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.