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Vendredi, 18 Novembre 2011 12:30

Mr. Know-It-All: Speed Trials, iTunes Royalties, Dirty Bombs

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Illustration: Christoph Niemann

I want to drive my souped-up Mustang at max speed across the Bonneville Salt Flats like it’s an experimental rocket car. How do I get permission for that?

Utah is certainly no libertarian paradise (ever tried to buy a keg of beer in Provo?), but freedom rings loudly on the flats. You’re free to take your vehicle onto the salt whenever you please, and your velocity isn’t restricted by any namby-pamby written regulations. On the flats, which are administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management, there really is no speed limit, though the agency doesn’t exactly advertise this fact.

But while you can go fast, you don’t have license to act all furious. BLM rangers can still cite you for recklessness if they think you’re endangering yourself or others. Also, be aware that driving there is entirely at your own risk: Flip your Mustang or get stuck in the mud and you better pray that you have enough bars on your cell phone to call Mr. Tow in Wendover, the closest town.

To play it safe, consider signing up for one of Bonneville’s organized speed trials, like the Southern California Timing Association’s SpeedWeek, which, each year in August, permits virtually all comers to zoom across the salt to their heart’s content. Entry fees can add up to as much as $600, plus you’ll need to budget for required safety gear, but it’s a small price to pay for the knowledge that you won’t end up running deliriously through the emptiness like the guy in that Jack London story.

A song that’s selling tons of copies on iTunes uses a sample of my band’s music—without our permission. We want to sue the song’s creator, but we can’t afford a lawyer. What should we do?

As famed executive coach Sun Tzu was fond of saying, the greatest victories are those that are achieved without force. So before you bring in an attorney, try opening a diplomatic channel. “First, contact the infringer and say, ‘You have 10 days to work out a deal with me before I take action,’” suggests Tracey Batt, executive director of New Jersey Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. The miscreant may decide to offer you a cut of the royalties rather than risk a pricey journey through the courts.

If they tell you to take a hike, though, it’s time to enlist some free legal aid. At least 29 states have organizations, like the one headed by Batt, that offer pro bono services to struggling artists. The catch is that you have to demonstrate financial need in order to qualify: Income cutoffs for individuals are typically set at around $30,000 a year.

If worst comes to worst, you can always buy a copy of Law for Dummies and file suit yourself. But do you really want to spend countless hours learning to write cogent legal briefs? Your time would probably be better spent creating and promoting a video that makes clear exactly how the infringer ripped you off. Either that or trying to get on Judge Judy—that show is really crying out for more intellectual property cases.

I just learned that my smoke detector contains radioactive material. What’s stopping al Qaeda from using these alarms to build a dirty bomb?

Unless the pending budget cuts force US intelligence agencies to replace their seasoned analysts with rhesus macaques, there’s no way a dirty-bomb plot involving smoke alarms could escape notice. That’s because the amount of the isotope americium-241 in a smoke alarm is minuscule, less than a millionth of a curie’s worth.

In drawing up scenarios for radiological attacks, security experts generally assume that a dirty bomb would contain enough material to produce several curies of radiation—an amount capable of contaminating 20 blocks in Manhattan. For example, a 2007 study by Canada’s Department of National Defence considered a hypothetical device stuffed with enough americium-241 to emit 20 curies. To build that bomb from smoke alarms, al Qaeda would have to gather more than 22 million of them. Generously estimating that 10 percent of our nation’s 110 million occupied homes get a new smoke detector each year, the evildoers would need to purchase twice as many as the entire American public does annually. Even the densest Home Depot managers would raise an eyebrow over a shopping spree of that magnitude.

But would-be terrorists needn’t stockpile millions of smoke detectors to make an americium-241 bomb. Certain surveying instruments used by the petroleum industry contain much more of the material, upwards of 10 curies’ worth apiece. Does Big Oil keep those instruments secure at all times? Uh … hey look, is that a puppy?

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