Prior Art

An eagle-eyed colleague recently pointed me to the case of CLS Bank v Alice, where Alice Corporation is trying to enforce a set of patents against CLS Bank, the little-known (but systematically vital) central settlement point for interbank FX trades. 

The judgment itself is interesting because it tries to rule on the patentability of computer-implemented inventions (that is, business methods implemented “on a computer” instead of “in real life”). Alice’s patents specifically refer to computer-based implementations of certain processes, rather than the processes themselves, and the Federal Court was asked to rule whether the computer-based implementation might be patentable even when the business process itself isn’t. 

The end result was a hung bench – five people saying that computer-based implementations are patentable, and therefore Alice has a case; five people saying they’re not. The end result is that they’re apparently not, though there’s a lot of talk that Alice will appeal to the Supremes. (…never mind.)

I’m going to leave the “they were wrong! they were right!” arguments over jurisprudence to the people who know better. But it seems to me that Alice’s patents – even if you look at them purely as computer-based implementations, not as claims on the underlying processes – might have problems with prior art. That is, the patents aren’t valid because someone else already did it. 

Have a look at the patents linked off the PatentDocs article (the very first link in this post). Here’s the abstract of 5,970,479:

Methods and apparatus which deal with the management of risk relating to specified, yet unknown, future events are disclosed. `Sponsor` stakeholders specify a particular product relating to an event or phenomenon for which there is a range of possible future outcomes. `Ordering` stakeholders then offer contracts relating to the predetermined phenomenon and corresponding range of outcomes. The offered contracts specify an entitlement or (pay-off) at the future time of maturity for each outcome, and a consideration (or premium) payable, in exchange, to a `counter-party` stakeholder.

Independently of the offered contracts, the `counter-party` stakeholders input data as to their view of the likelihood of occurrence of each outcome in the predetermined range into the future, or specifically at the predetermined date of maturity. Each offered contract is priced by calculating counter-party premiums from the registered data, and a match attempted by a comparison of the offered premium with the calculated premiums. Matched contracts can be further traded until maturity, and at-maturity processing handles the exchange of entitlement as between the matched parties to the contract.

Here’s a decoder ring: “ordering stakeholder” = “market maker”; “probability” = “delta”; “premium” = “premium”. The claimant is describing an options exchange. Or, specifically, he’s describing an electronic implementation of an options exchange. (Have a read further down in the Claims section if you’re suffering from insomnia, it’s gold.)

All well and good. But the patent’s dated 1992… and CBOE implemented an electronic options limit order book in 1978.

Another patent – the one at issue in CLS Bank – is 6,912,510:

A method of exchanging an obligation between parties where the exchange is administered by a supervisory institution that ensures real-time settling of obligations between parties by updating shadow records in real-time and instructing one or more exchange institutions to effect, from time to time, the exchange of obligations in accounts maintained external to the supervisory institution. Updates to the exchange institution accounts may reflect the net obligations of parties over a nominated period of time. The role of the supervisory institution is to ensure that obligations are only settled where parties have sufficient balance in their shadow records to complete the transaction.

Obligations that can be exchanged include, but are not limited to: shares in financial or physical assets, participation rights in wagers, national or synthetic currencies, exchange settlement account deposits, taxation account deposits, and deposits of financial instruments or precious metals.

The decoder ring again: “shadow balances” = “bank accounts”; “exchange institutions” = “banks” (and credit card companies, but you get the idea). The claim describes real-time gross settlement systems. (Claim 58 reads to me like they’re trying to claim nostro accounts as part of the patent, which seems remarkably ambitious.)

And again, the patent’s dated 1992. But CHIPS – a privately-run American settlement system that competes with Fedwire – has been doing electronic RTGS settlement since the 1970s, and Fedwire itself seems to have been doing the same thing long before CHIPS appeared

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of software patents. I mean, I have no problem with patenting an innovative business process. But I think saying “we’re patenting this already-existing process… on a computer!” is a bit of a stretch. And attempting to patent something that’s already been in existence for twenty years is a real stretch – and I think that’s what Alice has done, at least in these two cases. 

Have I misread these patents? Or is there a possible serious issue of prior art here? 

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The Million-Dollar Pizza

In 2010, a Florida man parted with 10,000 units of a new-fangled anarcho-currency thing called “bitcoins” in return for two hot, fresh, tasty pizzas

At the time, that was about $40 worth of these “buttcoins” (NSFW), so that was already quite an expensive pizza. (Must’ve been a pretty serious case of the munchies.) 

Three years later, and Bitcoin has boomed, busted, and boomed again. It’s been used by Cypriots, Iranians, dope fiends, and people who just want to buy a pizza without Big Brother knowing whether or not they like anchovies. 

And after three years, one bitcoin buys you right around USD 100 – so those pizzas back in 2010 are now worth a cool one million dollars.

—–

Bitcoin does this occasionally. Unlike most currencies, the supply of bitcoins is extremely tightly constrained, so the currency undergoes sharp bouts of deflation whenever Bitcoin becomes trendy. And if a currency’s undergoing deflation, you’re not going to buy anything using that currency (lookin’ at you, JPY); you’re going to hoard the currency, and the deflation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

And when the supply’s as tight as it is with Bitcoin (and when it’s not possible to borrow the currency to short it), you end up with the world’s first case of what’s been coined “hyperdeflation“. 

Let’s imagine a hypothetical pizza… like the potato pizza at Ragazza on Divisadero. It’s really good pizza. It’s got potatoes, smoked bacon, leek, thyme and gorgonzola on a thin, crispy, crunchy, tasty crust. And it costs USD 16 – or 0.16 bitcoins. 

But let’s imagine you live in Bitcoinia, where the currency’s deflating by two-thirds every month. (BTCUSD’s gone from 33 to 100 in the last month, so this is pretty much bang on.) In a month’s time, if this trend continues, that pizza’s only going to cost one-third as much – about 0.05 bitcoins. Would you buy a pizza now for 0.16 bitcoins if you knew it would only cost you 0.05 bitcoins in a month’s time? 

…okay, you probably would, because Ragazza’s pizzas are phenomenally tasty. (Don’t tell anyone, though. It’s our little secret, OK? Just you, me, and the internet.)

But imagine if you were talking about a big durable good, like a car. Would you pay 2400 bitcoins for a brand-new Ferrari California if you knew you could get it in a month’s time for only 800 bitcoins? 

Exactly. And neither would anyone else – so your economy grinds to a Japan-style halt.

That, incidentally, is why central banks actively try to encourage inflation – because the alternative is so much worse. It’s also why Bitcoin is a badly-designed currency – its natural deflationary tendencies mean people will hoard it instead of spending it. 

Unless they really, really want a pizza.

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Comet PANSTARRS



Comet PANSTARRS, originally uploaded by Shiny Things.

GOT IT! I GOT THE LITTLE BASTARD AHAHAHAHAHA… I mean, here is a photo of the dim Comet PANSTARRS, low in the western sky and sinking into the San Francisco fog.

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DBS Bank, keyword spammers

Short and sweet: DBS, Singapore’s largest bank, is keyword-spamming on Silicon Valley’s favourite Q&A site Quora.

They’ve been doing this for ages on Hardwarezone.com.sg, a Singaporean tech forum, but their activity’s recently started spreading to Quora.

The spammers’ modus operandi – and I don’t know whether this is being done directly by DBS or by a misguided external marketing team – is highly unusual, and seems designed to make the answers less likely to be flagged as spam. 

While most keyword spammers try to automate their posts and flood the target site with volume, the DBS spam posts appear to be handwritten, and are tailored to the question being asked. The only giveaways that the answer’s not authentic are a link to a DBS or POSB website, attached to a relevant phrase in the post; and a history of posts filled with similar links. 

Here are two Quora profiles that’ve been used by the spammers – and recently banned: Sebastian Lai; Sarah Beringer

The Sarah Beringer profile has been taken down by Quora and the answers blanked, but I was able to take some screenshots from the Sebastian Lai profile before it was taken down. 

All of the DBS.com links in the screenshots below point to DBS’s Private Banking or Treasures (private-client) websites, and most of them point to this “Investments” page on the DBS Private Bank subsite

Each answer appears to be manually written, and each one has a DBS link wrapped around the keywords “investments, “hedge funds”, “wealth management”, or “investment banking services”. 

A quick search on Google for “link:dbs.com site:quora.com” pulls up a few more profiles engaged in the same spamming for the personal banking side of DBS: Jolin Chén; Alison Fisher; and searching for “posb site:quora.com” brings up the Jolin Chén and Alison Fisher accounts again, this time linked to posts about DBS’s wholly-owned subsidiary POSB

It’s not clear – and there’s no way to tell, without access to Quora’s logs – whether this is being done by DBS themselves, or by a marketing agency going off the reservation. But whether it’s an in-house job or not, it doesn’t make DBS look very good. 

DBS Keyword Spam 1DBS keyword spam 2DBS Keyword spam 3

 

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Storm a’coming



Storm a’coming, originally uploaded by Shiny Things.

Storms are looming over Lake Mead, but the Valley of Fire is lit up by sunlight.

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Mount Tam Hikers



Mount Tam Hikers, originally uploaded by Shiny Things.

It’s been an improbably nice winter here in San Francisco. While the east coast’s been getting walloped with hurricanes and three-foot blizzards with improbable names, the west coast has been pretty much non-stop clear and mild for the last few months.

Here’s a sample – a group of hikers out for a walk on Mount Tamalpais on a clear winter’s day.

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Muir Woods – Redwood Creek



Muir Woods – Redwood Creek, originally uploaded by Shiny Things.

Stuffing around with long exposures. Here’s a six-second exposure of Redwood Creek, which flows through the Muir Woods National Monument – a grove of towering Coast Redwood trees less than an hour away from downtown SF.

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Christmas in SF



Christmas in SF, originally uploaded by Shiny Things.

Christmas lights: Hayes St, San Francisco. Merry Christmas to all.

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Still life with squirrel



Still life with squirrel, originally uploaded by Shiny Things.

A scene from the Japanese Tea Gardens, in Golden Gate Park: a thirsty squirrel sneaks into my shot for a drink.

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Guilt-edged investments: Singapore’s latest ponzi scheme explosion

I like to think that all of JRE’s readers would be smart enough to run a mile if they saw an investment advertising returns of “20-25% per year guaranteed!”. 

Unfortunately, a phenomenally large number of Singaporeans and Malaysians weren’t: 

KUALA LUMPUR – A gold-trading business shut down [in October] by Malaysian authorities for suspected illegalities may have raised as much as US$3 billion (S$3.66 billion) from its clients, a government official said Wednesday.

Authorities raided trading firm Genneva Malaysia on October 1 on suspicion of taking deposits illegally, money-laundering and tax evasion, and later expanded the crackdown to three other firms.

[…]authorities have defended the crackdown, and Deputy Finance Minister Awang Adek Husin told lawmakers on Wednesday that Genneva Malaysia alone had taken in some 10 billion ringgit (S$4 billion) from customers.

Genneva Gold was an explosion that Blind Freddy could have seen coming. Their business model – which ran from at least early 2009 to late 2012 – was to sell gold to gullible retail buyers at a 30% markup, and then offer a “buyback” programme that paid 2% a month interest to the buyer on the marked-up amount. This pretty much reduces to funding their overpriced-gold-selling business via loans at 27% (1.02^12) p.a., which is not exactly a sustainable interest rate. 

When the customers stopped buying overpriced gold, Genneva stopped repaying the loans, and this was the end result

PETALING JAYA – The police, Bank Negara, the Companies Commission of Malaysia and the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism jointly raided gold trading firm Genneva Malaysia Sdn Bhd and its affiliates in the country for various suspected offences.

Singapore’s Commercial Affairs Department also conducted a similar operation against Genneva Pte Ltd in the republic.

In a statement released yesterday, Bank Negara said the raid was to probe suspected offences under the laws administered by the agencies.

Some particularly ballsy investors were just depositing their money with Genneva, rather than taking possession of the gold, which changes the story from an unsustainable business model to an explicit Ponzi scheme.

The ending count, across the Singaporean and Malaysian arms of the business, adds up to somewhere around $30 million of assets and $300 million of liabilities (including four tonnes of gold that was promised to investors but never delivered, which… yikes), which would make it one of the biggest frauds in Singapore or Malaysia’s history.

Singapore, in particular, seems to have a real problem with transparently fraudulent investment schemes (c.f. the $40m-ish Profitable Plots blowup, which you can’t have missed if you ever watched ESPN in Singapore; and the $25m Sunshine Empire blowup)… so what are they going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again? 

Basically nothing. 

The MAS is going to tighten its advertising rules for investment products – which wouldn’t affect these gold-buyback schemes because they’re not regulated by the MAS. 

Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister has also explained that the MAS will “will continue to monitor market practices and refine its regulatory framework if necessary”, rather than actually taking any action. 

And meanwhile, these schemes are still out there and still taking customers. This piece – basically unpaid advertising for a rival “gold buyback” scheme” – made it past the editors at the Straits Times less than a week after the Genneva raids:

The Gold Guarantee and Asia Pacific Bullion gold trading firms have been preparing for the Genneva bailout for many months, said the firms’ owner yesterday.

Mr Lee Song Teck told The Straits Times that he had heard of Genneva’s woes almost a year ago and he is offering his “rescue plan” to help out Genneva customers.

[…] Mr Lee said that his companies have received about 300 calls from stranded Genneva customers over the past few days and expects about 200 of them to take up his “rescue plan”.

[…]The Gold Guarantee said it will buy the gold from Genneva’s customers, who must then join the firm’s own scheme. […] While the two gold bullion purchase plans seem to work the same way, Mr Lee explained that the two companies are very different operationally.

…after all, as the FTC explains, the most fertile targets for a scam are the people who’ve already fallen for it once

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