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Why Google Might Be Going to $0

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Editor’s note: James Altucher is an investor, programmer, author, and entrepreneur. He is Managing Director of Formula Capital and has written 6 books on investing. His latest books are I Was Blind But Now I See and FAQ ME. You can follow him on Twitter @jaltucher.

Ken Lang could perform miracles. In 1990 we would head off to a bar near where we were going to graduate school for computer science, and we would bring a Go board. Then we would drink and play Go for five hours. At the end of the five hours, after a grueling battle over the board, I remember this one time when magically Ken would show up with two girls who were actually willing to sit down and hang out with two guys who had a GO BOARD in front of them. How did Ken do that?

Fast forward: 1991, CMU asks me to leave graduate school, citing lack of maturity. The professor who threw me out still occasionally calls me up asking me when I’m going to be mature enough.

Fast forward: 1994, one of our classmates, Michael Mauldin is working on a database that automatically sorts by category pages his spider retrieves on the Internet. The name of his computer: lycos.cs.cmu.edu. Lycos eventually spins out of CMU, becomes the biggest seach engine,  and goes public with a multi-billion dollar valuation.

Fast forward: Ken Lang starts a company called WiseWire. I was incredibly skeptical. I read through what the company is about. “No way,” I think to myself, “that this is going to make any money”.

1998: Ken files a patent that classified how search results and ad results are sorted based on the number of click-thrus an ad gets. He sells the company to Lycos for $40 million. Ken Lang becomes CTO of Lycos and they take over his patents.

$40 million! What? And then Lycos stock skyrockets up. I can’t believe it. I’m happy for my friend but also incredibly jealous although later in 1998 I sell my first company as well. Still, I wanted to be the only one I knew who made money. I didn’t think it was fun when other people I knew made money. And, anyway, weren’t search engines dead? I mean,what was even the business model?

Fast forward: the  2000s. Almost every search engine dies. Excite, Lycos, Altavista. Before that “the world wide web worm”. Lycos got bought by a Spanish company, then a Korean company, then an Indian company. To be honest, I don’t even know who owns it now. It has a breathing tube and a feeding tube. Somehow, in a complete coma, it is being kept alive.

One search engine, a little company called Google, figured out how to make money.

One quick story: I was a venture capitalist in 2001. A company, Oingo, which later became Applied Semantics, had a technique for how search engines could make money by having people bid for ads. My partner at the firm said, “we can probably pick up half this company for cheap. They are running out of money.” It was during the Internet bust.

“Are you kidding me, “ I said. “they are in the search engine business. That’s totally dead.” And I went back to playing the Defender machine that was in my office. That I would play all day long even while companies waited in the conference room. (See: “10 Unusual Things I Didn’t Know About Google, Plus How I Made the Worst VC Decision Ever“)

A year later they were bought by Google for 1% of Google. Our half would’ve now been worth hundreds of millions if we had invested. I was the worst venture capitalist ever. They had changed their name from Oingo to Applied Semantics to what became within Google…AdWords and AdSense, which has been 97% of Google’s revenues since 2001. 97%. $67 billion dollars.

Don’t worry.  I’m getting to it.

(Yahoo won hundreds of millions from Google on the Overture patent even before Google amassed the bulk of their $67 billion in overall revenues from AdWords)

Fast forward. Overture, another search engine company that no longer exists (Yahoo bought it) files a patent for a bidding system for ads on a search engine. The patent office says (I’m paraphrasing), “you can file patents on A, B, and C. But not D, E, and F. Because Ken Lang from Lycos filed those patents already.”

Overture/Yahoo goes on to successfully sue Google based on the patents they did win. Google settled right before they went public but long before they achieved the bulk of their revenues.

Lycos goes on to being a barely breathing, comatose patient. Fast forward to 2011. Ken Lang buys his patents back from Lycos for almost nothing. He starts a company: I/P Engine. Two weeks ago he announced he was merging his company with a public company, Vringo (Nasdaq: VRNG). Because it’s Ken, I buy the stock although will buy more after this article is out and readers read this.

The company sues Google for a big percentage of those $67 billion in revenues plus future revenues. The claim: Google has willfully infringed on Vringo – I/P’s patents for sorting ads based on click-throughs. I remember almost 20 years ago when Ken was working on the software. “Useless!” I thought then. Their claim: $67 billion of Google’s revenues come from this patent. All of Google’s revenues going forward come from this patent. And every search engine which uses Google is allegedly infringing on the Vringo patent and is being sued.

Think: Interactive Corp (Nasdaq: IACI) with Ask.com. Think AOL. Think Target which internally uses Google’s technologies. Think Gannett, which uses Google’s technology and is also being sued. Think, eventually, thousands of Google’s customers who use AdSense.

Think: “willfully”. Why should you think that? Two reasons. Overture already sued Google. Google is aware of Yahoo/Overture’s patent history. The patent history officially stated that Ken Lang/Lycos already has patented some of this technology.  What does “willfully” mean in legal terms? Triple damages.

Why didn’t Lycos ever sue? After Lycos had its massive stroke and was left to die in a dirty hospital room with some uncaring nurse changing it’s bedpans twice a day, Google was STILL Lycos’s biggest customer. Why sue your biggest customer? Operating companies rarely sue other operating companies. Then there are countersuits, loss of revenues, and all sorts of ugly things. The breathing tube would’ve been pulled out of Lycos and it would’ve been left to die.

Think: NTP suing RIMM on patents. NTP had nothing going on other than the patents. Like Vringo/Innovate. NTP won over $600 million from RIMM once Research in Motion realized this is a serious issue and not one they can just chalk up to a bad nightmare.

(the beginning of the end for RIMM)

Guess who NTP’s lawyer was? Donald Stout. Guess who Vringo’s patent lawyer is? Donald Stout. Why is Donald Stout so good? He was an examiner at the US Patent Office. He knows patents. They announced all of this but nobody reads announcements of a small public company like Vringo. It’s hard enough figuring out how many pixels are on the screen of Apple’s amazng iPad 3.

Well, Google must have a defense? Even though their AdWords results are sorted by click-throughs in the way described by the patent maybe they sorted in a different way (a “work-around” of the patent), and didn’t infringe on the patent.

Maybe: But look at Google economist Hal Varian describing their algorithm right here in this video. And compare with the patent claim filed in court by Vringo. You decide. But it looks like the exact same to me.

Maybe: But does Google want to risk losing ten billion dollars plus having all of their customers sued. The district the case is getting tried in rules 70% in favor of the plaintiff in patent cases. Most patent trials get settled on the court steps.

Maybe: But then there’s still Microsoft /Yahoo search which, by the way, sorts based on click-throughs and has not been sued yet.

Guess what? Google’s patent lawyer is Quinn-Emmanuel. They are defending Google. Oh, and here’s something funny. Guess who Yahoo’s lawyer is? Yahoo is suing Facebook for patent infringement in the search domain. Quinn-Emanuel. So the same lawyer is both defending and accusing in the same domain. Someone’s going to settle. Everyone will settle. If anyone loses this case then the entire industry is going down in the same lawsuit and the exact same lawyer will be stuck on both sides of the fence. I’m not a lawyer but that smells. The trial is October 16 in the Eastern District Court of Virginia and will last 2 weeks. An appeal process can take, at most, a year.

I’ve known Ken for 23 years. I’ve been in the trenches with him when he was writing what I thought was his useless software. I watched his company get bought and we’ve talked about these technologies through the decades.

I’ve read the patent case. I watched Hal Varian’s video. Also look at this link on Google’s site where they describe their algorithm. Compare with the patent claim.  I have a screenshot if they decide to take it down. $67 billion in revenues from this patent. Imagine: double that in the next ten years. Imagine: triple damages.

Vringo will have an $80 million market capitalization post their merger with I/P. NTP won $600 million from RIMM using the same lawyer. RIMM’s revenues are a drop in the bucket compared to Google. And compared to 1000s of Google’s customers who will be embarrassed when the lawyer shows up at their door also. That’s why I made my investment accordingly. Is Google going to take the risk this happens?

I doubt it.

You can think to yourself: “ugh, patent trolls are disgusting”. But the protection of intellectual property is what America is built on. Smart people invent things. Then they get to protect the intellectual property on what they invents. Other companies can’t steal that technology. That’s why we have such a problem outsourcing to China and other countries where we are worried they might steal our intellectual property. Patents are the defense mechanism for capitalism.

Ken can perform miracles. But no miracle would save me. At the end of one evening of Go playing and beer drinking in 1990 we gave two girls our phone numbers. I don’t know if Ken ever got the call. I didn’t. But I guess I’m happy where it all ended up.


  • GOOGLE

Google provides search and advertising services, which together aim to organize and monetize the world’s information. In addition to its dominant search engine, it offers a plethora of online tools and platforms including: Gmail, Maps and YouTube. Most of its Web-based products are free, funded by Google’s highly integrated online advertising platforms AdWords and AdSense. Google promotes the idea that advertising should be highly targeted and relevant to users thus providing them with a rich source of information….

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Overpaid PERS retirees to get letters

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Collections letters will start going out to more than 28,000 Oregon PERS “window retirees” this summer, telling each person exactly how much in overpaid benefits they owe the state, according to a new FAQ posted on the agency’s website Thursday.

PERS put the FAQ up less than a week after its board approved the plan to recoup $156.3 million overpaid to 28,042 people who retired between April 2000 and April 2004.

“We wanted to get members as much information as soon as we could,” PERS spokesman David Crosley said.

PERS plans to deduct 2 percent from the monthly benefit payments of 20,016 affected retirees. Retirees and others who received overpayments but don’t draw a monthly benefit will be asked to contact PERS and set up a payment plan.

The online document answers questions that have been raised by the window retirees since Oregon courts cleared the way for PERS to recoup the years-old overpayments.

For example, PERS members reading the FAQ will learn that:

â–  Because it is a percentage based on the gross benefit, the deduction taken from monthly benefits will increase with every annual cost-of-living adjustment the members receive.

â–  PERS does not anticipate any tax issues for retirees. No amended tax forms will need to be filed for years in which workers were overpaid, because future income reports will reflect the deductions being taken to repay the money.

The issue began in 2000 when the PERS board approved 20 percent earnings credited to member accounts for 1999. Public employers objected to that amount, and a court decision ultimately set 11.33 percent as the correct amount of earnings to be credited. Attempts by PERS to recoup money overpaid under the earlier earnings crediting set off a decade of litigation that only recently wound down.

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4G vs. 4G LTE

Mobile Broadband FAQ #16: 4G vs. 4G LTE?

The mobile broadband experts at 3Gstore/EVDOinfo answer countless questions from our customers and from the EVDO Forums community
every day – from general mobile broadband questions (“what the heck
does 3G mean?”) to specific questions about products to more advanced
inquiries about what one can do with their mobile broadband service. The
“mobile broadband FAQ” series addresses these questions in depth one
FAQ at a time. To view ALL of the FAQs we’ve addressed in this series,
visit EVDOinfo.com/faq.



Unless
you’ve been living under a rock, chances are that you’ve heard about
newer 4G and 4G LTE technology. However, the problem is a lot of users
don’t understand the difference between the terms. The primary reason
for the confusion resolves around the carriers calling service 4G, when
it’s technically not a fourth generation wireless network. Below you’ll
find a breakdown of all the different technologies and what type of
speeds you can anticipate receiving.

4G WiMAX:



Sprint
and CLEAR were the first companies to launch a 4G network using WiMAX
(Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access). The technology was a
complete overhaul from their older legacy CDMA network, and was designed
to provide customers with speeds around 3-6Mbps down (Bursts over
10Mbps) and upload speeds around 1 to 1.5Mbps. This was a considerable
jump from CDMA, which had a maximum theoretic speed of 3.1Mbps download
and 1.8Mbps upload, with real world speeds around 600-1.4Mbps download
and 400-700Kbps upload.

Soon after the WiMAX launch, users soon
realized the limitation of using 2.5Ghz to fuel 4G data connections. The
higher frequency creates a shorter wavelength, which means the
technology has difficulty penetrating buildings. Many found that they
needed an outdoor WiMAX antenna in order to maintain reliable service. Sprint is now working on developing a 4G LTE network under their network vision plans
that will replace their 4G WiMAX technology. If you already have a 4G
WiMAX device don’t worry, Sprint intends to support WiMAX until 2015.  

4G HSPA+:

Shortly after WiMAX launched, T-Mobile
upgraded their network to HSPA+ (High-Speed Packet Access Plus) and
re-branded the technology “4G”. Although this isn’t a true fourth
generation technology, it didn’t stop them from advertising it as such.
The 4G campaign was built around their 21Mbps downlink speeds, and has
been upgrading to 42Mbps in some areas.

Following T-Mobiles heels, ATT was quick to re-brand their HSPA+ as 4G too, and further added to the confusion. Most new ATT devices
operating on HSPA+ are capable of up to 14.4Mbps download and 5.8Mbps
upload. This isn’t quite as fast as T-Mobiles “4G” network, but
significantly faster than older 3G GSM networks. You can use our 3G/4G coverage map
to check coverage, however, ATT’s map only gives a generic color
for 4G. At this time ATT has significantly more 4G HSPA+ coverage
than they do with 4G LTE.

4G LTE:

Last December Verizon Wireless
was the first carrier to offer a true fourth generation 4G LTE network
launching in 38 markets. Within the last year they’ve deployed 4G LTE to
over 200 markets
and anticipate covering their entire 3G network with 4G LTE by the end
of 2013. Their 4G LTE network is designed to deliver average speeds
around 5-12Mbps download and 2-5Mbps upload with a peak theoretic speed
of 73Mbps. As you can see 4G LTE gives you significantly more bandwidth
than both 4G WiMAX and 4G HSPA+ networks.

ATT was a bit
late with their 4G LTE network and debuted their fourth generation LTE
network in November, nearly a year after Verizon launched theirs. Both
Verizon and ATT have comparable speeds, however, ATT only has
true 4G LTE coverage in 28 markets as of March 30th, 2012. The speeds
offered make true 4G LTE the most desirable technology to use if it’s
available in your area. Knowing the difference between 4G and 4G LTE
will also be important if you need any type of amplifier to help boost service if you have signal related issues.

What frequencies do the carriers use?

If
you live in an area with weak reception there are a variety of antennas
and amplifiers that can improve reliability and speed. However, with
all these different technologies it’s very important to identify which
technology your using, so you can identify compatible accessories. Below
you’ll find a quick reference on the frequency you’ll need based on
your type of 4G connection:

  • Sprint 4G WiMAX: 2.5Ghz
  • T-Mobile HSPA+ 4G: 1700/2100Mhz AWS
  • Verizon 4G LTE: 700Mhz between 746-787Mhz*
  • ATT 4G LTE: 700Mhz between 704-746Mhz*
  • ATT 4G HSPA+: 800/1900Mhz

* Verizon and ATT LTE antennas are cross compatible but amplifiers are carrier specific

When
selecting a provider it’s very important to check what type of
technology your device supports. You also want to verify what type of 4G
is available in your area so you know what type of speeds to expect out
of the equipment. For most users looking to purchase equipment we
recommend picking up a 4G LTE device to ensure compatibility with the
fastest network currently available.


Related Links:

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FAQ: Trayvon Martin shooting

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Q: Why didn’t police arrest Zimmerman?

A: Zimmerman claims self-defense, and Florida is among 21 states with a “stand your ground law,” which gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight. The Florida law lets police on the scene decide whether they believe the self-defense claim. In many cases, the officers make an arrest and leave it to the courts to work out whether the deadly force is justified. In this case, however, police have said they are confident they did the right thing by not charging Zimmerman.

Q: What does the police video of Zimmerman show?

A: The video shows a handcuffed Zimmerman being led into the police station. It may be important for what it doesn’t show: No obvious cuts, scrapes, blood or bandages. No clearly broken nose. No plainly visible evidence of a life-and-death struggle.

Martin’s family and supporters seized on the footage to dispute Zimmerman’s claim that he shot and killed the unarmed black teenager after the young man attacked him.

Zimmerman attorney Craig Sonner said on NBC’s “Today” show the footage appears to support his client’s story in some respects.

“It’s a very grainy video. … However, if you watch, you’ll see one of the officers, as he’s walking in, looking at something on the back of his head,” Sonner said. He also noted that the police report said Zimmerman was treated before he was taken to the police station for questioning.

Q: What could the charges be?

A: If Zimmerman is charged, he could most likely face second-degree murder or manslaughter charges at the state level. If convicted of the second-degree murder charge, he could potentially face up to life in prison because a gun was used.

Federal prosecutors could charge Zimmerman with a hate crime if they think there is evidence he was motivated by racial bias. That charge can carry the death penalty in the most severe instances, or up to life in prison.

Federal prosecutors could also accuse Zimmerman of using his official authority to violate Martin’s rights — known as a “color of law” case — but they would have to prove that Zimmerman was acting in some official capacity, similar to a police officer or government official. Zimmerman was a volunteer neighborhood watchman.

Q: When will prosecutors decide whether Zimmerman is charged?

A: It’s unclear. A spokeswoman for the special prosecutor who has taken over the local investigation said it could be weeks before they decide. Special prosecutor Angela Corey has three options: She could present the case to a grand jury, which would decide whether Zimmerman should face charges; she could charge him without the grand jury’s review; or she could decide not to bring the case before the panel and not charge him.

Norm Wolfinger, the prosecutor who recused himself from the case, had planned to convene a grand jury to review the case April 10.

It is also unclear when the Justice Department will make its decision.

Q: What is George Zimmerman’s racial and ethnic background?

A: Zimmerman’s father is white, and his mother is Hispanic.

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Comcast updates Xbox FAQ, cuts reference to its ‘private IP network’

Earlier this week Comcast came under fire for possible net neutrality violations after it was revealed that streams of on-demand video that it delivers to subscribers via Xbox Live won’t count toward its monthly 250 GB bandwidth cap. Well, the way Comcast delivers that content hasn’t changed, but the language it uses to describe the delivery method has been updated, perhaps in an effort to draw less attention to the issue.

For those who forgot, the pertinent part of the FAQ previously tried to distinguish its VOD streams from those of competing video services like Netflix and Hulu Plus, saying that its content on Xbox was “being delivered over our private IP network and not the public Internet.” As a result, since Comcast’s Xbox Live streams are essentially a managed service being delivered and cached throughout its own in-network CDN, the cable company argued that those bits wouldn’t count towards the cap.

That was seen as anticompetitive by many, especially since Netflix streams — and even those from TV Everywhere partners like HBO and others — do count against the cap. And it reeked of possible net neutrality violations, for providing favored access to its own content but not others. But the reality of the situation is a lot more nuanced, as Stacey Higginbotham wrote earlier this week.

Now it looks like Comcast is changing its tune and doing away with the whole public/private network argument altogether. The FAQ now reads:

Q: Will watching XFINITY TV directly on my Xbox 360 use data from my XFINITY Internet monthly data usage allowance?

A: No; similar to traditional cable television service that is delivered to the set-top box, this content doesn’t count toward our data usage threshold. The Xbox 360 running our XFINITY TV app essentially acts as an additional cable box for your existing cable service, and our data usage threshold does not apply.

Frankly, the new language doesn’t change much, especially considering those Xbox streams are delivered over IP, and aren’t that different from the streams that go to its iPad app or those that are viewed through its XfinityTV.com website. The slippery slope here is that down the line, Comcast could argue that those screens aren’t any different than what you watch on your TV, either through the Xbox or a Comcast set-top box.

It’s worth noting that the content available for Comcast’s VOD offering is different from what’s on the iPad app and website — they’re different services and Comcast has negotiated different rights for each. And they aren’t delivered in the same way: VOD runs over the internally built Comcast CDN, while iPad and web streams go over the Internet through third-party CDNs.

It’s also worth noting that what Comcast is doing isn’t that different from IP delivery of video via Verizon FiOS or ATT’s U-Verse. And that we’ll likely see more of these types of services, especially with the introduction of new multimedia gateways that will soon route IP-based TV streams wirelessly throughout the home and onto whatever devices users want to watch them on.

For now, though, Comcast is hoping to soften the rhetoric by telling us that the Xbox isn’t any different than another set-top box. That’s cool, dudes. Just as long as you’re not saying your video is running over a private network.

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Health care reform FAQ: A CNN guide to the Supreme Court’s arguments


On March 23, 2010, President Barack Obama signs the Affordable Health Care for America Act.

Washington (CNN) — The U.S. Supreme Court is prepared to take on an emotionally charged case: the massive health care reform legislation championed by President Barack Obama.

The court will hear six hours of oral arguments over three days on the law’s constitutionality. Here are some frequently asked questions on the crucial issues:

Question: What is the law and who is challenging it?

Answer: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) was passed by Congress in 2010 by a Democratic congressional majority with the support of the president. It has about 2,700 pages and contains 450 some provisions. The signature policy accomplishment thus far of Obama’s presidency, the comprehensive legislation has received mixed reviews in the lower federal courts.

Preview: ‘The implications … are impossible to overstate’


Health care reform’s day in court

One part of the law stands as the focus of the judicial dispute and threatens to collapse the entire legislation. The “individual mandate” provision requires most Americans to purchase health insurance by 2014 or face a financial penalty. Its purpose is to spread health care costs to a larger pool of individuals.

Various states and individuals have argued the Constitution’s Commerce Clause does not give government the authority to force Americans to purchase a commercial product such as health insurance they may not want or need. The opposing states equate such a requirement to a burdensome regulation of “inactivity.”

The Justice Department has countered by saying the changes do not amount to taxpayer financing or a new government-run program. Supporters say Congress wanted to ensure universal coverage by forcing insurance companies to expand coverage without bankrupting them. The individual mandate, they argue, will ensure enough money is in the system to benefit all Americans. Federal officials cite 2008 figures of $43 billion in uncompensated costs from the millions of uninsured people who receive health services, costs that are shifted to insurance companies and passed on to consumers.

The largest and broadest legal challenge to the PPACA comes from a joint filing by 26 states, led by Florida. It was that series of appeals the high court has accepted for review. Lawyers for the states and a private business coalition will argue their case against the Justice Department, representing the administration and Congress.

An insider’s look at how the Supreme Court works

Question: What specific issues will the court address?

Answer: The court will decide four separate legal questions in these appeals:

– Key issue: Does the law overstep federal authority? This is particularly in regard to the key coverage and funding provision: an “individual mandate” requiring most Americans to purchase health insurance or pay a financial penalty.

– Domino-effect issue: Must the entire PPACA be scrapped if that key provision is unconstitutional?

– National policy implications issue: Are states being “coerced” by the federal government to expand their share of Medicaid costs and administration, with the risk of losing that funding if they refuse?

– Jurisdictional issue: Are the lawsuits brought by the states and other petitioners barred under the Anti-Injunction Act, and must they wait until the law goes into effect?

This simplifies the legal issues to some extent, given the sweep and complexity of the healthcare law. The high court’s focus will be more about how to pay for the medical care, and less about the new or expanded services the law would guarantee.

Question: I won’t be among the lucky few who can get seats to these historic arguments. What will go inside the courtroom?

Answer: The court has carved out its entire week of arguments for this issue — six hours spread over three days — in an extremely rare move.

Ceremony and decorum will reign. Court sessions begin promptly at 10 a.m. ET, with the marshal calling the court to order. The chief justice, contrary to popular belief, does not use the wooden gavel. The audience rises as the robed justices enter through red velvet curtains from a back room. After a scripted welcome read by the marshal — “oyez, oyez, oyez…” — the sessions begin. Chief Justice John Roberts will announce the case and arguments will proceed.

The four appeals here will each last from one to two hours, and each side’s lawyers will get equal time. The public is invited but seating is limited to about 400. Many spectators wanting to view history will camp out in line many hours before, on the court’s marbled outdoor plaza, waiting for a precious seat.

Question: I know they’re called arguments but is that what the justices will be doing — fighting among themselves?

Answer: “Argument” is misleading but does reflect the adversarial legal system unique in many ways to the United States. Essentially the lawyers separately presenting their cases will be peppered with questions from the justices, often rapid-fire and legally dense. No witnesses, testimony or visual presentations are allowed.

A good appellate lawyer standing at the lectern will be able to think on her feet, answering the questions without giving away too much. Many veteran attorneys will say it is hard to sway a justice at argument to your side, but it’s easy to cede your core position with a weak presentation. Confidence but not arrogance is the tricky balance a lawyer must navigate, as is the ability to anticipate where the line of questioning may lead.

A case does not reach the high court because it is easy, and that is true with this complex health care law.

The justices inevitably tread on the rim of the nation’s laws — the “outer markers” as Justice Stephen Breyer put it — and must craft a constitutionally credible ruling that will establish precedent, addressing guidelines for courts perhaps many decades.

To help them, the justices offer hypotheticals in their questions, seeing how far the Constitution or issue at hand can be taken and still satisfy judicial scrutiny. The more outrageous the hypothetical, the easier it sometimes is for a wavering justice to get her head around a troubling aspect.

Tensions do get high in the court sometimes, as the justices not only compete for time to ask questions but spar over ideology and legal reasoning. The chief justice is the gatekeeper of sorts, keeping the debate civil and ensuring one justice does not step on another and that a lawyer has time to answer the question. Seniority gives way when two justices talk at the same time.

Reporters and court watchers will look for clues in the justices’ comments and questions about how they will eventually vote. A withering line of questions from justices on both the left and right aimed at one lawyer does not necessarily spell doom for a particular side, but it may give the bench more to think about than they had anticipated.

Some justices, such as Antonin Scalia, will bluntly tell his colleagues at argument what he thinks of the case, while others, such as Sonia Sotomayor, are more opaque, equally tough in questioning both sides. Justice Clarence Thomas has not spoken at argument in more than six years, preferring to let the lawyers plead their case without much interruption. That scenario will not happen on this “hot” verbally active bench.

Question: So what happens afterward?

Answer: One thing is certain: We will not get a ruling from bench at argument or shortly thereafter. The justices will meet privately as a group, perhaps Thursday or Friday, where they will go ahead and vote on the four issues.

The chief justice will lead the debate, going by seniority down the line. Each justice will say how he or she votes and can offer a brief explanation of the reasoning, brief being the key word. The current bench does not favor long-winded discussions at their closed-door conference, the substance of which is never revealed publicly.

The court speaks through, and draws it power from, their written opinions. Thus the opinion-crafting process is all-important. The chief justice — when he is in the majority– has the power to assign the author of the main ruling. Remember, there are four issues here, and we will likely get four separate written decisions. Because the questions are related, it will make the writing and collaboration process that much more difficult, so it is likely we will not get opinions until late June. Five votes are needed for a majority. The losing side by tradition drafts a written dissent.

The real work of the court goes on behind the scenes as the justices communicate with their respective chambers to craft majority and dissenting opinions that each side can sign onto in support. An individual justice has the power to write a separate “concurrence,” supporting the outcome, but for different legal reasons. The more concurrences that pop up, the less force that majority opinion commands, since future courts will see mixed messages over the legal interpretation.

Divided 5-4 rulings also diminish the force of jurisprudence, since the public may view the issue as a strictly partisan exercise along ideological lines. The court has five justices that can reliably be called “conservative,” and four justices that can reliably be called “liberal” — terms the justices themselves dispute and refute. But in these health care cases, the breakdown of the rulings may not fall along expected divisions. That unpredictability makes the current Roberts court so fascinating to watch.

Finally, the court will not announce beforehand exactly when it hands down the rulings, but the justices are set to end their work for the summer in late June. So between now and then, reporters and interested parties will dutifully show up on scheduled “opinion days” and wait for history — and the discretion of nine independent justices — to reveal itself.






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FAQ: ‘Mirror Mirror’

FAQ: ‘Mirror Mirror’

Q: Oh man, I’m really excited to see the Snow White movie this weekend.

A: Really?

Q: Yeah, it looks awesome! I mean, I just love Kristen Stewart-

A: I’m going to stop you right there.

Q: What’s the matter?

A: You’ve got the wrong movie, I’m afraid.

Q: Really?

A: Yup. You see, there’s two Snow White movies coming out this year. The one with K-Stew is called Snow White and the Huntsman and it’s out in June. The one out this weekend is called Mirror Mirror.

Q: Oh, yikes. So who is Snow White in this one? 

A: Lily Collins.

Q: Who?

A: I don’t know. She’s like Phil Collins daughter or something.

Q: I can see it coming in the air tonight!

A: Hold on!

Q: Well at least that hunky Chris Hemsworth is in it. That guy is awesome.

A: Nope! That’s the other movie. This one has Armie Hammer from The Social Network as the Prince.

Q: I’m still looking forward to Mirror, Mirror because Charlize Theron looks badass as the evil Queen.

A: Well do I have bad news for you.

Q: You mean she’s in the other movie?

A: Yup. Julia Roberts is the evil Queen in this one.

Q: Is she a badass who eats hearts like Charlize at least?

A: No, she just kind of hangs out with Nathan Lane and yells at people.

Q: What? I thought this was a gritty reboot.

A: Nope, that’s Snow White and the Huntsman.

Q: Isn’t that this one?

A: No this is Mirror Mirror

Q: And it’s not dark?

A: No, it’s supposed to be funny or something. See, here’s a clip:

Q: That looks like a cut scene from a 1997 PC video game.

A: Yeah pretty much.

Q: Seriously, I’m having a hard time expressing how bad that looked.

A: Just wait till you see the trailer.

Q: Yikes. It almost seems like they rushed through making it so it would come out before the other Snow White movie.

A: That’s exactly what happened! When it turned out that Snow White and the Huntsmen and Mirror Mirror were both in production at the same time, the two studios began jockeying for a better release date. Mirror Mirror was actually supposed to come out in the fall, but when Snow White and the Huntsmen got a spring release date, it got moved up.

Q: So is there any reason at all to see Mirror Mirror?

A: It is directed by Tarsem who has made one very good movie (The Fall) and two movies that are…not so good (The Cell and Immortals). Also, its Rotten Tomatoes score is an improbably high 69%.

Q: Really? It looks so bad!

A: Yeah, I don’t get it.

Q: Is it going to do well at the box office?

A: It’ll probably do okay, but it’s got some stiff competition. 

Q: Why did we do an FAQ about this instead of Wrath of the Titans?

A: Because literally the only thing I know about that is there was a Kraken in the first one, but there doesn’t seem to be one this time.

Q: So basically I should just go see The Hunger Games again?

A: That’s what I’ll be doing!

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