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Perspective: Tech's toxic sellout

CNET's Charles Cooper writes that the backroom deal between Silicon Valley and California's governor to shoot down an e-waste bill was a masterpiece of myopia and selfishness.

California may be a little out there but we are undeniably trend setters.

To wit: By the time Ken Kesey and his band of merry pranksters ended the Kool-Aid acid test parties in the early 1960s, the rest of America was just starting to turn on. And remember anti-tax protester Howard Jarvis? Another California local, he was once considered a kook by the establishment. But nutty or not, he gave birth to a political movement that sent political tremors through Washington in the 1980s.

It's not exactly clear where the environmental movement began, but California has become one of the most green-friendly states in the union. That's why I was floored when Governor Gray Davis vetoed electronic waste legislation this week. The future presidential candidate wannabe mumbled some stuff about how he was holding out for even tougher legislation, but the real story is that he knuckled under to pressure from Silicon Valley.

Watered down beyond belief by lobbyists, the bill, which had earlier been passed by the state legislature, would have established a $10 fee on new televisions and computer monitors to fund the recycling of what's come to be known around here as e-waste.

Mountains of e-waste are accumulating every year in the state (and around the country, folks). Supporters of the bill wanted to send a strong signal to the folks involved in electronic design that it does make sense to design new products to be easier to recycle and less toxic. But all the tough love got stripped out, and we were left with a weak compromise measure that would have assessed a measly $10 recycling fee.

But even that was too much for the local tech barons, who were not impressed by arguments that the locals are in danger of ingesting a lot more lead, mercury and cadmium in coming years.

Can you really blame Davis? He's dying to take the White House and needs Silicon Valley's money and political support in the run-up to 2004. And who knows? There may even be a silver lining in all this, according to Ted Smith, who directs the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "If you read the Governor's veto message, he actually says very good things and that he wants a bill next year that is much better," Smith said. "Besides, this bill was watered down to the point that we didn?t think it was very good."

For their part, the big companies would prefer to wait for Congress to do something on e-waste. Maybe then they'll throw their support behind legislation. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and waiting for the hired help in Washington, we'll be old and gray--that is, if we're not dead from water poisoning before then--before any good comes out of this sorry affair.

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MS Office and the holy grail The beta version of the next version of Microsoft Office will be out soon. (Click here to read CNET's interview with Office boss Jeff Raikes.) If Microsoft can make things easier for users, mazel tov. Usability remains the holy grail of the software industry, and the successful pursuit of it should only mean good things for regular folks. But I positively shudder at the prospect of some mad scientist in Redmond, Wash., dreaming up new ways to stuff even more "functionality" into the software suite when we're already choking on feature-overload as it is.

The track record there to date isn't promising. (Any surprise that there's a veritable cottage industry of tech authors writing books about powerful features nobody ever uses?) I spend most of my time inside Microsoft Word, but I don't have the foggiest notion how to use most of the bells and whistles in the application. Know something else? I don't think I'm in the minority.

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Prepping for the perp walk? I was touched when Gary Winnick, Global Crossing's chairman, pledged $25 million to fund some of the retirement losses that piled up as the telecom company's fortunes headed south. The fact that Winnick is being investigated by the Securities & Exchange Commission and the Justice Department was pure coincidence.

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Best and the brightest? A few years ago, John Doerr, partner in venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, said the Internet age had been responsible for the greatest creation of legal wealth in the history of mankind. Watching the daily vaporization of the Nasdaq, I wonder what he'd say today? Maybe something like, "Oh, it's been responsible for the biggest pyramid scheme in the history of mankind"?

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Guilty as charged New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer made a mistake in not doing to the record industry what the record industry did to Napster: Gouge them. Instead, the New York AG signed off on a deal where the five big music labels refunded $67.4 million to consumers while agreeing to change a particularly annoying restriction preventing retailers from letting prices fall below a set minimum.

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Aye, aye, skipper Larry Ellison on why roughly $85 million to $90 million spent by his team to win the America's Cup is coming (mostly) out of his pocket and not Oracle's: "Because I'm personally involved with this racing, the Oracle board feels it's inappropriate for Oracle to spend even one penny on my sailing hobby." Uh, yeah. But isn't that the way corporate boards are supposed to work?

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AMD agonistes Here's a company that has come out with consistently innovative chip designs over the years that have been as good as--if not better than--Intel's. Yet when it comes to stamping silicon for production, this company has two left feet. (The Athlon XP 2400+ being AMD's latest delivery fiasco.) Amazingly, this outfit has survived its manufacturing incompetence--at least until now. With the economy heading south, how many more lucky lives can AMD borrow before it's all over?