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.