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The Couch

In the psychoanalytic tradition, the questions The Couch raises are more important than their answers.

Martin Luther King Jr.

A selection of sites that pay tribute to the life and works of Dr. King.


What Swoon lacks in substance it makes up for in entertainment value.

Café Herpé

Tacky? Macabre? Helpful? Slickly commercial?

Radio Free Cyberspace

Will the Internet make the world safe for democracy?

The Web of Memory

An online exhibit commemorating the Great Chicago Fire brings history to life.

World-Wide Weather

Separating the average weather watcher from the bona fide junkie.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.

IBM Patent Server January 29, 1997

There has been much discussion lately about "information anxiety" -- namely, the distress caused by one's inability to take in and digest all of the information manifestly available at one's fingertips. Now there seems to be new cause for anxiety: the recently launched IBM Patent Server makes available the past twenty-six years of U.S. Patent & Trademark Office patent descriptions -- more than two million of them.

IBM originally developed the electronic patent library as an easy, low-cost way for its employees to retrieve patent information via the Internet or Lotus Notes. The Patent Server's chief appeal is obvious: instead of leafing through reams of paper documentation to investigate a patent record (for legal reasons or out of plain curiosity), you do a simple keyword search and examine the records that, more often than not, appear on your screen within seconds. Diagrams are online as well as patent abstracts.

Much of the material is deadly serious in its usefulness -- so much so that it's not worth going into here -- but some is also amusing, if inadvertently. Readers of The Atlantic's Almanac page, which features occasional "Expiring Patents," will not be disappointed. A keyword search of "candy," for instance, calls up items ranging from a toy volcano that can erupt candy to a "melt restricted marshmallow" to a lollypop holder. This last item, an invention of Chu-Yuan Liaw of Taipei, is designed to "move a lollypop having a stick and a piece of hard candy at an end thereof in a wobbling motion." Then there is Patent Number 5,547,420, an apparatus for grinding animal carcasses, in which a "carcass retention element is positioned adjacent the length of the grinding drum and cooperates therewith to facilitate pulverizing or grinding of animal carcasses by the grinding drum into small size particles which exit the housing through the outlet end." Fortunately the diagram portrays said device in the "off" mode.

The language employed to present such devices might strike some as overzealously descriptive, but it must be music to the ears of PTO officials and aspiring inventors. The second group may stand to benefit most from the Patent Server, namely in the form of saved time. Liberated from the burden of information overload, they'll be free to direct their anxiety elsewhere.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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