. In the midst of this intrigue a diplomatic team sent to negotiate with a long time enemy goes missing and is believed destroyed. It’s up to a misfit crew to complete negotiations and find out what happened to the other team.

The best part of this tale is the Schmidt and Wilson relationship. It reminds me of the two engineers from Asimov’s robot tales, complete with arguing and daring tactics. There are many amusing as well as action packed moments, most of them from these two.

The close of the episode definitely leaves you with a lot of questions as to where the overarching story-line is going, but the tale contained within wraps up reasonably well. If you only feel like reading the first you don’t have to go further (though I think you’ll want to).

At 99 cents it’s definitely worth the look, and with titles delivered every Tuesday you’ll soon find yourself waiting for the next episode. You can also buy the audible version at a discount if you buy the eBook (you can get both for $1.48). They are also being sold without DRM which to me always engenders goodwill (a deeper look reveals most or all of Scalzi’s work is published this way).

The only downside to the episodic format is that the episodes do not seem to be of a consistent length. The first is about 90 pages (for me two night’s reading), but most of the upcoming episodes are shorter (though the same price). Some are as short as 23 pages. 90 was a good size for a novella\ novelette length story and I am a little worried the upcoming episodes will feel rushed or cut off, but I’m definitely willing to take the trip. In the meantime I also picked up a copy of Old Man’s War to read in the interim periods.

At the time of this posting the second episode “Walk the Plank” will be released and I imagine I’ll have torn through it (at 32 pages it’s a lot shorter). Anyone interested in taking this thirteen episode journey with me (our little blogo-verse book club maybe)?


Filed under Books + Publishing, Writing