All posts by Jeff Shelton

Episode 11 — Patents

It sometimes makes sense to protect one’s creative ideas. Chris and Jeff discuss the pros and cons of getting a patent with engineer Dave Gevers.

We are not attorneys, so consult with a qualified legal professional before making any decisions concerning patents or intellectual property!

  • Our guest is Dave Gevers, who leads us through the process of getting a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
  • In addition to his day job as a mechanical engineer, Dave is also a flight instructor, and an A&P mechanic.
  • Dave has been granted an 85-page patent on an aircraft design he developed over more than a decade of evenings and weekends spent making design calculations.
  • Most patents are 10-12 page documents, and don’t reach the massive page count of Dave’s aircraft patent.
  • The length of the patent is, in part, determined by the examiner, a patent office employee who reviews the technical merit of a patent application.
  • Getting a patent application submitted as an employee of a large corporation is distinctly different from going through the process as an individual.
  • In a large company, most of the work is carried out by patent attorneys. The goal is to provide a competitive advantage; this is done in exchange for revealing the workings of the patented idea.
  • Getting a patent on your own is more a matter of personal accomplishment and professional credibility.
  • Patentable ideas are often referred to as intellectual property, or “IP.”
  • Ideas not patented are often held as trade secrets.
  • Patents from the USPTO are granted for 20 years from the filing date.
  • About three years normally elapse between the filing of an application and the granting of a patent.
  • If there is a dispute about ownership, the patent is granted to the party first filing an application.
  • A patentable idea must be novel and non-obvious. It must also be adequately described and claimed by the applicant.
  • Information about filing a US patent may be found on the USPTO website.
  • While attorney fees may vary greatly, the USPTO filing fees are $600-800 for the initial patent application, and $900 for issuing the patent. On top of that, there are “maintenance” fees of $600 after 3-1/2 years, $1400 after 7-1/2 years, and $2400 after 11 years.
  • The Patent Cooperation Treaty, or PCT, allows a single application to be considered in many countries.
  • If your patent is being violated, the first step is to have your attorney send a letter informing the offending party that you are aware of their infraction.
  • Depending on the response you receive, you may choose to grant a license, sell the patent, or go to court.
  • As an individual, your ability to defend your patent is limited by the size of your pocketbook. Famous cases of individuals fighting corporations in court over patent ideas include Edwin Armstrong (the regenerative circuit) and Peter Roberts (quick release device for socket wrenches).
  • Dave feels that individual inventors can use publicity to help protect their ideas from large corporations.
  • For almost no cost, you can file a provisional application, allowing you to mark your device as “patent pending.” However, their are some issues to be considered before filing a provisional application.
  • If the provisional application is not converted to an official application within 12 months, it is considered abandoned.
  • An important step in the patent process is conducting a thorough patent search.
  • When looking for whether your idea is in conflict with an existing patent, pay particular attention to the “independent claims,” found at the end of the patent document.
  • Pursuing a patent as an individual should be undertaken only if you have a sincere interest in the subject, and it makes realistic financial sense.
  • Dave was able to complete 90-95% of the patent application on his own, relying on an attorney to “polish up” the submission.
  • A utility patent protects the inner workings of a process or mechanism, while a design patent covers the ornamental appearance of a functional item. Hence, utility patents are normally considered more valuable that design patents.
  • Dave’s website has some additional information about his Genesis aircraft design.
  • Chris was particularly enchanted by images of the wind tunnel that Dave built with his brother, Matt.
  • Dave can be reached through our website. Leave comments for for this episode, and we’ll be sure it comes to Dave’s attention.

Thanks to Dave Gevers for granting permission to use the image of his aircraft design.

Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

Episode 10 — Software Carpentry

Software is an important component in the toolkit of nearly every engineer. Chris and Jeff talk with Greg Wilson about how engineers and scientists can improve their programming skills.

  • Jeff’s first programming language was Pascal.
  • Intended to encourage good programming practices, Pascal gained wider acceptance as the basis for Borlands’s Turbo Pascal.
  • Programming in the 1970’s was not carried out at a terminal, but required punching data cards on a keypunch machine, then feeding the cards into a card reader. Yes, that huge stack of spinning “magnetic disks” at the 1:14 mark is an early hard drive.

  • Our guest for this episode is Greg Wilson, who is the founder and director of Software Carpentry, an outreach and training program that helps scientists and engineers be more effective by teaching them “best-practices” for software programming.
  • Greg’s work with Software Carpentry is currently funded by the Sloan Foundation in the United States, and he is an employee of the Mozilla Foundation.
  • Software Carpentry seeks to reach the majority of researchers, scientists, and engineers who build “small” data projects, rather than the relatively few that work on “huge” data sets using supercomputers.
  • A typical Software Carpentry workshop consists of a two-day course, with blocks of instruction addressing the Unix shell, Python, version control, unit testing and SQL. The two-day workshop is often followed up with about six weeks of online instruction.
  • Greg says that if participants come away with nothing else, they should learn the value of version control, so that the provenance of scientific data can be tracked and analyzed.
  • The Software Carpentry team has found screencasts to be “a lousy way to teach,” as personal interaction is an important component of learning.
  • Greg has found engineers to have a bit more “hands-on” experience than scientists, and to be more MATLAB-oriented, but perceives relatively little difference in their understanding of software issues.
  • Considerable empirical research has been conducted about programming effectiveness, but little of this information is shared with students in college courses.
  • Greg has co-edited a book about software programming practices, titled Making Software: What Really Works, and Why We Believe It.
  • One of the most critical indicators of how well individuals can work together in a corporate programming project is not their geographical separation, or language differences, but how far apart they are in the company’s organization chart.
  • Pair programming is an effective method for reducing software errors, but it has an important caveat: it only keeps working if you keep shuffling the coding partners.
  • The single most effective way to find bugs is code review. Don’t compile the code, or run it, but have someone else read through the code. You’ll find 60-90% of the bugs in the first reading. Review Board is an open-source web-based tool designed to help in such efforts. A commercial product for this purpose is available from Smart Bear Software.
  • Mark Guzdial has been using “worked examples” to teach programming at Georgia Tech, and has found it to deliver more learning in less time.
  • A flipped classroom has students watch instructional videos for homework, and then spend class time working problems.
  • In a 2009 blog post, Greg talked about “real” engineers becoming more like software engineers, rather than the other way around.
  • Greg believes that higher quality software is possible, if the right incentives are offered to programming organizations.
  • Even if we can’t review code line-by-line, we can at least verify the methodology and processes used to create it.
  • There is a comprehensive reading list available on the Software Carpentry website.
  • Greg is suspicious about the effectiveness of self-guided learning programs like Codeacademy.
  • On the horizon are programming tools such as Mozilla Towtruck, which allows for collaborative editing of web pages.
  • As an introduction to programming methods, Greg recommends the book Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering by Robert Glass.
  • Greg can be reached by email at You can find more information about the programming workshops on the Software Carpentry website.

Thanks to Jon Lim for granting permission to use his image of Greg and a young programmer at the Hive Toronto Youth Hack Jam in February 2012.

Untitled Photo: Jon Lim © 2012, all rights reserved.

Episode 8 — Influence

In this episode, Chris and Jeff discuss the manner in which social influence affects engineers, how engineers can detect those who seek to exert influence, and how engineers can exert some influence of their own.

  • Jeff stumbled upon a variation of the Pomodoro Method, which was discussed last episode. In the Pelko Method, fear is used as a motivator. Hence, the tomato timer is replaced by one shaped like a hand grenade, and the task intervals are random, encouraging one to finish the task before their allotted time disappears.
  • A book by Robert B. Cialdini, titled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, presents six facets of persuasion: Reciprocity, Consistency, Liking, Authority, Scarcity, and Social Proof.
  • Jeff uses the pneumonic RCLASS to remember these facets (as suggested by reviewer Gale on Amazon).
  • While each facet represents a mental shortcut that is largely useful, individuals skilled in the power of influence know how to structure requests and situations to direct these biases and tendencies against those they seek to persuade.
  • RECIPROCATION – “We should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.”
    • Benefit: We accept reasonable offers of assistance, because working together allows us to be more effective than we can be alone. Those who violate this tenet are known as “moochers”, or “ingrates.”
    • Downside: We are trained from childhood to detest obligation. Thus, we feel obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, and invitations, regardless of whether or not we actually wanted such endowments. This can lead to unfair exchanges.
    • Examples: Address labels, note pads, key rings are included in charity requests because they double the level of contributions.
    • The most highly valued favors are seen as significant, unexpected, personalized, and unconditional.
    • We must be aware of how our perceptions change when we accept favors: loaned equipment, nice lunches, tickets to the ballgame.
    • An even more powerful strategy: reciprocal concession, also known as “reject-then-retreat.” Under this scenario, a concession on the part of the requester creates an obligation on the part of the requestee to make a similar concession.
    • Defense: If initial favor was not sincere, recognize reciprocation ploy, and allow yourself to escape the sense of obligation.
  • CONSISTENCY – “Once we have taken a stand, we will behave in such a manner as to justify, and remain consistent, with our earlier decision.”
    • Benefit: A high degree of consistency is perceived is to be at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty. Being consistent keeps us from having to revisit mentally difficult and emotionally challenging decisions.
    • Downside: We can be led into making bad decisions by those who prefer that we not think too much about our actions. If I can get you to take a stand, I have set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency.
    • Example: “Would you be willing to contribute time to a charity?” Just asking the question increases positive response seven-fold.
    • Those who exploit consistency often start small, as self-image is easily modified through seemingly insignificant actions.
    • Defense: If you have sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, evaluate the situation for enforced consistency. Tell people you are aware of consistency principle, and allow yourself to change your mind, or reverse your course of action, when it is rational to do so.
  • LIKING – “We like to do things for people we like.”
    • Benefit: We tend to like those who share similar backgrounds or interests, thus those who are most likely to share favors and honor reciprocity.
    • Downside: Our emotional response can be altered by clever influencers.
    • Example: “Would you be willing to contribute time to a charity?” Just asking the question increases positive response seven-fold.
    • Those who exploit consistency often start small, as self-image is easily modified through seemingly insignificant actions.
    • Why do we like?
      1. Physical attractiveness — often unrecognized bias.
      2. Similarity — dress, interests, backgrounds, age, religion.
      3. Compliments — we are suckers for flattery, even when it isn’t true.
      4. Conditioning — Familiarity combined with positive experiences.
      5. Cooperation — We must “pull together.”
      6. Association — Models, athlete endorsements, sports teams, reflected glory.
    • “Luncheon Effect” — We tend to become fonder of people and things experienced while eating.
  • AUTHORITY – “We are trained from birth that obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong.”
    • Benefit: Obeying authority figures normally keeps us safe and out of trouble.
    • Downside: Individuals who wish to take advantage of us can take on the guise of an authority figure.
    • Symbols of authority:
      1. Titles
      2. Clothing
      3. Trappings
    • Defense: Be aware of authority power and how easily it can be faked. Ask yourself:
      1. Is this person truly an expert?
      2. How truthful can we expect the expert to be in this situation?
  • SCARCITY — “We are far more sensitive to possible loss than we are to equivalent gain.”
    • Benefit: Things that are easy to possess are typically worth less than those that are difficult to obtain.
    • Downside: Our asymmetric response to loss and gain can be manipulated.
    • We are most susceptible when we have seen abundance, and it has been replaced by scarcity. We hate to lose freedom. Once granted, freedoms will not be relinquished without a fight.
    • Defense: Pursuit of scarcity produces an emotional response. So flag arousal and seek rationality. When we sense scarcity, ask why we want the item. Do we wish to use it, experience it, or possess it?
  • SOCIAL PROOF – “The greater the number of people who believe an idea correct, then the greater the likelihood that the idea is, in fact, correct.”
    • Benefit: Largely saves us from decision errors and social embarrassment with out having to re-evalute situation.
    • Downside: The influence of social proof is strongest in periods of high uncertainty. We can be led astray by those who can manipulate or fake evidence of social response.
    • Defense: Be aware of faked social proof. Look for people acting in an absence of solid data.

Thanks to the|G|™ for the intimidating photo, titled “you.”