Saturday, December 31, 2005

State Lawmaker Wants to Restrict Sale of Video Games

Twenty years ago, there were very few video games on the market. There were the successors of the very first video game, Pong. Atari was the game console of choice for most gamers of the day.

There was no need for game ratings. Pac Man and Asteroids were neither violent nor explicitly sexual.

Today, the gaming market is huge. There are hundreds of game titles available for several competing platforms. And some of those game titles were not designed for children. Young adults are one of the target demographics for video games these days.

A few years ago, the video game industry, under pressure from Congress and consumer watchdog groups, introduced a rating system, similar to that used for motion pictures. Some games are intended primarily for teens; others are geared toward younger kids and family entertainment.

But many games have a rating of M for mature audiences. These games are not supposed to be played by anyone under 17 years of age.

But there are no laws on the books that prohibit stores from selling M-rated games to kids. It’s supposed to be a voluntary restriction.

So State Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Ellettsville, said Friday that she was prepared to introduce legislation in the upcoming session of the Indiana General Assembly that would compel retailers to follow the rating guidelines. Stores would be prohibited from selling games containing an M rating to anyone under age 17.

Earlier last month, Sen. Evan Bayh said he would introduce federal legislation that would prohibit stores from selling M-rated games to those under 17 unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian at the time of purchase. Bayh said studies indicate that violent video games lead some children to exhibit more aggressive behavior.

It is not clear that playing violent games causes violent behavior in kids. But some of the games are clearly not suitable for young children. They depict graphic violence and illegal activity such as rape, car theft, drug use, and the shooting of police officers.

And today’s video games have superior graphics, which make the action look fairly authentic. The graphics are much more realistic than the cartoon-like figures that inhabited early video games. In modern video games, the blood looks real, and so do the open wounds.

Some states already have laws on the books that restrict the sale of M-rated games. But courts have also struck down such restrictions in some places, including Indianapolis. A federal judge recently placed a temporary injunction on a new Michigan law restricting the sale or rental of violent video games to minors.

Simpson said she wasn’t trying to change age restrictions or ratings. She just wants the current rating system to be enforced. The bill she plans to introduce would simply put teeth into the rating system by forcing retailers to comply.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., are backing Bayh’s proposal for federal legislation.

Ideally, it should be up to parents to monitor their kids gaming behavior. They need to pay attention to game ratings, which are clearly marked on the packages.

But it isn’t an ideal world, and sometimes even well-meaning parents fail to catch what’s on their children’s video screens. A law such as the one proposed by Simpson would make it more difficult for kids to buy or rent games that are not designed for them.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Top News of 2005

It’s that time of year again. It’s the time when you’ll see lots of lists of the top 100 whatevers of the year. From songs to TV shows to the top news stories, you’ll see someone’s opinion of what should be ranked as the most important of the year.

Here’s my list of the top news stories that I’ve written about in 2005, in chronological order.

- According to speakers at the national meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science in February, the Bush administration has put the hush on input from scientists in key federal agencies. In fact, some scientists said they were pressured to change their study conclusions if they did not support administration policy.

What that amounts to is bad science. But it’s not the scientist’s fault. It is simply an issue of the president ignoring the results of scientific studies he doesn’t agree with, or worse, forcing his own scientists to fudge the results to make them fall in line with what he wants.

- On the aerospace front, Michael Griffin was put in charge of NASA.

Griffin seems right for the job. He is a scientist and engineer, holding a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and five master's degrees, in aerospace science, electrical engineering, applied physics, civil engineering and business administration.

He has the right mix of space science knowledge and administrative talent needed to put NASA on track for the future. And that’s just what the beleaguered agency needs after suffering a number of failures over the past decade.

- The most litigated right-to-die controversy in U.S. history finally ended in late March as Terri Schiavo, who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years, died 13 days after the removal of her feeding tubes.

After a state judge in Florida allowed her life support to be removed, even the U.S. Congress and President Bush got into the fray. Congress passed, and Bush signed, legislation permitting Schiavo’s parents to go through the federal courts, hoping that it would gain Schiavo more time. The scheme failed, as the federal courts rebuffed Congress at every appeal.

- The Indiana General Assembly finally passed legislation last spring putting all of the state on daylight saving time. Why state lawmakers didn’t make the change years ago will remain one of the major mysteries of the universe.

The focus then shifted to the next contentious matter: Which time zone will the U.S. Department of Transportation put Indiana in?

The final decision of the DOT is expected next month and is likely to allow a handful of counties in the northwestern and southwestern portions of the state to move to Central time.

- Hoosier motorists began driving at a more reasonable 70 miles per hour on rural Interstate highways and other limited access highways this past summer. The speed limits on some other divided highways were increased to 60 mph.

Both the House and the Senate approved the increase in speed limits by comfortable margins.

- There’s good news in the fight against indoor air pollution. The City-County Council in Indianapolis passed a measure that would ban smoking in most public places, including restaurants, beginning next March. The exception would be if those places do not allow children to enter the premises. Some smaller cities in Central Indiana followed suit.

- There’s also some good news for science education. A judge in Pennsylvania ruled against the former school board in Dover, Pa in a scathing rebuke of that board’s attempt to include intelligent design in the science curriculum. The court said the religious concept of intelligent design cannot be taught as an alternative to evolution in science class. It was a major setback for fundamentalist Christians who have been trying for decades to shove their dogma down the throats of public school students with taxpayers’ money.

- And, finally, Indiana’s academic standards in science were judged as being among the best in the nation. Indiana received an A grade from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for clear, concise, and well-grounded science standards.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Many States Flunk Science Standards

How well do schools across the nation teach science? How good are state standards that guide science education in the nation’s schools in grades K-12?

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute sponsored and published a study this year, the first since 2000, which went a long way toward answering those questions. And for the most part, the grade isn’t good.

Nationally, 24 states got failing or nearly failing grades in science education. Nine more were graded as mediocre.

The study looked at state education standards in science and included several criteria for judging their effectiveness. Several questions were considered.

Do the standards contain clear and fair expectations by grade level for students? Are they organized in a sensible way, both showing logical progression from grade to grade and easily navigated so teachers, parents, and the public can understand?

Is there an appropriate amount of science content? Are the expectations specific enough, yet set high aims that will equip students with the science skills they need for college?

Are the standards appropriately serious, or do they incorporate pseudo-scientific fads or politics?

The National Academies of Science have called on Americans to get serious about science education. However, Chester E. Finn, Jr., one of the study’s sponsors, said, “Few state standards can fairly be described as serious.”

“At a time of increasing anxiety about our children's readiness in math and science, U.S. science education is under assault, with discovery learning attacking on one flank and the Discovery Institute on the other,” he said.

Discovery learning is a fad that tries to allow kids to discover scientific principles on their own without building the foundation or providing the core of scientific knowledge to build on.

The Discovery Institute is a pseudoscientific religious institution that seeks to manipulate science education in public schools by forcing them to include the concept of intelligent design in the science curriculum.

“The good news is that, despite the well-funded and politically-motivated attack on the teaching of evolution, most states have held firm and continue to instruct students in the fundamentals of evolutionary biology,” wrote Paul R. Gross, author of the study.

So where does Indiana stand in the teaching of science?

It’s good news for Hoosier science students, at least as far as the state standards are concerned.

Indiana was one of the handful of states garnering an A grade for its science standards. Indiana placed fifth overall, behind only California, Virginia, Massachusetts, and South Carolina.

The review of Indiana’s science standards included comments that said they seemed far more realistic than many about what could be expected of children at any given age. They were also called a genuinely useful resource to teachers, not just a public relations or political exercise

Of course, having good standards does not necessarily mean a good science education at all schools. Teachers need to follow those standards. But the standards lay the foundation.

“We all know that great standards don't guarantee a good education for a state's students, but weak standards make it much less likely,” Dr. Finn said.

Thankfully, Indiana has some of the strongest science standards in the nation. It’s up to individual school districts and science teachers to make sure adequate benefits are reaped from those standards.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Is That Cereal Box Blinking?

You go into the cereal aisle of any supermarket and you can see hundreds of colorful boxes, all trying to draw your attention. Some of them have cartoon characters to attract the attention of youngsters. Others have luscious fruit sitting atop a heaping bowl of puffy, crispy flakes, which have been “enlarged to show texture.”

Marketing is big business, as is advertising. Packaged food companies spend millions trying to make their products look better than everyone knows they really are.

But in a year or two, those static images and colors on cereal boxes may be passé. Think animation on cardboard.

That’s right; Siemans Electronics is developing a technology that will allow manufacturers to place flashing images and even animation right there on the box of cereal, or any other packaged grocery item.

The technology will make those cereal boxes come to life. Store aisles will light up like a Las Vegas strip. It is certain to grab your attention, which is what the manufacturers are banking on.

The paper-thin polychromic display is powered by tiny, ultra-thin batteries and driven by electronic memory chips embedded into the box.

The technology has been around for awhile, but Siemans’ breakthrough is in the price. A display panel that could fit on the front of a cereal box costs only about 30 cents, compared to 40 bucks for previous technology that could do the same thing.

The resolution of these small displays is not high, only 80 dots per inch. And right now, they are monochrome, like the display on a calculator. But by 2007 Siemans thinks the resolution will double and the display will be in color.

The first application of the technology will probably be as attention-grabbing advertising. But think of the possibilities.

Cooking directions could be provided via on-box animation, or information about similar products could be flashed in front of the consumer.

Eventually, programmable and updatable versions of the technology might be used to bring current news and information to an otherwise typical sheet of paper. With an interface to the Internet, news, advertisements, even coupons could be downloaded.

The technology will be great for ad agencies and advertisers if Siemans manages to perfect mass production of it. But a populace that is already bleary-eyed from an advertisement overload may not welcome the new way to grab their attention.

Pop-up ads, animated banners, and even sound-enhanced ads are all over the World Wide Web. Commercials on television are taking up more of the programming hour than they used to. And each year they get flashier.

It’s nearly impossible to travel down a lazy country road without seeing a giant billboard advertising everything from liquor to hospital care. Advertising is everywhere; it’s ubiquitous and unrelenting.

But don’t blame the technology. If I have to watch an advertisement, I’d rather it be somewhat entertaining than mundane.

And if Siemans has its way, the next level of product labels will be anything but boring.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Bush Again Refuses to Join Environment Summit

In 2001 Pres. George W. Bush broke step with the rest of the world when he rejected outright the Kyoto protocols, which came from an environmental summit of nations. The accord called for a reduction in emissions of five percent for industrialized nations.

Since then, Bush seems to have made it a personal objective to break step with the rest of the global community. He seems to take some kind of sick pleasure in doing the exact opposite of what the world’s experts in various fields of science and technology tell him is best.

Emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are causing the global weather patterns to change for the worse. There is now almost unanimous agreement among climatologists, environmentalists, and scientists in related fields that global warming is real, that humans are causing it, and that the results will be negative.

Last Friday, former Pres. Bill Clinton spoke before a United Nations climate conference hosted by Canada. “There's no longer any serious doubt that climate change is real, accelerating and caused by human activities,” Clinton told the conferees.

But why should Bush listen to reason from the experts on global weather? He hasn’t listened to any experts on anything, except when he can add a twist of Bush logic to their recommendations, which makes implementing them useless or even dangerous.

Clinton said Bush was flat wrong on his assumption that reducing emissions would hurt the U.S. economy.

When it comes to saving the earth’s climate, Bush has opted to go it alone. He points to the fact that his administration has spent billions of dollars trying to develop new technologies that will lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, the culprits in global warming.

That’s all well and good, but as Clinton pointed out, the U.S. could meet or even surpass the Kyoto targets by using improved technology. So why not join with the rest of the world and agree to abide by the Kyoto protocols?

The Kyoto agreement lasts only until 2012. The recent global environmental conference was meant to set in place talks that should eventually lead to agreements that extend well beyond 2012.

Canada was hoping that softened language in the stated objectives would encourage the United States to participate in the talks. But Bush has balked yet again.

It’s frustrating for other world leaders who have sense enough to listen to their experts on global climate. Most delegates last Friday appeared to be ready to leave an uncooperative U.S. behind again and open a new round of negotiations aimed at hammering down post-2012 protocols.

Most experts agree that the Kyoto protocols were a bare minimum of what should be done to alleviate global warming. It was only a first step, and a baby step at that.

The problem with leaving an unwilling U.S. behind is that most of the world’s greenhouse gases are produced here. It doesn’t do much good to agree on limiting emissions if the biggest emitter of all doesn’t go along.

Most of the 10,000 delegates who attended the Canadian conference last week were hoping that the aberrant weather conditions over the past two years, culminating in the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina, would be a wake-up call for Bush to join the global community in helping to alleviate global warming.

Unfortunately, reason and logic have never been among Bush’s strong points.

We have at least three more years before a new president can bring the U.S. into step with the global community. Whoever becomes president, man or woman, Democrat or Republican, it’s hard to imagine the upcoming administration could possibly do any worse for this nation than Bush has done.

Refusing to join the Canadian-hosted environmental conference is just the latest evidence.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Limbo Decertified by Catholics

A commission of Catholic theologians, which was convened by Pope John Paul II last year, was prepared to recommend to a new pope, Benedict XVI last week that the concept of Limbo be relegated to history.

Limbo is, or was, the place where babies go if they die before they are baptized. It is also thought to hold the souls of those who died prior to Jesus, since it is he who Christians believe makes salvation possible for all mankind.

But if Limbo is closed down by official Catholic doctrine, it begs the question, where do all the souls go from there? Ever since the Middle Ages, Limbo has been the accepted afterlife location of souls who couldn’t enter Heaven but who were not bad enough to go to Hell.

So does that mean all those souls have to be evicted? Or is the new church doctrine one of those, “Oops, we goofed again,” admissions? There never really was a Limbo.

The modern concept of Heaven, at least to most Christians, is as a place where souls are at one with God. It is supposed to be a place of everlasting life and joy.

We see images of Heaven as a place with streets paved with gold, with entry only through the Pearly Gates. Angels are abundant and the souls of those who have passed on float around singing praises to God for all eternity.

Of course, no one really knows what Heaven is like. The traditional view of it would actually be more like hell to me. I don’t want to float around the skies singing praises forever.

Perhaps heaven is a different place for different souls. Since few people on Earth agree about what is pleasurable or joyous, it stands to reason they won’t agree about what Heaven should be like.

But if the Pope can change his mind on Limbo, even though Catholic doctrine says he’s infallible, just maybe he has the concept of heaven wrong, too.

Heaven wasn’t always a place where saved souls went. To the early Jews, it was a place inhabited only by God and his band of angels. When people died, they all went to a place that was cold and dry and all souls were eternally thirsty.

In addition to Heaven, Hell, and Limbo, Catholics also have Purgatory. It is supposedly a place where those who have died in grace can go to make amends for their sins – a sort of waiting room for Heaven.

It’s comforting to believe that our minds, or souls, still exist in a sentient state after we die, especially if that place is a pleasant one. But even if such a place, or places, exists, there is precious little evidence about what it is like.

No one has ever been to Heaven and came back to relate the experience. The same is true of Hell. It happens frequently in movies, but never in real life.

So what is the afterlife like, if it indeed exists? Not only does nobody know for sure, nobody really has a clue. It’s all speculation.

And where will un-baptized babies now go if they die? I guess the Catholic Church will leave that decision in limbo.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Teens' View of God Annoys Fundamentalists

Research has been conducted, namely the National Study of Youth and Religion, that contains a huge amount of data about teenagers and their religion, or lack thereof. Drilling down into the data, researchers have come to various conclusions about how teens view religion and God.

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, two sociologists at the University of North Carolina, have been trying to make sense out of the study. They have also conducted follow-up interviews.

One conclusion they have drawn is that teens who are more highly religious, in other words who attend church regularly and pray frequently, handle significant life issues better than teens who are not so religious.

The researchers are quick to point out, however, that they do not necessarily attribute the more positive life outcomes to the religious practices, since no causal relationship can be proved.

Nevertheless, evangelicals pounce upon research such as this as evidence that having a good life is dependent upon being a good Christian.

Many church leaders are also heartened by the fact that, according to the study, 86 percent of teenagers in America identify themselves as Christians.

But pollster and researcher George Barna points out that, although a vast majority of American youths say they believe in God, the nature of that belief may not be what evangelicals are hoping for. A striking majority of teens who believe in God and call themselves Christian are apparently not of the evangelical variety.

In fact, most church-going teens believe that the god of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other non-mainstream religions is actually the same god with different names. Most evangelicals believe that God is only interested in Christians. Everyone else goes to Hell by default.

What’s even more alarming to evangelical Christians is that the majority of church-going teens take the so-called truths of the bible with a grain of salt. Most believe the stories of the bible are just that, stories to enhance spirituality. The divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, absolute truth, all the orthodox views of Christianity held by evangelicals are viewed as quaint by most Christian teens.

Barna also found that only four percent of American teens can be called evangelical Christians. That’s down from 10 percent in 1995.

One might have expected an upward trend in that figure given the huge shift to the right this country took after last year’s presidential election. But that might have been an aberration. Every poll taken recently clearly indicates right-wing candidates, including our president, would lose handily if elections were held today.

The Agape Press, a fundamentalist Christian publication, laments what the deeper poll data indicate. One editorial grumbled, “Unless Christian leaders want to contemplate a future - much like that unfolding in Europe - in which their youth abandon Christianity in droves, there must be a brutally honest re-examination of how we do church.”

They have churches in Europe, too. Perhaps American youths are just able to see things more clearly than their fundamentalist elders would like.

Many European countries enjoy as much, or more, freedom as we do in the Land of Liberty. Many have less crime. Most have a more highly-educated public, because their schools do a better job and because the general mentality is that education is important.

It’s difficult to reconcile a lower crime rate and more education with decreased morality, but apparently, evangelicals consider Europeans to be less moral than Americans. Maybe it’s because they have more nude beaches.

At any rate, a case can be made that it’s a positive development that teens are seeing through the nonsensical rhetoric of the evangelists. Perhaps it means that, while holding on to Christian-based ethics, the future leaders of America won’t be hamstrung by the antediluvian belief system that guides American policy today.

And given that the research shows that, while teens who live the Christian life handle their problems better, they do not have to give up their common sense to enjoy the benefits.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Time Zone Debate not Over

Just suppose that Indianapolis and Marion County remained in the Eastern time zone and that Johnson County was switched to Central time. Imagine what a headache that would be for commuters who live in one county and work in the other.

Imagine, too, how it would upset TV viewers’ abilities to figure out what time the news came on, or what time stores opened and closed. It would be a mess.

If the U.S. Department of Transportation follows its original recommendation, that scenario might just play out in a couple of areas of the state. Locations in northern Indiana would be especially vulnerable to time zone chaos.

Earlier this year the General Assembly finally voted to allow the entire state to observe daylight saving time. Historically, only a handful of counties near Chicago and Evansville observe daily time, and those counties are in the Central time zone.

But one provision of the new law mandated that the governor ask the DOT, the federal agency that is responsible for setting time zone boundaries, to look into whether or not Indiana should change time zones.

The agency decided to allow individual counties to petition for a change in time zone. Seventeen counties did so. All 17 are currently in the Eastern time zone and want to be in the Central time zone.

St. Joseph County, including the City of South Bend, petitioned to switch zones and the preliminary recommendation by the DOT was in approval of the request. But neighboring Elkhart County, which includes the cities of Elkhart and Goshen, did not petition to switch to the Central time zone.

Gov. Mitch Daniels has said it would be unacceptable to draw a time zone boundary through the middle of a metropolitan area. And he’s correct.

But state Reps. Steve Heim, R-Culver, and David Crooks, D-Washington want to put the whole time zone issue to a state referendum. And Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Lakeville, wants to take a step backward and repeal the law that was enacted earlier this year.

Indiana does not have binding referendums, unlike states like California. Residents do not pass laws directly here; they elect legislators to do that. Even if a state referendum were held, it would not be binding, according to Senate Pres. Pro Tempore, Robert Garton, R-Columbus.

But beyond that, it would not be at all in the state’s best economic interest to be wholly within one time zone or the other. Just as the metropolitan area around South Bend should not be divided by a time zone boundary, the Greater Chicago metropolitan area should not be divided.

The only real question that should be asked and answered is which, if any, of the counties that are adjacent to those that are now in the Central time zone should be switched. A few of those counties may have a case for economic benefit from joining the Central time zone. Other counties who petitioned for a change are clearly better off from an economic standpoint by staying in the Eastern time zone.

The DOT held public hearings this month. The hearings were not to garner votes on the matter, but to get input from the public. A decision is expected in January.

The governor expects the DOT will follow his recommendation that St. Joseph County not be included in the Central time zone. The agency will base its final decision on what is best economically for each petitioning county.

As for those lawmakers who want to revisit the issue during the upcoming legislative session, few of their counterparts believe there is much chance that the issue will come up again. It was settled in the last session.

Hopefully, by the end of January, everyone in the state will know which time zone they will be living in. All they have to do after that is remember to spring forward and fall back.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Old Traditions Die Hard

The Christmas shopping season is now in full swing. It began last week on Thanksgiving Day when at least one large retailer decided to jump the gun and open up on Thanksgiving with sales and special prices.

Most stores, however, waited until Black Friday, so called because it is the day after Thanksgiving and is usually hyped to be the busiest shopping day of the year.

Most large retailers have deeply-discounted specials if you get to their stores early enough. Many opened their doors at 5:00 AM.

People typically line up by the hundreds to be among the first ones to take advantage of the big deals. Waiting until later in the morning is dangerous for those who just must have a discounted item; it could be gone before noon.

I’ve never been one of those early birds who line up in the cold and dark in the wee hours of the morning to be able to shop for specials. But this year, I must admit, one item really caught my eye. It was a notebook computer advertised at only $378.

Another tradition that I have participated in on the day after Thanksgiving is the lighting of the so-called world’s largest Christmas tree at Monument Circle in Indianapolis. Last year, my daughter and I got to the circle early enough to get a good view. But we didn’t plan our bathroom breaks properly so we had to leave early.

It wasn’t easy. By the time we needed to leave, the circle was jam packed with wall-to-wall people. It took probably 30 minutes to finally work our way the 25 feet to the nearest open store and then out the back door.

If you don’t mind missing all the music and dancing on the stage, a good view of the lights can be had from the observation deck atop the City-County Building. The view is awesome.

Although I don’t go see the lighting every year, the tradition does go back many years in our family. When my dad was alive, he would often take us to Indy in our camper, which was a converted school bus. Later on, we got a real camper that wasn’t quite so long.

Parking is always an issue for those who go to watch the lighting ceremony. It’s especially problematic for a large motor home.

One year, we all piled in the camper and headed for Indianapolis. We managed to find a half-empty lot several blocks from the circle. It was manned by a Hispanic attendant, a rarity at that time.

The motor home would not fit properly into a single parking space, so the attendant told my dad with his thick Spanish accent, “This is long; it cost you double.”

He wasn’t too happy about it, but the rest of us kind of got a kick out of the whole situation. We had a good time anyway.

For years following the lighting ceremony, we would all pile back into the vehicle and head for the nearest Steak ‘n’ Shake restaurant. It was a tradition; eating somewhere else just wouldn’t do.

Traditions die hard, but they often do die. After enough years, we just got tired of spending an evening in the cold, wind, and huge crowds just to watch some colored lights on a monument light up.

Another of our traditions may be winding down this year. Ever since I was old enough to remember, my mom’s side of the family always had their annual Christmas family reunion. In recent years, since my grandmother and a couple of other relatives died, I find that not only is attendance down, but most of the people who go are strangers to me.

After somewhere around 50 years as an annual event, this could be the last Christmas reunion. The relatives who organize it are getting too old and tired to fool with it any longer.

But as the next generation in our families grow up and start taking charge, they start new traditions. Sometimes they even include the old folks.

Traditions are especially strong at this time of year. And I’ve always enjoyed them.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Signs that America is Coming to its Senses

This is an off year for elections, but there were still some notable polls in several states. Elections in New Jersey, Virginia, and referendums in California were watched nationally because the outcome was expected to take the pulse of a nation reeling from the unbelievably inept leadership of our president.

In Republican-leaning Virginia Tim Kaine won a solid victory, beating Republican Jerry Kilgore for governor of that state. Pres. Bush campaigned for Kilgore and paid him an election-eve visit. It could have been the final nail in Kilgore’s political coffin.

And in New Jersey, Democrat Jon Corzine handily defeated Republican Doug Forrester by 10 percentage points in that state’s gubernatorial race.

In California, Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger failed in his attempt to get four ballot measures passed: removing legislators' redistricting powers, capping spending, making teachers work five years instead of two to pass probation, and restricting political spending by public employee unions.

He campaigned heavily for the measures in an attempt to rein in the democratically-controlled Assembly. Schwarzenegger, who was the keynote speaker at the last Republican National Convention, is up for reelection next year.

And on the local level things are changing as well. Republican Vernon Robinson lost the Winston-Salem, N.C. city council seat he held. Robinson made national headlines last year when he erected a monument displaying the Ten Commandments in front of City Hall without the permission of the council.

Although these may be relatively minor victories, democrats are quick to jump on them as proof that the mess the Bush administration has made of things is finally beginning to sink in to most Americans, even some conservative ones.

Are mainstream Americans beginning to come to the conclusion that they may have erred when they voted for what they thought was a man who stood for principles and honor? In 2004 they voted for a national sense of morality instead of promised economic stability. Instead they got neither.

It’s not a democratic or a republican issue. At least it shouldn’t be.

It’s an issue of what is right for this country. And, according to the latest polls, a great majority of Americans now believe what’s right is not Bush.

What’s right also is not the religious right, some of whom were swept into office in 2000 or 2004 on Bush’s coattails.

In Kansas, for example, those who seek a world-class education for their children are perplexed and angered at the international notoriety their state has achieved at the hands of ultra-conservative members of the state’s board of education. Six out of 10 members of that board voted this year to include the religious concept of intelligent design in the science classroom. It’s a concept Bush supports as well.

In Pennsylvania, the same issue was taken to court after a Dover school board voted to include intelligent design in biology classes. But, fortunately, the voters beat the court to the punch when they ousted all eight of the conservative board members who made that ill-founded decision.

The antics of the Dover electorate brought the ire of ultra-conservative TV evangelist Pat Robertson. He said residents of Dover might not get God’s help if they ever had a local emergency.

He said they may be better off praying for the help of the late Charles Darwin, founder of evolutionary theory. “If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin. Maybe he can help them,” Robertson quipped.

Who is this guy, and what planet is he from?

Earlier this year he called for the assassination of the president of Venezuela. Last summer he prayed on live TV during the broadcast of his 700 Club for another Supreme Court justice to either die or retire so that Bush could nominate a solid conservative. And in 2003 he suggested that maybe the State Department should be blown up with a nuclear device.

Perhaps what his 700 Club patrons really should pray for is for him to seek treatment from a competent therapist.

If a person like Robertson is 100 percent behind George W. Bush, then maybe that’s a sign for mainstream America to reject the president’s policies outright. And just maybe that is what they are starting to do.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Hall Cams are Extra Eyes for Teacher

Anyone who has at least hit middle age can surely remember how difficult it was to get away with anything in their school classroom. Regardless what grade you were in, there were always those teachers who seemed to have the proverbial eyes in the back of their heads.

I remember way back then we had study hall. When I went to Edinburgh High, one of my study hall classes was in the old gym, as we called it, with Mr. Wilson (no relation) as the mighty proctor.

There were at least 50 students in study hall most every period, and you could hear a pin drop. There we all sat in desks lined up on the floor of that old gymnasium with Mr. Wilson who, we all thought, must have been about 75 years old sitting stoically at the head of the class. No one dared make a noise.

Certainly, there were those few teachers who hadn’t quite grown their rear-seeing eyes yet. Those who were apt to do it could get away with a lot. Mostly, what they got away with was talking too much.

I can only remember one time, when I was in eighth grade, when a student talked back to the teacher with such ferocity that I thought it was going to come to blows. I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen a student act so disrespectful to a teacher before.

These days, at some schools, that kind of behavior is downright commonplace. And it happens occasionally even at the better schools.

Even the students who don’t seem to be able to learn how to add two plus two are fully knowledgeable about their rights and about what the teacher can and cannot do to them.

I’ve been a teacher for a number of years, with some time off to pursue other endeavors, and I’m still envious of those teachers who seem to know exactly what’s going on in every corner of their classroom at every minute. I get anxious every time I have to turn my back to write something on the board. Spitballs can sting.

Hallways are especially a problem, because all the classes are out in them at once during passing periods.

The school where I teach already has security cameras in almost every hallway. If I catch a student misbehaving in the hall, I just have to go down to the school police office and tell them to pull up the video for such-and-such camera at a particular time. Even if I don’t know the offending student’s name, he or she is nailed by surveillance.

The price on small security cameras has now come down to the point where most people can own one if they wanted. I’ve had one watching my front porch for years.

And I, as a teacher, am glad to know that some of those small cameras are helping us monitor the hallways.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Baptists Withhold Water in Name of God

Traditional religious organizations typically set up, as part of their missions, programs to help the poor and needy, especially in times of crisis. This is certainly true of the evangelical group known as the Southern Baptist Convention.

The SBC organized volunteers to hand out food and water to those left in need after hurricane Wilma ravaged parts of southern Florida. But apparently the Alabama-based SBC places religious dogma above the needs of the poverty-stricken hurricane victims.

The Anheuser-Busch beer company has been helping in the relief effort, too. Ever since hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast states and left New Orleans and parts of coastal Mississippi in shambles, the company has been canning water and shipping it to those who need it. The canned water is given out for free by the Red Cross and other volunteer organizations.

The vice-president of operations for Anheuser-Busch claims the company has donated more than 9 million cans of clean water since Katrina. He said the company would continue to produce canned water until it is no longer needed.

So we have the SBC who has volunteered to hand out free drinking water and we have the Anheuser-Busch company who has agreed to supply and ship millions of cans of it to places where it is needed. It sounds like a perfect match up.

But the SBC will have no part of it.

The Southern Baptists were running a supply center in Clewiston, Fl. Early last week, but they were not handing out any canned water to the hundreds of folks in line who were desperate to get it.

Although 22 pallets of canned water were available for the SBC to hand out, they left it sitting on the sidelines and refused to hand it out to the hurricane victims. Few of the victims even knew the water was available.

SBC volunteers said the pastor did not want to hand out the water because it was contained in Budweiser cans. The SBC thought it was inappropriate to hand out the cans, even though they contained clean water and not beer.

I don’t know if Southern Baptists believe drinking beer is a sin or not. But seeing as the cans were filled with much-needed drinking water and seeing how hundreds of victims in need of fresh water were filing by, it sounds like more of a sin to withhold it.

The SBC volunteers told an NBC affiliate reporter that they shouldn’t focus on that issue. The issue, the volunteers said, was that they are there to help people.

Well, that may be true. But shouldn’t their assistance be given with no strings attached?

The Red Cross had no qualms about handing out the water. And one of the storm victims said it made no difference to her who hands it out because it’s going to a good cause.

And that should be the position of the SBC, as well, with regards to where the water comes from. It makes no difference whom the supplier is, as long as it gets supplied. It shows a gross lack of judgment, and compassion, to withhold cans of water from thirsty storm victims just because you don’t like the company that canned it.

Apparently, some of the SBC volunteers didn’t want the negative publicity. As the local TV crew was packing up to leave, one of them noticed that two of the volunteers were handing out the canned water along side volunteers from the Red Cross.

Or, maybe the volunteers just decided that helping the needy with no provisos trumps ill-founded religious doctrine.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Should Taxpayers Subsidize Your TV?

Would you prefer for 73 million TV sets in America to go dark at the end of Dec., 2008 or would you rather wait until April, 2009 for the blackout?

It now appears that one of those two dates, or perhaps a compromise date falling in between, will be carved in stone by Congress as the date when all standard television broadcasts in the U.S. will cease.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee last Wednesday passed a measure that would require all TV broadcasters to switch to the improved-quality digital transmissions by Dec. 31, 2008. The Senate Commerce Committee has already approved a date for the switch of April 7, 2009.

Under current law, broadcasters need not switch entirely to digital until at least 85 percent of the homes in America can receive a digital signal. But Congress wants a firmer time frame, because they would like to use the freed-up airwaves for something else. It might take a decade before those frequencies are available under the present law.

The analog frequencies now used by TV will be converted to emergency transponder services and commercial wireless services. The FCC would auction the frequencies, which could be worth $10 billion.

Regardless of the new blackout date for analog TV, will the switch mean that those who can’t afford to purchase a new digital television be left in the dark?

Not necessarily.

The House measure would provide up to $990 million to subsidize converter boxes so those who can’t afford a new TV can continue to watch a converted digital signal at the government’s expense.

Some democrats want a larger subsidy. One proposed amendment, which was defeated, would provide two vouchers for every household that wanted them to purchase a converter box. Each box is worth about $60.

Some republicans, on the other hand, baulk at having to subsidize anything. An amendment by Indiana Sen. Steve Buyer that would have stripped away all subsidies was also defeated.

It’s really a balancing act between two points of view: Should American taxpayers have to subsidize converter boxes so the poor, or those who prefer not to buy a new television set, can continue to watch Fear Factor? Or should we force everybody, even those who can’t afford it, to upgrade their hardware?

Of course, it appears to me that there is another option. Remember that $10 billion the government is going to get from auctioning off the old airwaves? Why not use a billion dollars of that money to subsidize converter boxes?

People tend to keep their television sets for at least five years. So in three years from now, most of those who purchased a standard analog TV set within the last couple of years will be ready for an upgrade anyway.

Unfortunately, many families have multiple TV sets in their homes. And every one of those sets will have to be upgraded to digital or be connected to a converter box. It will be an expensive proposition.

The best advice is to forget about purchasing a standard TV if you are in the market for a new one. And if you’re not yet in the market, but expect to be before 2008, you will be lucky to find an analog TV for sale. Already they have been relegated to a small corner of the sales floor.

So really, only those families who have recently purchased an analog TV and who generally can’t afford to upgrade for 10 years or so will be at a disadvantage when the switch takes place.

And it looks as though those families will be taken care of with a subsidy in the neighborhood of a billion dollars. It’s a relatively small price to pay for a smooth transition to a much superior technology.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Future Not So Bright for Light Bulb

In cartoons, when one of the characters gets a bright idea, it is usually depicted by a light bulb appearing above his head. A light of a different sort must have popped above the head of Michael Bowers, a graduate student at Vanderbilt University.

Bowers was experimenting with something called quantum dots. They are extraordinarily tiny globes of atoms measuring thousands of times less than the width of a human hair. They have excitable electrons that give off colored light when exposed to an electric charge. In other words, they are light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

But what surprised Bowers is that the light given off by his new batch of quantum dots wasn’t blue, as he expected. They gave off a brilliant white light.

LEDs are currently used in various applications. They can give off red, green, and yellow light. Recently, scientists have even invented some that can give off blue light.

But Bowers stumbled on a way to produce a nice white light with LED technology. And, what’s more, the quantum dots can be mixed with liquid polyurethane and painted onto almost any surface. If that surface is then exposed to an electric charge, it glows white.

So could this be the beginning of the end of the ordinary light bulb and even the fluorescent tube?

A “bulb” coated with LED quantum dots can produce a light that is twice as bright as a 60 watt light bulb and last for 50,000 hours. And, since LEDs do not produce heat, they don’t use nearly as much electricity.

Estimates are that conversion to LED lighting technology could save as much as 29 percent of the nation’s lighting bill.

And the new quantum dot LEDs would not be limited to being painted onto something that looks like a standard light bulb. You can paint it on almost anything.

If you wanted your walls to glow a certain color instead of just being painted that color, just use the LED paint. Connect your walls to an electricity source, flip the switch, and your room is lit by dazzlingly bright walls.

Use battery power and LED-laced dye and you can walk down the street on a dark night and not worry about being seen. Your clothing will produce all the light you need to see where you’re going.

Coat a basketball with these LEDs and play some night hoops.

And why worry about buying light bulbs for your lamps. Just coat the lamp shades with the LED-laced dye and the lamp will give off all the light you need right from the shade itself.

There’s really no limit to what can be lit up with the quantum dot paint. And it can come in a variety of colors, including white.

The next step is to see if the LED material can be commercially produced for a reasonable price. Like all new technology, it is apt to be expensive at first. But once the price comes down to somewhere near the current cost of a light bulb, you can bid Thomas Edison’s venerable invention a fond adieu.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Halloween: Victim of Right-Wing Madness?

It is less than a week until Halloween, a favorite among holidays for most kids. It’s a time when they are actually permitted to go door to door and beg for candy.

Trick-or-treat is a long-standing American tradition. But it also occurs in other countries, including Canada and some European nations. Most Asians do not celebrate Halloween at all.

That’s probably because Halloween is tied to early celebrations of the Catholic Church, and Christians are a rare breed in much of Asia.

But despite its long heritage in the United States, some schools and church groups have attempted to stamp out Halloween. It doesn’t matter that it’s part of American history and that it carries a wealth of folklore. To some, Halloween is evil and must be eradicated.

That sentiment is nothing new. But it seems to be gaining strength lately, in light of this country’s unfortunate swing to the far right on the political spectrum, which has left rational thought back toward the middle.

I publish a Web site dedicated to holidays, Halloween among them. I receive feedback from across the country and around the world. But I received one letter the other day that really worried me.

It was from a woman named Debby who was lamenting the fact that her young daughter’s school had decided to do away with any kind of Halloween celebration altogether because some thought it was inherently evil.

The notice said there would be no parties, no decorations, and no dressing up in costume in commemoration of the day.

Debby was saddened, because she remembered that Halloween was a fun day when she went to school. She remembered the Halloween party and dressing up in costume. She was sad for her daughter who would not be able to participate in that tradition.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about throwing parties at school. I think teachers should spend more time on task and less time showing movies and playing games. But I do realize that, if presented within the context of history and culture, parties on Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day in elementary schools can be learning experiences.

And that’s what Debby was concerned about, as well. She believes that a classroom’s Halloween party is a good opportunity to introduce the history of Celtic culture to youngsters. It presents a learning opportunity.

Sure, there are groups of misguided individuals who carry on evil practices, and who have adopted Halloween as their day for wreaking havoc. But that is not mainstream Halloween. And it should not prompt local school officials to kick Halloween out of the classroom.

I don’t know how many elementary schools across the country have principals who view Halloween as inherently evil. But I would guess there are a significant number of them. And their numbers seem to be growing, judging from some of the feedback I get from my online presentation on the subject.

But Halloween is not evil. It marks the eve of a former church holy day, All Saints’ Day. And, historically, it can be traced to the New Year celebrations of ancient Celts.

Just because a few people choose to use it for evil purposes doesn’t mean we should eliminate the much more plentiful civilized celebrations that punctuate this time of year. Schools should use Halloween as just another opportunity for learning. They should not shy away from it for reasons that do not exist.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Another Bush Misfire: No Child Left Behind

Back in 2001 Pres. Bush pushed through his education program, which was one of his campaign promises. It is termed the No Child Left Behind Act and its goals are certainly laudable.

But it shows that Bush knows no more about education reform than he knows about foreign policy or disaster relief. The No Child Left Behind program, so highly touted in Bush’s reelection bid, is a miserable failure to date.

It seeks to hold schools accountable for the education they provide to their students. Well, that sounds good. Everybody needs to be held accountable for their actions, or lack thereof. Teachers and administrators in the past may not have been held all that accountable for the education they were providing to the students in their charge.

So, again, the goal was fine. But in practice, the methods used to achieve that goal do not, and cannot work. Setting goals is easy; reaching them is the tough part.

The National Education Association says the law is “seriously flawed and under funded.” Like so many other federal programs, it forces the states to comply with federal mandates without providing adequate funding to the states to meet those requirements.

In addition, No Child Left Behind uses a classic cookie-cutter approach to solving our nation’s educational woes. The sad fact is, for every underachieving child we strive to push through the educational system, dozens of higher achieving children are placed at risk for failure.

Under the statute, we are sinking so much time, money, and effort into the low achievers that probably are going to end up with minimum-wage jobs anyway, that those whom we should rightfully expect to graduate and go on to post-secondary education are being underserved.

For example, in many schools, especially those in larger cities, up to one-third of the students in any given classroom are at risk. They are the learning disabled, emotionally handicapped, or slow learners that traditionally were placed in special education classes. Today, they are mixed together with the higher achievers and are termed inclusion students.

Teachers must spend a lot of extra time with these special students, watering down their curriculum just so they can pass. This is done at the expense of the mainstream students.

In addition, schools are now more than ever teaching to the test. In Indiana, the test is ISTEP. For weeks at the beginning of every school year students are drilled with mock standardized tests and taught nothing but what is likely to show up on the ISTEP.

Teachers used to be able provide content-based education. Now, they are forced to provide standards-based drill and practice lessons. All this is because the federal government expects every school to meet what’s known as their Adequate Yearly Progress.

The Great Lakes Center for Educational Research commissioned a study that indicates almost every school will eventually fail to reach the AYP within 10 years.

In Indiana, under the best case scenario, it is projected that 54 percent of schools will fail by 2014. Under a more realistic scenario, 80 to 85 percent of schools will fail. In Michigan, almost 100 percent of schools are predicted to fail.

The study provides some recommendations to help fix the situation and perhaps head off some of the gloomy predictions. Among them are:

- Dedicate adequate funding for remediation and social infrastructure, to overcome disparities and meet student educational needs.

- Create realistic, comprehensive school evaluation systems that involve a variety of evaluation methods.

- Set realistic standards linked to external expectations and grounded in research.

- Modify the standards and growth expectations for special education, and non-English speaking students.

The No Child Left Behind Act has become a teacher’s and administrator’s nightmare. If schools fail to meet their AYP long enough, the state steps in and takes over the school.

Every teacher and administrator must then reapply for their jobs. The atmosphere in many schools has become similar to what office workers go through when upper management calls in the headhunters. They fear for their jobs and they are helpless to do much about it.

The fact remains that not every child is going to be a success, no matter how much we wish it were so. And holding schools accountable for something that is beyond their control will ultimately lead to failure.

As the Great Lakes study suggested, it’s fail now or fail later. No Child Left Behind has become another Bush Administration misfire.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Format Wars not in Public Interest

Go into the TV section of any major appliance store and you’ll find row after row of the latest high-definition and digital television sets. Some have flat panel screens; some don’t. They come in a vast array of sizes and styles.

In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a standard old-fashioned color TV set in the store. They’re still sold, but they’re relegated to a small corner of the store.

But if you want to watch a DVD on one of these new HDTV sets all you will see is a standard resolution picture. And if you want to record programs in high definition, you better get a digital video recorder from your cable or satellite provider, because regular old VCRs won’t do it. Neither will the DVD recorders.

Not to worry, though, because in the coming months manufacturers will be making and selling new DVD players and recorders that are meant to take advantage of the increased resolution and digital quality of the currently-available high-def broadcasts.

The problem is, manufacturers and content providers can’t agree on which one of the two competing formats to use.

It’s the same old tired story. Remember when video cassette recorders first came out back in the late 1970s? There were two competing formats: Beta and VHS.

For a few years, stores sold both formats. Movie studios at first released films on one or the other, but later began releasing titles on both formats. Video rental stores would typically stock two different versions of each film.

Eventually, VHS won out, not because it was superior, but because its manufacturers did a better job of promoting it to the public. Beta, though arguably a higher-quality format, went the way of the dinosaurs.

It’s been the same with other products, too. Audiophiles can currently purchase songs recorded on two competing disc formats that are both superior to standard CDs. One is called Super Audio CD, or SACD, and the other is called DVD Audio.

DVD Audio is not the same as the sound track you hear when playing a movie on DVD. It has two to four times the sampling rate of a standard CD and is typically recorded in 5.1 surround sound. SACD discs also provide similar high-definition sound. But the two formats, like VHS and Beta, are incompatible.

Now, the electronics industry has introduced Blu-ray and HD DVD. Both are high definition formats of the standard DVD, but they have incompatible technologies. They won’t play on the same machine.

Some movie and software companies have lined up behind Blu-ray, such as Twentieth Century Fox, Vivendi Universal and Walt Disney. Others have climbed aboard the HD DVD bandwagon. These include HBO, New Line Cinema, Paramount Home Entertainment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment and Warner Home Video.

Microsoft and Intel recently announced they would be supporting the HD DVD format in hopes of swaying the format battle to that side. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Their hardware partners, Dell and Hewlett-Packard are sticking with Blu-ray.

Like the old Beta and VHS format war, both DVD formats will provide consumers alternate ways of getting what they want. They both will supply high-quaility digital movies capable of being played back in full splendor on the new HDTV sets.

But just like with past format wars, this one is not in the consumer’s best interest. It not only lends confusion in a market that is confusing enough, it will force the consumer to pick one format over the other and hope their choice ultimately wins out.

When will companies ever learn that competing formats are never a good thing to introduce to the public. Set up a joint commission to iron out format differences first, then release only the winner to the public.

Whoever finally wins the latest format war, one thing is for certain. The consuming public will lose.

When both formats are released to the public next spring, consumers should send a strong signal that they do not want to participate in another format war. They should refuse to purchase either until the manufacturers agree on one format.

If consumers withhold their dollars, it won’t take long before the manufacturers and content providers see that it is in their own best interest to work it out and agree on a single format.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Time to Scuttle the Shuttle

It may seem strange to those who were born after 1970, but during the early part of that decade going to the moon was fairly commonplace. Seeing men walk on the moon was so familiar, in fact, that people lost interest. And so did the president.

Pres. Richard Nixon, stung by the Watergate scandal and still mired in Vietnam, cut the budget for the Apollo moon program and cut the number of missions.

What had been a vibrant space program in the 1960s, culminating in man’s first visit to another celestial orb, withered and died at the hands of the domestic and foreign policy concerns of the 1970s. Left in its wake was a lackluster space program that lacked drive and ambition.

There was one more Apollo mission in 1976, but it wasn’t to the moon. It was a joint Apollo-Soyuz mission designed to show we could get along with the Soviets, at least in space.

The manned space program floundered after that. It was non-existent until the first space shuttle was launch in 1981.

The space shuttle project had been on the drawing board since the early 1970s. It was a monumental undertaking, originally meant to save on expendable rockets. The reusable shuttle seemed like a good idea at the time, but it wasn’t.

Using technology of the early 1980s the space shuttle was barely even possible. It was by far the most complex piece of machinery ever built. And from the very beginning it was marred in cost overruns and mechanical problems.

The heat shield tiles were one of the first problems. They kept falling off during tests. Without the tiles, astronauts returning to earth would vaporize.

The launch of the first space shuttle, Columbia, had to be postponed a number of times because of a recurring computer problem. It was a harbinger of things to come.

The total cost of the space shuttle program from its inception until now is estimated to have been about $150 billion, and still counting. And NASA doesn’t even know for sure when the next shuttle will launch.

Unlike any jumbo jet, the space shuttle can’t take off when the weather is not perfect. Even light cloud cover can postpone a launch. That’s not the type of space vehicle we should be basing our entire manned space program around.

I’ve said for years that the space shuttle program was ill-conceived and that it’s time to move on with another type of space vehicle. And now, the head of NASA has finally admitted just that.

Michael Griffin, NASA chief, said last week that the space shuttle program and the International Space Station were mistakes. After spending $150 billion on the shuttle, and losing 14 lives, NASA is finally ready to throw up its hands and admit the whole program was a mistake.

Well, it was a costly mistake. But it’s better late than never.

NASA is finally trying to give the manned space program a firm direction. It will retire the shuttle fleet in 2010 and set its sights back to the moon.

We now have a goal to put humans back on the moon by 2018. That seems like an extremely dilated time line, but at least it is a worthy goal.

When we finally get back to the moon, we should do what we should have done following Apollo. We should build a base there, mine it, settle it, and use it as a platform to send men and women farther into space.

That would be a solid goal and a good direction for the manned space program to take.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

My New HDTV Gets Thumbs Up

I finally took the plunge. I am now the proud owner of one of those new-fangled high definition TV sets, or HDTV.

Although I’m into gadgets of all kinds, as I recently wrote about, I am not one of the early adopters. I probably would be if I were rich, but I have little choice but to wait until the price drops.

I had been shopping around for an HDTV for a couple of years. I often dropped by one of the appliance stores in Greenwood to drool all over their giant flat panel HDTV systems, hoping the price of one of those big 52 inch models would eventually come down to, say, 400 dollars or so.

Ok, so I was dreaming. Even the projection models, which generally have a less than stellar picture quality when viewed at oblique angles, are still well above 1,000 bucks.

But I lucked out a couple of weeks ago when I was shopping around for a new washer. I not only found a floor model washer on clearance, I found my HDTV as well.

While in the store buying my new washer, I couldn’t help but stroll through the TV section. There on the shelf I saw a nice 34 inch HDTV with a price tag of 599 dollars. I couldn’t believe my eyes, so I called the salesman over to ask what the deal was.

He told me it was a floor model, sold without a manual or remote. He also told me that since I also had bought the washer, he would throw in the TV for only 500 dollars. I couldn’t pass it up.

I bought a universal HDTV remote control for 20 bucks and looked up the owner’s manual on the Internet. I had bought a 34 inch HDTV for a grand total of 520 dollars, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

One of my brothers already had an HDTV and I don’t mind admitting I was a little jealous. But his is only a 32 inch with a square screen, whereas mine is a 34 inch oblong screen. Now it’s his turn to be jealous.

Unfortunately, not all regular TV programs are broadcast in the new high definition format yet. Most of the regular primetime filmed series are. Most of the programming on PBS is in HD. But, like the early adopters of color TV in the 1950s, we HDTV owners will have to wait a couple more years before everything is broadcast in digital.

Originally, the plan was to pull the plug on standard analog TV broadcasts by the end of 2007. But since less than 85 percent of the population will have access to digital broadcasts by then, Congress will push that date back.

I predict it will be late 2009 or so before all broadcasts will be digital. At that time, all the standard analog broadcasts will end and anyone still using a standard TV will have to either trash it and replace it with a new digital TV or buy a set-top converter box that will convert digital reception into the old analog format.

All HDTV signals are broadcast digitally, but all digital broadcasts are not necessarily HDTV. Digital is superior to analog, but HDTV offers twice the number of lines of resolution as standard TV. Many HDTV broadcasts also have CD quality 5.1 surround sound.

I may not have been the first person on my block to own an HDTV, but I have one now. And the high quality picture and superior sound is enough to make me consider becoming a couch potato.

Now, where did I put that remote?

Friday, September 16, 2005

After Katrina, Bush Has Got to Go

Neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency nor Pres. Bush was responsible for Hurricane Katrina striking New Orleans and Mississippi. Some of us wish we could blame them for it, but we can’t.

What we can blame the Bush administration for is what it did in the wake of the storm, and even hours before it struck.

Even three weeks after the monster storm sent flood waters spilling into the streets of New Orleans, even after Bush replaced the head of the agency responsible for helping the victims of natural disasters, FEMA is still under attack for being painfully sluggish in bringing aid to the hurricane-ravaged areas.

Acknowledging that the massive relief effort was enough to put a strain on FEMA and on local agencies, the fact remains that the federal government was, some claim, criminally negligent in its response.

It’s incredible how naïve the president was shortly after the levees gave way. He said he was taken by surprise that it happened and that nobody foresaw the possibility of the levees breaking.

Nobody could have seen it coming, unless you count the entire scientific community, the Army Corps of Engineers, and most of the local politicians and emergency planning agencies in Louisiana.

Bush initially praised Michael Brown, the head of FEMA when the storm struck. That was shortly before Bush decided to replace Brown after he received the brunt of criticism for the slow response.

Ben Morris, mayor of the town of Slidell outside New Orleans said as recently as last Friday that the town, which suffered major damage, had received no help from FEMA. He called the agency “useless.”

Radio stations in the ravaged area have taken calls from dozens of people complaining that they spend hours trying to get through to FEMA but with no luck. Some even say their pleas have been ignored.

Oh sure, a couple of weeks after the storm, Pres. Bush finally took the blame for the slow and unimpressive response of the federal government. That was the first and only thing he has done right throughout the entire relief effort. The rest of his time was spent paying lip service to what ought to have been measurable actions.

In the wake of 9-11, Bush pushed for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security to combat terrorism. He merged FEMA with that department, making it much more bureaucratic. It was a dumb decision.

An emergency management agency, almost by definition, must be ready to act quickly, precisely, and efficiently. Emergencies don’t wait for bureaucrats.

This is just the latest of a long string of bad decisions by our Chief Executive. Even many of those who voted to give him a second term now believe they made a mistake in choosing Bush’s moral imperative over substantial leadership.

But that’s in the past. Bush still has three full years to go. And some wonder if our country can survive another three years of Bush’s incompetence.

On his watch, we have lost the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon has been attacked, we’re fighting an unnecessary war in Iraq, the economy is weak, the rich is getting richer at the expense of the poor, scientific research has been thwarted, and the City of New Orleans has been lost to a preventable disaster.

Our nation now must spend $100 billion or more to recover and rebuild a stretch of the Gulf Coast that could have been protected by modernized levees that would have cost less than one-tenth that amount.

The House of Representatives impeached Pres. Clinton for lying about having sex. Predictably, there is no talk of impeaching Bush, since both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans.

But the president should do what he has always done best. He should quit and walk away. And he should take Cheney with him.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Cuba Wants to Help and We Should Let It

You know how sometimes next door neighbors just can’t seem to get along? Sometimes it’s a spat over a property line or because the dogs bark at night or maybe one neighbor’s tree sheds its leaves in the other one’s yard.

Sometimes a dispute can go on for years. Sometimes, like with the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys, the incident that started the feud isn’t even remembered.

It’s too bad, because a simple, unimportant incident that has blown up to large proportions might be preventing close neighbors from becoming best friends.

Well, it’s not only households that sometimes get into feuds over picayune matters. Occasionally, two governments embroil themselves in bitter disputes that never lead to war, but that prevent what could have been a mutually beneficial relationship.

The U.S. and Cuba are such quarrelsome neighbors and have been for decades. It started in the late 1950s when Fidel Castro took over as leader of the small Caribbean country and set up a Communist government with the former Soviet Union as a good friend.

The quarrel almost escalated into a world-wide nuclear holocaust in October, 1962 when Castro decided he would allow the Soviets to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy wouldn’t hear of it, so he set up a “quarantine” (read, blockade) of Cuba.

It was a week and a half of nail biting and white knuckles as Kennedy and Soviet lead Khrushchev played a dangerous game of brinkmanship. But the Soviets finally backed down.

Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, Kennedy and Castro began to engage in some back-door diplomacy that most likely would have led to normalized relationships between the two nations had Kennedy not been assassinated.

Unfortunately, Pres. Johnson chose not to pursue the diplomatic track with Cuba and the rest is history.

Today, Cuba and the U.S. remain uneasy neighbors. There’s no more saber rattling, but relationships are far from normal.

Last week, Castro offered to send 1,500 doctors to the region struck by Hurricane Katrina. The doctors have been brushing up on their English in anticipation of coming to the U.S. to help.

Unfortunately, Pres. Bush has chosen politics over humanity and has thus far refused Cuba’s offer of help. The administration said Castro might do better freeing his own country from its Communist form of government.

That might be true. Soviet-style Communism as a means of running a nation has failed worldwide, except for the three holdouts of North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. China is also Communist, but it also embraces capitalism.

This country has gone a long way to normalize relationships with former foe Vietnam. It is an active trading partner to China. Even when the Soviet Union was still in existence, Pres. Nixon pursued détente with the Soviets and Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush became good friends with its former leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in the late 1980s.

So why is it so tough to accept Castro’s ovations of friendship? He wanted to pursue warmer relations with us way back in the 1960s. We snubbed him then, and we’re still snubbing him.

Don’t get me wrong; Castro is a power-hungry dictator. We need to approach normalization with Cuba cautiously. But we should still pursue a good relationship. It’s in both countries’ best interests.

And we should start by accepting Castro’s offer to send doctors to help those who need it in New Orleans and Biloxi.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

No Cash? No Problem!

Back in the mid-1970s when I was just getting started on my journey into the “real world,” after graduating college, I was eager to open a bank account at one of the large Indianapolis banks that had bank machines. These were new-fangled gadgets at the time, and I wanted to make full use of them.

I moved to Indianapolis shortly after graduation, after landing a teaching job at a small school west of the city. And I opened an account at Merchant’s Bank which, like all the other banks of the time, no longer exists.

It was amazing. I could actually go to the bank in the middle of the night and deposit or withdraw money. What a great invention, the ATM.

Of course, you were even more limited then as to how much you could withdraw and in what denominations. Some banks, for example, sorted cash into envelopes of $25 or $50. That’s all you could withdraw at a time.

And most of the ATMs didn’t have a CRT monitor to give you instructions. They had rotating cylinders with words written on the edges. Each instruction would rotate into view as needed to let you know what to do next.

Also, if you had an account at Merchant’s then you could use only their ATMs. The same was true for any other bank. If you needed cash and there was an Indiana National Bank ATM right next to you, you couldn’t use it if you only had a Merchant’s Bank account.

ATM cards could only be used at ATM machines, not at gas stations or grocery stores. There were, of course, credit cards, but you certainly couldn’t buy a Big Mac with one. Basically, only gas stations, hotels, department stores, and full service restaurants accepted them.

Nobody thought of using them to purchase groceries or to buy fast food.

Today, of course, you can use not only your credit card, but your ATM or check card almost anywhere. It made the national news when the first McDonald’s restaurant started accepting credit cards. Now, there is a card scanner hanging on the outside of the drive-through window at White Castle.

Although a few small stores still require a minimum purchase to use a credit or debit card, most do not. In fact, I’ve gone online and purchased a single song from Wal-Mart’s music download site for 88 cents, charged to my debit card.

New technology is emerging that will allow you to simply tap your card on a pad at the checkout. A radio frequency transmitter chip is located in these cards, which sends all relevant information to the retailer. The magnetic stripe will soon be a thing of the past.

In a few years, I predict you will be able to use these computer-chip credit cards to buy a candy bar and soft drink from a vending machine.

You will also be able to carry out person-to-person transactions with credit or debit cards, because everyone will own a tiny, personal card scanner. So if you owe your friend 20 bucks, just tell him to whip out his card reader attached to his key chain, tap it with your credit card, and key in an amount. The funds will transfer from your bank to his instantly.

Just think, no more change to weigh down your pockets. No more waiting in line for little old ladies to fumble through their purses searching for exact change at the checkout. Just tap your card on the scanner and let the computer do the rest.

In fact, that technology might just signal the end of the ATM. Who needs to run out and get cash from an ATM when you can pay for everything by tapping your card?

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Living in Path of Disaster a Gamble

The devastation and loss of life from Hurricane Katrina will send this storm into the history books as one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the United States. It is already being called the worst natural disaster since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that leveled that city.

It will certainly go into the books as the most destructive hurricane, in terms of monetary damage, in U.S. history, although Hurricane Camille in 1969 was meteorologically a much stronger storm.

Like Katrina, Camille struck the Mississippi coast hard. Unlike Katrina, however, it struck while at maximum intensity. It remains the most intense storm ever to hit the U.S. with sustained wind speeds of 190 miles per hour at impact. Gusts were estimated to be more than 220 miles per hour in places.

But in 1969, the region was relatively sparsely populated. The death toll, estimated to be at least 255, would have been much higher if Camille had hit New Orleans, just to the west.

And that’s exactly what Katrina did. Katrina was a huge storm, with hurricane-force winds extending many dozens of miles from the eye wall. Even so, if it had hit only a few miles to the west of where it did, New Orleans would have received the full force of the storm instead of the glancing blow it got.

Even with the close side-swipe, however, New Orleans suffered extreme amounts of devastation. And most of it is due to the city’s topography. Much of it lies below sea level, relying on levees to hold back water from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.

When Camille struck Biloxi in 1969, it produced a storm surge of 22 feet. Reports were heard of people climbing onto their rooftops to survive the encroaching ocean, even as far inland as two miles from the coast.

Yet, even knowing that such a scenario would surely repeat itself one day, residents vowed to rebuild. And so they did.

And now, the devastation has been repeated with Katrina. But even before the devastation had begun to be cleared away, news reports showed despondent residents vowing to stay and rebuild.

Hurricanes Katrina and Camille, along with 1992’s Andrew, which, like Katrina, struck both Florida and the Gulf Coast leaving billions of dollars in damage, were all natural disasters. As such, one might believe the extreme devastation could not have been avoided. After all, the technology does not exist now, let alone in 1969, to change the course of a hurricane, or to dissipate one.

But much of the loss of life and property could have been prevented.

In 1906, San Franciscans had no idea they were living on a major fault line. But after their rude awakening, they knew the score. They could rebuild, or they could look to build elsewhere. They chose to rebuild.

In 1969, the Gulf Coast along Mississippi had a few scattered towns and small cities. After their destruction by Camille, residents could have moved to safer ground, but they decided to stay put and rebuild.

New Orleans is a major city built below sea level in a region that is prone to hurricane strikes. It would be illogical to expect a major city, especially one with such historic significance, to pack it in and move upstream. But if it did, it would avoid being destroyed again in the future.

Today, million-dollar homes are being built right on top of major fault lines in San Francisco and Los Angeles. People are moving as close as they can to the sea shore in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.

It’s the same everywhere. In Italy, the City of Naples is paying people to move out of parts of the city that are in the red zone of Mount Vesuvius. Many are refusing because of the good volcanic soil used to grow grapes for wine.

I don’t mean to suggest that people who build near the seashore, near volcanoes, or on top of fault lines have it coming. And I certainly don’t mean to be insensitive to the tragedy.

But when people make a cognitive decision to live their lives in flood plains, beneath sea level near the coast, on a fault line, or close to an active volcano, then those people are gambling with their lives and property. Eventually, they will lose their wager. It’s inevitable.

Last week, nature cashed in on the people of New Orleans and the Mississippi coast.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

With Oil Prices so High it's Alternative Fuels to the Rescue

With the price of crude oil nearing $70 a barrel, forcing gasoline prices to record highs, there are those who wonder if the doom-and-gloom forecasts that say we’ll run out of petroleum sometime between 2012 and 2030 might be coming true even sooner.

One of those gloomy scenarios, the Olduvai theory, was first introduced by Richard Duncan in 1989. It claims industrialized civilization can last no longer than 100 years. Duncan put the starting point of industrialized civilization at 1930.

It predicts modern society will reach an “Olduvai cliff” by the year 2012, with continual rolling blackouts and permanent gas shortages, leading to economic collapse. So far, each pre-cliff event predicted by the theory has come true.

A similar prediction is the Hubbert peak oil theory, although it lacks such exact dates as the Olduvai theory. Introduced by geophysicist M. K. Hubbert, the peak oil theory states that world oil production will form a steep bell-shaped curve, with decline in production mirroring the rapid increase in oil production seen in the twentieth century.

Many oil experts place the year of peak oil production at 2007, although some say it will be next year.

Of course, most of these predictions assume that there will be no new technologies coming down the pike that will create alternatives to petroleum, which is the main source of the world’s energy now and has been for more than 100 years.

But alternative fuel sources have existed for years. Until now, however, they have been too expensive to be taken seriously.

Between 1920 and 1970, the price of oil remained fairly constant, even dropping slightly. It peaked sharply in 1973 and again in 1980. In fact, the 1980 spike was more dramatic than this year’s increase in oil prices.

But on average, the price of oil has remained generally too low to justify any large-scale production of alternative fuels.

During World War II, however, Germany did rely on an alternative fuel production method. It is called the Fisher-Tropsch process in honor of the two Germans who invented it in the 1920s.

The process produces synthetic petroleum by cooking hydrogen gas in the presence of carbon monoxide to yield long-chain hydrocarbons, which can then be refined into diesel fuel, kerosene, and gasoline. South Africa also used this process during the apartheid years.

Both South Africa and Germany were cut off from petroleum imports, so they had to use their vast supplies of coal as the feedstock for the production of the raw ingredients needed for the Fisher-Tropsch process. Although expensive, it supplied these countries with all the oil they needed.

The world has vast reserves of coal. The U.S. also has rich deposits of coal in many areas, including Indiana.

While crude oil was hovering at less than $25 per barrel, in 1999 dollars, for much of the last century, the gasification of coal for use in the Fisher-Tropsch process was not economical. A barrel of oil produced from that process would cost about $32.

But now that the price of crude has risen to more than twice that price, some oil experts, and some politicians, are taking another look at synthetically-produced oil.

Last week Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana announced a plan that would use Montana’s vast coal reserves to power the United States for the next 40 years. And his plan is attracting the attention of oil analysts from all over the U.S.

Schweitzer claims his plan can produce gasoline for about a dollar per gallon. He said Montana is sitting on more usable energy resources than the whole of the Middle East.

Of course, Montana is not the only state with coal reserves. The main problem, other than the initial investment capital, is that nobody wants a coal mine in his back yard. If we really do elect to use coal gasification to produce synthetic oil, it would mean an increase in strip mining of coal across the country.

But Schweitzer said it could be accomplished without any major environmental impact, at least for the foreseeable future. And if the world is to avoid the Olduvai cliff, we may not have much choice.

Technology Behind Gadgets Enhances Their Enjoyment

Those who know me probably also know that I like gadgets. Yes, I just love my electronic widgets and doodads.

Take for example back in the mid-1980s when the new-fangled stereo component, the CD player, started to hit the market. It didn’t take very long for “record” stores to completely replace their stocks of vinyl albums with the new digital medium, the compact disc. And it didn’t take long for me to own one.

I’m never among the first to jump onto the bandwagon of new devices. I know that first-generation devices are always bare-bones and expensive. I grit my teeth and wait it out until the price comes down and they have worked out the bugs.

But if the technology catches on, I’m usually there for round two.

It was a similar situation when DVDs started to become popular. I love DVD. I own a DVD player that also plays Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio, an audio format that has four times the resolution of standard CDs. I also own two DVD recorders – one on my computer and one on top of my TV set, which replaced my aging VCR.

To me, the technology that makes CDs and DVDs work is fascinating. Teenagers today, who may not have ever seen a vinyl record, take the technology for granted. But I know how different a CD is from an old-fashioned record.

The 45-RPM or LP vinyl discs were based on exactly the same technology that Thomas Edison used when he first recorded his voice by etching a groove onto a wax cylinder. It is an exceedingly simple concept.

Put a needle in the grooves of a vinyl record, start it rotating and the grooves cause the needle to vibrate. The only thing you have to do to hear it is amplify it.

In the old days, the amplification came by causing the needle to vibrate a diaphragm connected to the armature. The diaphragm’s vibrations were amplified by the resonance chamber of the Victrola, as the players were called.

Later, electronic amplifiers connected to speakers were used in place of the diaphragm. Finally high fidelity, or hi-fi, stereo players became the norm. But even they used Edison’s technique of setting a needle onto etched grooves, which cause it to vibrate.

The CD and DVD work on completely different principals from vinyl records. They both use lasers to read microscopic pits that are stamped within the metallic layer of a plastic disc. These pits scatter the laser light, whereas the flat areas between the pits reflect the laser light onto a sensor. Nothing is vibrating at all.

A microcomputer chip converts the series of on-and-off laser signals into the only language a computer can understand, 1s and 0s. A vast number of these 1s and 0s are then combined to form the code which the compute recognizes as a certain sound.

This digital code is then converted into an analog sound signal, by a different computer component. It is then amplified and sent to the speakers.

To me, it’s all quite fascinating. It adds an extra dimension to listening to good music. I now not only can sit back and appreciate the high quality sound of a brilliantly-mixed DVD-Audio recording in digital 5.1 surround sound, I can also appreciate the technology that went into making it all happen.

Most people don’t have to think about it; they just listen and enjoy. But, to me, thinking about how the technology works is part of the enjoyment.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Intelligent Design: The Opposite of Science

It is one of the great enigmas of our time that the same people who utterly depend on the products of modern science for their health, leisure, even life, can be so naïve and obtuse when it comes to one scientific theory that is the cornerstone of biology: evolution.

Anyone who understands what a scientific theory is will also understand that intelligent design, aka creationism, is not one.

Evolution is a scientific theory. It should be taught as such. And in most schools it is. The misinformation seems to be in determining exactly what a scientific theory is and how it differs from a scientific law or hypothesis, or a religion.

A scientific law is like the law of gravity or Newton’s laws of motion. They are simple, direct, truthful statements that define a very specific observation. Laws are simply statements that everyone agrees to be true, so that they can move on.

Hypotheses are deductions based on observations and what is known to be true at the time. They are educated guesses, not haphazard or wild guesses.

A theory is an explanation of a set of related observations or events based upon proven hypotheses and verified multiple times by detached groups of researchers. One scientist cannot create a theory; he can only create a hypothesis.

In general, both a scientific theory and a scientific law are accepted to be true by the scientific community as a whole. Both are used to make predictions of events. Both are used to advance technology.

The biggest difference between a law and a theory is that a theory is much more complex and dynamic. A law governs a single action, whereas a theory explains a whole series of related phenomena.

Compare a slingshot to an automobile. A scientific law is analogous to a slingshot. A slingshot has but one moving part - the rubber band. If you put a rock in it and draw it back, the rock will fly out at a predictable speed, depending upon the distance the band is drawn back.

An automobile, on the other hand, has many moving parts, all working in unison to perform the chore of transporting someone from one point to another point. An automobile is a complex piece of machinery. Sometimes, improvements are made to one or more component parts. But the function of the automobile as a whole remains unchanged.

A theory is like the automobile. Components of it can be changed or improved upon without changing the overall truth of the theory as a whole.

Some scientific theories include the theory of evolution, the theory of relativity and the quantum theory. All of these theories are well-documented and proved beyond reasonable doubt. Yet scientists continue to tinker with the component hypotheses of each theory in an attempt to make them more elegant and concise, or to make them more all-encompassing. Theories can be tweaked, but they are seldom, if ever, entirely replaced.

Most importantly, scientific theories are a part of how science works. You start with a question to which you do not know the answer. You observe, collect data, perform experiments and then come up with a hypothesis to explain it. Other scientists take your hypothesis and verify it with observations of their own.

Over time, it develops into a theory, which nearly all scientists can then use to predict what will happen next. Or if the facts do not support the hypothesis, it is abandoned, even if the hypothesis was an elegant one. Thomas Huxley once wrote, "The great tragedy of Science is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."

Creationism is not a theory, nor even a hypothesis, because it was not arrived at by the scientific method. Creationism starts out with the answer - that God created everything. Then it works backward to try to find pieces of "evidence" to support the conclusion that has already been made. It is the opposite of science.

If schools want to teach a class in creationism, they must call it what it really is: religion, not science. And it’s not just any religion. Catholics and many Protestant denominations, such as Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, and most Methodists have no problem accepting the scientific truth of evolution. Creationism is part of the conservative, fundamentalist religions. But they are the ones who scream the loudest for their reactionary causes.

And if it is taught in schools, it should be labeled as such. Then let the schools who teach it be exposed to the consequences of intermingling church and state, for that is exactly what they would be doing.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

New Race to Moon Really Isn't

Some of you are old enough to remember the Space Race of the 1960s. It was a race to the moon between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was spurred on with the surprise launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in the late 1950s.

We all know the outcome of that race, and many of us can remember the moment the green flag was officially dropped. In 1962, Pres. Kennedy gave our nation the challenge of sending a man to the moon and bringing him safely home to earth before that decade was out.

On July 20, 1969, his goal was reached with the landing of the Eagle lunar lander on the surface of the moon. The U.S. had won the race. But after our success, the Soviets denied they were even in the race, accusing America of needlessly risking human lives on the moon when robots would suffice.

Today, there is a new space race, of sorts. It is between the U.S. and the remnant nation of the Soviet Union, Russia. But this time, Russia is likely to win.

Again, the race is to the moon. But while NASA remains marred in bureaucratic red tape and budgetary matters, Russia has found exciting new ways to fund its future missions to the moon.

It’s a total irony. The thing that brought communism to its knees was the bureaucratic nightmare that was inherent in the communist system. While the Soviet economy was trudging along at a snail’s pace, the vibrant U.S. economy out-classed it at every turn.

Now, NASA’s lunar plans are bogged down by the federal bureaucracy while Russia has taken its cue from good old-fashioned Western capitalism. It has contracted with Space Adventures to send two tourists to the moon by 2010.

Each tourist must pay $100 million for the privilege to orbit the moon, not land on it. If successful, future flights may even send tourists to the moon’s surface.

Space Adventures, working with the Russian Space Agency, was the company that sent the first tourist to the International Space Station.

It’s a bold plan, but it is also cutting edge capitalism. That’s why a similar public-private partnership between NASA and a private contractor might be worth pursuing at full throttle.

The new race to the moon is barely a race. It won’t even be close if Russia’s plans stay on track, because the U.S. won’t be ready to send anyone back to the moon until at least 2018, if then.

One reason is because NASA is building the next lunar mission from scratch, using new technologies, some of which haven’t even been developed yet. On the other hand, Russia will use stock equipment and yesterday’s technology to accomplish the task.

While I’m all for using advanced technology whenever possible, I also see no need to reinvent the wheel. By the time the next moon mission is ready to go, most of the people who worked on the first moon mission will be old and gray, or dead.

When all the people who know how to send us to the moon are gone, we will have no choice but to rediscover how to get there.

It has always been a mystery to me how we, as a nation, could have progressed so far so fast in the area of space technology, and then let it all slip away.

It took us only 8 years to get to the moon the first time, once we decided to go. That was more than 40 years ago. Pres. Bush has set a much more modest goal of returning to the moon by 2020.

We’ve decided to go to the moon again, which is good. But this time it will take us 15 years to get back. Is that progress?